Something was nagging at me all during yesterday's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. I had the weirdest sense of deja vu but I couldn't quite put my finger on what about. Then Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger overthrew a ball to receiver Mike Wallace that was picked off by safety Reggie Nelson and it all clicked.
I had seen this all before. The only difference was that the quarterback in question was wearing the number 9.
A couple weeks back, I was half-listening to the pregame show before one of the Steelers' games. I'm not sure who the talking heads were or which game it was, but I think it was Ben's first game back, and something the announcers said caught my attention. The jist of the comment was that they had spoken with Roethlisberger before the game and he had expressed some irritation at the constant flow of, "God, it's so great to see you back" remarks from everyone from the coaches down to the locker room janitor. It struck me as odd. Why would anyone be unhappy about being enthusiastically welcomed back?
I think I understand that now. Against the Bengals, and in overtime the week before against the Dallas Cowboys, Roethlisberger was the spitting image of Carson Palmer in 2010: a QB with the whole weight of the offense on his shoulders, desperately trying to make something happen -- and committing a critical misfire that sinks his squad.
Look around Ben, and it looks a lot like the Bengals offense circa 2010. The offensive line stinks. The supposedly star wide receiver isn't producing (Wallace has been dubbed "Skillet Hands" and "The Clanger" by some Pittsburgh fans this year). The QB's safety blanket -- T.J Houshmandzadeh for Carson, Hines Ward for Ben -- is gone with no replacement. The running game is anemic and the supposed stud back, Rashard Mendenhall, has attitude issues.
And Ben? Well, just like David Klingler and Jeff Blake and Akili Smith and Jon Kitna and Carson Palmer (and all the rest), he's stuck in the "team will go as far as [insert QB name here] will take them" zone. It's a philosophy that drove many Bengals fans, including yours truly, to the brink of insanity during the Lost Decade. In what may be the ultimate team sport, just having a good QB (and maybe a couple of good skill players at running back and wide receiver) isn't going to get the job done. Roethlisberger is exhibit A. Today, many Pittsburgh fans are calling for Ben's head, in the same way many Bengals fans wanted Carson's head in 2010. But as was the case with Carson, Ben hasn't exactly been set up for success by the organization he works for.
Thus Ben's annoyance with the "return of the savior" rhetoric is understandable. It only drives home just how much of the team's fortunes are on him -- and by extension how little he has to work with. And it's the kind of thing that gets quarterbacks wondering about the color of the grass elsewhere. As a Bengals fan, I encourage the Steelers organization to continue down this road, but if they do Steelers fans should be prepared for an implosion.
Of course, given how things have turned out in Cincinnati, that might not be the worst thing ever. Merry Christmas, Pittsburgh.