By Scott Kacsmar
Cold, Hard Football Facts MVP
Fans expecting to tune in to the kickoff of Monday Night Football between the Pittsburgh Steelers and San Francisco 49ers were instead treated to ESPN’s Chris Berman stumbling over his words about the 1989 earthquake
during the World Series at Candlestick Park.
There was no earthquake this time, but instead a transformer blew and the stadium lost power. This led to bonus coverage of crackpot analysis from the ESPN crew (it’s almost like Christmas came early) about the big story of the night: Ben Roethlisberger playing with a high ankle sprain.
The worldwide leader spent plenty of time talking about the effects of an injection shot that Roethlisberger never even took prior to the game. Steve Young wasted no time to say that Roethlisberger should not have played, because he “couldn’t protect himself.”
An overlying theme in the debate was that Roethlisberger has a history of playing well
with various injuries. Having followed the Steelers on a weekly basis for his whole career, the only question is where did this myth come from?
But of course. You’re only as good as your last game, and in the second half against the Browns on the night he sustained the injury, Roethlisberger looked very good. But what does the history say about his ability to play after nursing an injury, which can also include limited practice time?
Roethlisberger was once compared to Iron Man by Al Michaels, based on his indestructible style of extending the play and breaking tackles. But Roethlisberger does sustain hits, does get injured, and he is no iron man, having never started more than 30 consecutive games in his career. He’s currently riding a 29-game streak of starts, which is in serious jeopardy for Saturday’s game versus the St. Louis Rams.
In his career, Roethlisberger has missed 14 total starts
: six for injuries, four for suspension, two for late-season rest, and the first two games of his career before he stepped in as the permanent starter.
We went through each season to point out the games Roethlisberger returned from injury for to get the clear picture. Is Roethlisberger really an indestructible Iron Man that can play well through injury, or is he simply closer to the real life, former bad-boy
that has a flair for the dramatic, Robert Downey Jr.?
After stepping in for the injured Tommy Maddox in the second game of the season, Roethlisberger took charge of the starting quarterback job in historic fashion. He won his first 13 regular season starts, setting several rookie passing records in the progress, and winning AP Offensive Rookie of the Year.
In a Week 16 game against Baltimore, Roethlisberger suffered a rib injury after a late hit by Terrell Suggs. He stayed in the game to complete two more passes, but left on the next to last play of the third quarter.
The Steelers clinched the top seed in the AFC, and sat out several starters in Week 17 at Buffalo, including Roethlisberger. If it was a playoff game, he could have played, but they rested him. He would also get the first-round bye to rest, meaning it was 20 days between Roethlisberger’s last game and the playoff opener.
Hosting the New York Jets, Roethlisberger got off to a sluggish start in his playoff debut. Despite the 10-0 lead early, the game was tied in the second half before Roethlisberger threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown. The Steelers would have to rally to tie, but another interception late led to a game-winning field goal attempt by the Jets. Kicker Doug Brien missed (his second miss in the last two minutes), and the Steelers pulled themselves together to win in overtime. It was a shaky performance from Roethlisberger, which could have been from a variety of factors (rust, rookie in first playoff game, the Jets’ defense).
2004 AFC-D vs. NY Jets (W 20-17 OT): 17/30 (56.7%) for 181 yards, 1 TD, 2 INT, 57.8 passer rating
In a Week 5 game at San Diego, Roethlisberger suffered a knee injury during the game-winning drive. He had to leave the game late, and would miss the next game against Jacksonville (Tommy Maddox performed appallingly in his absence).
He returned the following week at Cincinnati, and the Steelers limited his workload with just 14 pass attempts. It remains the only game in Roethlisberger’s career where he threw for less than 120 yards after playing into the second half.
Week 7 at Cincinnati (W 27-13): 9/14 (64.3%) for 93 yards, 2 TD, INT, 93.2 passer rating
It only took one more game (vs. Baltimore) for Roethlisberger to have another knee injury; this time it was a torn meniscus he would have arthroscopic surgery on. This caused him to sit out the next three games before returning for a Monday night game against the 10-0 Indianapolis Colts. That was a full four weeks since his last game, and it ended up being his worst game of the season to that point.
Week 12 at Indianapolis (L 26-7): 17/26 (65.4%) for 133 yards, 1 TD, 2 INT, 58.7 passer rating
Roethlisberger would also injure his right thumb in November, but was able to rebound to lead the Steelers to eight straight wins and a championship in Super Bowl XL.
As defending champions, 2006 became practically a lost year for Roethlisberger, starting with his much-publicized motorcycle accident in the summer. After recovering from that, Roethlisberger had to undergo an emergency appendectomy prior to the start of the regular season. Charlie Batch started the season opener in his place, and Roethlisberger would return for a Monday night in Jacksonville. It did not go well, as the rusty Roethlisberger looked below his normal playing weight, and announcers wondered if they rushed him back too soon.
