After being rated a possible top pick in the draft, Ben Roethlisberger had to step aside when the big day came, standing in the shadows of the spotlight as Eli Manning and Philip Rivers soaked up all the attention. Now, though, it's Roethlisberger's turn. The 11th pick in the draft, he will be the first of the Big Three quarterbacks in the draft class to start an NFL game.
While Manning, the top pick, sits on the New York Giants' bench and Rivers, the fourth pick, waits for his turn in San Diego after ruining his chances to enter the season as the Chargers' starter with a lengthy contract dispute in training camp, Roethlisberger takes over for the injured Tommy Maddox this week in Pittsburgh.
When he takes the field Sunday in Miami, Roethlisberger will be the first rookie to start a game at quarterback for the Steelers since Bubby Brister in 1986. Coach Bill Cowher initially put the starting job entering the season up for grabs after Roethlisberger was drafted. But it quickly became clear during preseason that Cowher would stick with the veteran in a pressure-filled season, with the Steelers having missed the playoffs in four of the past six years after reaching the postseason in each of Cowher's first six seasons as coach.
Cowher has no choice but to turn to his prized rookie, with Maddox barred from throwing for six weeks because of a serious elbow injury and veteran backup Charlie Batch on the injured-reserve list after undergoing season-ending knee surgery in August.
"I am comfortable,'' Cowher said during a news conference this week. "The more you are around the kid, the more you realize he has a good demeanor about him and a good presence about him. He is not overwhelmed by it. He understands the responsibility that comes with [starting]. I think he is more looking forward to it than he is worried about it. That is what you like about him. I think he is excited about it, as he should be. . . . This is not just about him. It is about our football team. There are a lot of things that we have to do better than we did last Sunday. We did not play a good football game.''
Roethlisberger threw two touchdown passes but also threw two interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown, and was sacked twice while making his NFL debut during a 30-13 loss Sunday at Baltimore after Maddox's third-quarter exit. Roethlisberger completed 12 of 20 passes for 176 yards as the Steelers' record dropped to 1-1.
NFL talent evaluators loved Roethlisberger's size (he's listed at 6 feet 5 and 241 pounds), athleticism and arm strength entering the draft. But most figured he'd have further to go than Manning or Rivers to be a polished NFL quarterback because he played in college at Miami of Ohio. Roethlisberger showed plenty of confidence during the draft buildup, saying he wasn't bothered by the focus being on Manning then because he was sure he would move to center stage once he reached the NFL. He was not afraid, it seemed, to spark a rivalry with Manning.
Roethlisberger was the first quarterback drafted in the first round by the Steelers since Mark Malone in 1980. Cowher knows his rookie quarterback will make mistakes, but he likely will leave Roethlisberger in the lineup to learn his lessons. The Steelers' current backup is Brian St. Pierre, a second-year pro who is yet to play in an NFL game. The club added Mike Quinn to its practice squad.
"You look at young quarterbacks, and there is a growth that takes place,'' Cowher said. "It is inevitable that it is going to take place -- how people handle success and how people handle tough times. . . . The game is faster at this level. The game is more complex at this level. There is more scrutiny at this level. I think a lot of it is how you are able to deal with circumstances you are handed and some of the results that take place, and how you learn and grow from it. Confidence is a very fragile thing at times.''
The Steelers don't know when Maddox will be able to play again. He strained ligaments and tendons in his elbow, according to Cowher, and team officials originally feared the prognosis might be worse. The Steelers are hopeful that Maddox won't have to undergo surgery. But by the time Maddox is available to play again, it's possible that the club will have its new quarterback firmly entrenched. This was to be Roethlisberger's team by next season. Now it will be Roethlisberger's team this week.
"Any time you are a No. 1 pick and a high-profile pick . . . there is a lot of scrutiny that goes with that and with that position,'' Cowher said. "Sure, there is pressure, but I think there has been pressure for him ever since . . . he has walked through those doors [to the Steelers' headquarters]. Now that he is starting, I think he is looking forward to it. He knows why he was brought here. Obviously you don't want the circumstances to happen as they did. But they have. This is where he is. It is his opportunity to come in here and lead this team. I think he is going to embrace it.''
Porter's Move Not Condoned
The Ravens were upset that Steelers linebacker Joey Porter shoved tight end Todd Heap to the ground with Heap obviously limping on a sprained ankle to line up for a clock-stopping spike of the ball during Sunday's game. The injury is to keep Heap sidelined for two to four weeks, and Cowher did not endorse Porter's maneuver.
"We talked about it,'' Cowher said. "It was not condoned [but] I think a lot more has been made of it than needs to be.'' . . . The Indianapolis Colts apparently remain interested in signing Tim Couch to be their backup quarterback after Couch's sore arm heals in a few weeks. Couch was released by Green Bay before the season. . . .
