- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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IRVING, Texas -- Maybe Bill Parcells is right. Ben Roethlisberger is starting to look like a new, mobile version of Dan Marino. Let's face it. This guy is only a rookie in statistics, not reality.
A rookie making his fourth start doesn't go on the road and complete his last 11 passes on the turf made sacred by the likes of Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman. A rookie doesn't take away Parcells' incentive to blitz and sense a pass-rusher out of his vision. A rookie doesn't go into Dallas and lead the Steelers to an improbable come-from-behind 24-20 victory.
"We're starting to expand our playbook more and more," wide receiver Hines Ward said of the Steelers' rapid growth with Roethlisberger. "The more reps he gets in practice, the better it gets. The kid's good. I'm just glad to be a part of it."
There hasn't been this much excitement in The Burg about a quarterback since Terry Bradshaw, who took five years to develop into a Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback. Let's not get too off-track here. Canton isn't preparing a wing for Roethlisberger -- yet. What can't be denied is how well he handled everything Parcells and the Cowboys dealt him on a warm, overcast afternoon in Big D.
The setting was somewhat strange because somehow thousands of black and gold-clad Steelers fans got tickets in what was a sold-out Texas Stadium. At times, cheers for Roethlisberger's big plays drowned out some of the Cowboys fans' call for defense. It brought back reminders of the Steelers' Super Bowl years when loyal Pittsburghers turned road trips into home advantages.
Roethlisberger gave them plenty to cheer about all day. After the Cowboys jumped to a 7-0 lead on the game's opening drive, Roethlisberger came out firing and led the Steelers to a 75-yard touchdown drive. His first true test came on a third-and-5 from the Steelers' 40. For the first of six times in the game, Roethlisberger went into shotgun formation. You'd figure the Cowboys would blitz in this situation against the Steelers' four-wide formation. But only one extra defender came. Roethlisberger fired a 32-yard pass to Plaxico Burress against the Cowboys' best corner, Terence Newman. Three plays later, Roethlisberger rolled right, avoided Cowboys defensive end Greg Ellis and bought enough time to rifle a 5-yard touchdown pass to Burress.
"He's seeing down the field a little better," Steelers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhut said. "We are repeating a lot of the same plays but we are doing them out of a lot of different sets. He's getting used to the route combinations. He had some guys open underneath and missed those guys, but he's always looking downfield."
Kurt Warner did the same thing so well a week ago against the Cowboys, but Roethlisberger has more mobility and a stronger arm. It's scary how good he looks as a rookie. Coming out of Miami of Ohio, Roethlisberger was supposed to be the rawest of the four first-round quarterbacks because the MAC isn't the SEC or the Big 10. Like Byron Leftwich, he was supposed to take longer to convert because he played so much out of the shotgun.
Roethlisberger took a machine gun to those stereotypes. He only dropped into shotgun formation six times on third downs. He tried to be more of a pocket passer and that was his growth Sunday.
"It's one of those things everybody was saying I couldn't do," Roethlisberger said about staying in the pocket more. "Our offensive line does a great job holding guys out. I think I have the best receivers in in the league and maybe the best offensive line and one of the best backfields. They make it easy."
And, yes, ever the politician, Roethlisberger did approve the last message. Remember, here's a guy who shakes the hand of every Steelers player in the pregame stretch before he heads back into the locker room. He'd kiss babies if necessary. Believe me, he'd carry Western Pennsylvania in an election right now more than Kerry or Bush. He's refreshing as a personality. He's scary as a talent.
His ability to rebound from a painful second quarter only added to his legend. The Cowboys only blitzed about six times in the entire game, but they were starting to affect him in the second quarter. Three times he was sacked in that quarter but the third was the most painful. Cornerback Tyrone Williams pulled him down on a sack and wrenched Roethlisberger's knee. An ice bag was put on the knee to minimize swelling.
The pain in his knee affected his throwing and he missed a couple open receivers.
"I couldn't step in the throw," Roethlisberger said. "I hurt my plant leg. You have to throw off your back leg so many times, and I couldn't get the ball off like I wanted to."
While Roethlisberger's knee throbbed, the Cowboys took temporary control of the game. They scored 10 points off their two third-quarter possessions to take a 20-10 lead. No way does a rookie quarterback whip a Dallas team with a 10-point deficit going into the fourth quarter. Parcells had never lost a fourth-quarter lead in Dallas as head coach. Until Sunday.
From the Steelers' 26 with 2:57 remaining, Roethlisberger placed a bigger star on his name than any of the blue stars dotting Texas Stadium. He completed 7-of-7 passes for 55 yards in an 11-play, 74-yard drive capped by a 7-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jerame Tuman.
"There was no panic in him," Ward said. "The kid was banged up early, but he stayed in there fighting. He was so banged up, he couldn't rely on his scrambling ability. I told him along the sidelines to follow his progression and just throw the ball up and we would catch it."
His touchdown drive was masterful. He scrambled for a first down on a second-and-6 from his 30. He pulled a Brett Favre-like play. In the hands of two defenders outside of the pocket, he recognized his two receivers were downfield but tight end Jay Riemersma was along the sidelines. He flicked a wrist pass that went for 14 yards. Another time, he somehow recognized defensive end Eric Ogbogu was chasing him. He stepped away from him and found Duce Staley for a 7-yard gain.
"One time I had him and another time another defensive lineman had him, but he stepped out of it and made a completion," Ellis said. "He's a young quarterback, but he plays like a six- or seven-year guy. He made plays on us at the wrong times for us."
Still, trailing 20-17, Roethlisberger needed his Immaculate Reception or some miracle to win. He got it when Vinny Testaverde lost the ball near Steelers linebacker James Farrior. Steelers defensive tackle Kimo von Oelhoffen picked it up and ran 21 yards to the Dallas 24 with 2:20 left.
"I was very relaxed when I went out there," Roethlisberger said. "I felt relaxed on the sidelines. I went out there with the confidence we would go out and score."
He completed two more passes for 11 and 6 yards. Before long, Jerome Bettis scored from the 2 and the Steelers won the game 24-20. He finished 21-of-25 for 193 yards and two touchdowns. He looked more composed than the 41-year-old Testaverde and he was on the road.
"I think he's going to be good," Parcells said. "I haven't changed my mind on that."
Everyone else around the country may be making adjustments. At 4-0 as a starter, Roethlisberger is good now. How much better can he get as just a rookie?
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
Ben Roethlisberger added another chapter to his rookie season, leading the Steelers to a come-from-behind win.