Week 2 at Jacksonville (L 9-0): 17/32 (53.1%) for 141 yards, 0 TD, 2 INT, 38.7 passer rating
Roethlisberger struggled in his first three starts of the season, throwing no touchdowns and seven interceptions (0-3 record). After rebounding with a big win over Kansas City, Roethlisberger carried his hot hand into Atlanta, tossing three touchdowns before halftime in a shootout.
But early in the third quarter, Roethlisberger was sandwiched on a hit by multiple Atlanta defenders after getting a pass away. He stayed on the ground for a few minutes, suffering his second concussion of the year. Batch would finish the game for him.
With the NFL more lenient on concussions at the time, Roethlisberger started the very next game in Oakland. It got off to a poor start with two interceptions in the first quarter (sound familiar?). Roethlisberger would finish with a career-high 4 interceptions in the game, as the Steelers lost despite Oakland only gaining 98 yards of offense.
Week 8 at Oakland (L 20-13): 25/37 (67.6%) for 301 yards, 1 TD, 4 INT, 61.7 passer rating
does a team win when gaining fewer than 100 yards of offense, but the Steelers had two such games in the last decade. They both came in similar fashion: Bill Cowher started an injured quarterback too soon after an injury.
In 2002, Tommy Maddox returned three weeks after a serious injury in Tennessee, and had a horrific day
against the expansion Texans, who won 24-6 despite just 47 yards of offense. The Texans scored three defensive touchdowns that day.
The Raiders (2-14) scored two interception returns for touchdowns against Roethlisberger in 2006.
Roethlisberger was able to avoid the significant injuries in 2007, and had his best statistical season to that point. With their playoff seed already locked, the Steelers again rested several key starters, including Roethlisberger, for the Week 17 finale at Baltimore. After their Thursday night game in Week 16, Roethlisberger went 16 days between games played.
The Wild Card game at home against Jacksonville got off to a fair start, but Roethlisberger had his worst quarter of the season in the second quarter, throwing three interceptions (one returned for a touchdown). He did not have a game with more than two interceptions during the regular season.
He did rally in the second half to erase an 18-point deficit in the fourth quarter, but the Steelers lost on a last-minute field goal. Roethlisberger finished with 4 turnovers and was sacked 6 times.
2007 AFC Wild Card vs. Jacksonville (L 31-29): 29/42 (69.0%) for 337 yards, 2 TD, 3 INT, 79.2 passer rating
Another Super Bowl season came after another slew of injuries. Roethlisberger got through the first half of the season with a separated right shoulder. Halfway through the year, he suffered through another poor three-game slump that can only compare to how his 2006 season started.
At Washington in Week 9, another Monday night game, Roethlisberger scored a short rushing touchdown just before halftime. He headed to the locker room early and did not return after aggravating his shoulder injury. Byron Leftwich finished the game for him.
After not practicing until Friday, Roethlisberger started the next game against the Colts. He moved the ball well, but threw two costly interceptions that Peyton Manning turned into touchdowns. Roethlisberger would throw a third interception on a Hail Mary into the end zone on the game’s final play.
Week 10 vs. Indianapolis (L24-20): 29/41 (70.7%) for 280 yards, 0 TD, 3 INT, 59.0 passer rating
Roethlisberger would improve and only throw three interceptions total in his next six games. In the regular season finale against Cleveland, Roethlisberger suffered another concussion after taking a big hit in the first half. He was on the field for nearly fifteen minutes, but was eventually carted off on a stretcher and taken to the hospital.
With a big Divisional playoff game against San Diego coming up after a bye week, Roethlisberger had to shake his past demons of not playing well after injury (plus a long layoff). He did that with an effective performance that led to the Steelers winning their second Super Bowl in four seasons.
2008 AFC Divisional vs. San Diego (W 35-24): 17/26 (65.4%) for 181 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT, 98.4 passer rating
Like 2007, Roethlisberger had another season where he was able to avoid most injuries, and set career highs in passing yards and completions. He credited his success in the season to being healthier and able to attend most practices, which is something he often was unable to do in his career.
But it wasn’t injury-free, as he suffered the fourth concussion of his career in Kansas City in Week 11 during overtime. After practicing during the week, on a Saturday before the big showdown with Baltimore on Sunday night, Roethlisberger was downgraded to being out after suffering concussion symptoms.
Roethlisberger returned the following week for the Oakland game. It was a sluggish first half, including a bad red zone interception thrown by Roethlisberger. Things picked up in the second half, and Roethlisberger led the Steelers to multiple fourth quarter leads. But the record-setting three go-ahead touchdown passes by Bruce Gradkowski, the last coming with 0:08 left, were too much as the Steelers lost their fourth straight game.
Week 13 vs. Oakland (L 27-24): 18/24 (75.0%) for 278 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT, 123.3 passer rating
After serving his four-game suspension for the NFL’s conduct policy, a healthy Roethlisberger had the bye week and a full week of practice to get reacquainted with being the starting quarterback of the Steelers.