Seattle tailback Shaun Alexander probably will be more effective in the Seahawks' home opener Sunday against San Francisco than he was in a triumph at Tampa Bay last Sunday, when he toughed it out on a bruised knee but rushed for only 45 yards on 17 carries against a still-tough Buccaneers defense. . . .
The Denver Broncos had hoped defensive end Trevor Pryce's back injury wouldn't require surgery. But those hopes were dashed after Pryce was examined Tuesday in Los Angeles by back specialist Robert Watkins. Pryce is scheduled to undergo surgery today in which Watkins will remove a disk fragment. Pryce, a four-time Pro Bowler who had 81/2 sacks last season, is to be sidelined for four to six weeks. . . .
Tight end Jermaine Wiggins had eight catches for the Minnesota Vikings in Monday night's loss at Philadelphia but also a broke his left hand and will be out two to three weeks. The Vikings likely will be without tight end Jim Kleinsasser for the remainder of the season after orthopedist James Andrews recommended Tuesday that Kleinsasser undergo season-ending surgery on his injured knee.
The Vikings signed Kleinsasser to a five-year, $15 million contract in March. They signed right tackle Mike Rosenthal to a six-year, $15-million deal just before the season, and he probably is out for the season as well after breaking his foot Monday. He'll be replaced by Adam Haayer. . . .
San Francisco 49ers center Jeremy Newberry underwent surgery Tuesday on his ailing right knee. The team has not set a timetable for his return. . . . San Diego signed defensive tackle Eric Downing and placed linebacker Carlos Polk on the injured reserve list because of a shoulder injury.
Vilma To Start
First-round draft choice Jonathan Vilma is to move into the New York Jets' starting lineup at middle linebacker, with veteran Sam Cowart slated to be sidelined for four to six weeks because of a sprained left medial collateral ligament. . . . Jets defensive tackle Josh Evans is scheduled to undergo season-ending back surgery today. . . .
Cleveland, after losing rookie tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. to a broken leg, hopes to reinsert Steve Heiden into the starting lineup this week. He tore his right MCL in a preseason game. The Browns re-signed tight end Chad Mustard, who'd been released by the team before the season. They also signed defensive end Tyrone Rogers to replace the injured Courtney Brown, and waived running back Dee Brown. His departure means that tailback Lee Suggs probably is ready to return to the lineup after missing two games because of a pinched nerve in his neck. . . .
Miami released punt returner Lamont Brightful on the heels of a three-fumble performance and signed rookie Wes Welker to replace him. Welker set an NCAA record with eight touchdowns on punt returns at Texas Tech and returned a punt for a touchdown for the Chargers during the preseason. . . . The Dolphins are promoting Damion McIntosh to be their starter at left tackle, ahead of Wade Smith. . . . Make of this what you will: the Dolphins reached a sponsorship deal with Levitra. . . .
Carolina's bye this week should enable defensive tackle Kris Jenkins's right shoulder to heal without him missing any games. An MRI exam Tuesday showed that he has a minor dislocation, according to the Panthers. . . . Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick had his third career 100-yard rushing performance last weekend and needs only one more to tie Billy Kilmer's NFL record for a quarterback. Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb is the only other active quarterback with three career 100-yard rushing games. . . .
St. Louis quarterback Marc Bulger is 19-5 in his first 24 NFL starts. If he beats New Orleans on Sunday, he would match former Rams teammate Kurt Warner for the third-best record since 1970 for a quarterback in his first 25 starts. Dan Marino was 21-4 and Pat Haden was 20-4-1. . . .
The Jacksonville defense has gone 17 straight games without surrendering a 100-yard rushing performance by a single player, the league's longest active such streak. The Jaguars will be tested Sunday by Tennessee tailback Chris Brown, coming off 100-yard performances in each of his first two NFL starts. Brown could join Stump Mitchell as the only two runners ever to have 100-yard rushing performances in their first three starts. Mitchell did it in each of his first four starts.
Jordan Won't Be Traded
With trade rumblings continuing to swirl around LaMont Jordan, Jets General Manager Terry Bradway indicated this week that the reserve tailback won't be dealt. . . . . Miami placed defensive tackle Larry Chester on the injured reserve list, officially ending his season because of a torn knee ligament. . . . . The 49ers released defensive end Dennis Johnson and signed offensive lineman Dwayne Ledford. . . . . The Colts are becoming increasingly optimistic that tailback Edgerrin James could be able to play this weekend despite a strained hamstring. . . . . Detroit released tailback Olandis Gary.
Williams Decision Early Next Week
Arbitrator Richard Bloch has until Tuesday to make a ruling in the Ricky Williams case. The Dolphins are seeking to force Williams, who retired just before training camp, to return $8.6 million. Bloch heard arguments by attorneys for the league and the Players Association in a hearing Tuesday in the Miami area.