His health wouldn’t last long, as Roethlisberger would break his foot against Buffalo, and then have his nose broken
the following week in Baltimore. Though still painful, some injuries are easier to play through than others, and Roethlisberger was able to finish the season without missing any time.
Multiple injuries in a season has often meant good results for the Steelers and Roethlisberger by season’s end, but this time they are dealing with the injuries at the worst possible time.
Earlier in the season Roethlisberger sprained his foot, and left Houston on crutches. He didn’t miss any time, and he came back to throw five touchdown passes against the Titans.
A little over a month later he would break his right thumb, but that too was looking like a non-factor, especially since it is similar to what Roethlisberger already experienced in his 2005 Super Bowl season.
But the high ankle sprain suffered on Thursday Night Football against Cleveland is fresh, and difficult. Players usually need a couple of weeks to recover, and the moment it happened, some fear Roethlisberger’s season may have been over.
In driving up the drama, Roethlisberger emerged from the locker room, hobbled as could be, to start the second half against the Browns. His first throw was flat-footed and stiff, but he showed afterwards he could still throw the ball well.
Week 14 vs. Cleveland – 2nd Half (W 14-3): 8/12 (66.7%) for 178 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT, 102.8 passer rating
That’s with adrenaline running through your body. How would he respond 11 days later when the Steelers had to go to San Francisco to take on the league’s top scoring defense?
After building up the story of whether or not he would start, Roethlisberger started after having one limited Saturday practice, and went on to finish the game. It started with two interceptions on the first two drives, which were the first interceptions he had thrown in the first quarter all season. As the game wore on he got better, but it was clear his mobility was severely compromised by the injury, and he couldn’t properly step into several throws.
Week 15 at San Francisco (L 20-3): 25/44 (56.8%) for 330 yards, 0 TD, 3 INT, 52.3 passer rating
He also lost a fumble on a sack in the fourth quarter. With the game seemingly out of reach at 20-3, Roethlisberger remained in the game, which was puzzling to say the least. The game was important for the Steelers having a chance to claim the AFC’s top seed, but the decision to keep Roethlisberger in the game has little to no justification.
After the game, a story came out about Roethlisberger saying Tomlin asked him if he wanted to come out in the fourth quarter, and Ben of course responded that he wanted to play. Tomlin would refute the report
, saying he never had any intention of taking Ben out.
There’s always some controversy revolving around Roethlisberger and his injuries, but in this particular case, we liken it to Dr. Foreman needing to better control Dr. House before he hurts someone or himself (you don’t know who Omar Epps
is if you miss that one). Tomlin is the one that has to put his foot down and make the best decision for the team. That’s his job.
It’s obvious that Roethlisberger is going to always respond that he wants to play, even if he’s 5%.
Part of this willingness to play hurt
may stem from the peer pressure players face to show their toughness at all times. Roethlisberger has not missed a game due to injury since the concussion in 2009, and teammate Hines Ward
questioned him after that.
Now that he’s missed practice this week, it doesn’t look likely Roethlisberger will be playing Saturday. Giving him this week off is probably the right move anyway.
When you add up the ten full games we looked at, Roethlisberger’s record is just 3-7, with a very poor stat line: 203/316 (64.2%) for 2,255 yards, 7.14 YPA, 10 TD, 21 INT, 68.2 passer rating. That’s not even close to what a normal Roethlisberger stat line looks like.
Throw in the second half against Cleveland, and he’s still sitting at a 69.8 rating with twice as many interceptions as touchdowns.
No one can question Roethlisberger’s toughness, but that doesn’t mean he’s still not mortal like any other player. Injuries take a player out of his normal routines. When a player is injured, performance is likely going to decline. Maybe you can get through a broken nose game or having the flu
, but when you start talking about the bones and ligaments you rely on most to physically accomplish your job being compromised, then you’re probably going to struggle.
Right now, Roethlisberger is struggling due to his injury, and Mike Tomlin is the only one that can make him rest until he is healthy enough to play at a high level. Easier said that done, thanks to the politics of tough guy locker rooms, and the unique division race the Steelers find themselves very much alive for.
The Steelers have difficult decisions to make on their quarterback, but let the history show that sitting Roethlisberger out too long can have a negative effect. Shutting him down for the regular season likely means he would play for the first time in 19-20 days, and in a hostile environment like Denver (caution: The Tebow Zone
Choose wisely, Pittsburgh. Roethlisberger is not Superman, and he’s more Robert Downey Jr. than he is Iron Man. A dramatic entertainer, but one that still needs to be healthy to perform at a desired level.
Scott Kacsmar is a football researcher/writer who has contributed large quantities of data to Pro-Football-Reference.com, including the only standardized database of fourth quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. He wonders how much acting Robert Downey Jr. really had to do to play a drug addict in Less Than Zero. You can send any questions or comments to Scott at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.