Of the three quarterbacks who were among the first 11 college players taken in the NFL draft in April, it is no surprise that one of them, as a rookie, has a brand-new nickname, is 5-0 as an NFL starter and is already being compared to a Hall of Famer.
It's just that no one figured on sudden stardom for Ben Roethlisberger, the No. 11 pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers from Miami (Ohio). But Roethlisberger, 22, has led the Steelers (6-1) to first place in the AFC North and into surprising Super Bowl contention.
"He's big, he's strong and he's really hard to tackle," said Coach Bill Belichick, whose New England Patriots found out first-hand Sunday. Roethlisberger completed 18 of 24 passes for 196 yards and two touchdowns as the Steelers ended the Patriots' NFL-record winning streak at 21. "I don't know what he weighs [241 pounds], but people can't get him on the ground. He shrugs off two or three guys and throws a 50-yard touchdown. . . .
"I'm not that big on stats, but you can't deny it. His third-down rating is exceptional. His fourth-quarter rating is exceptional. He finds a way to do it, and the Steelers find a way to do it."
While the 6-foot-5 Roethlisberger improves with every game and is being called "Big Ben" in western Pennsylvania, Eli Manning, the No. 1 overall draft pick, and Philip Rivers, the No. 4 pick, await their chances with the New York Giants and San Diego Chargers, respectively. Kurt Warner and Drew Brees are giving Manning and Rivers little opportunity to play.
That wasn't the case for Roethlisberger, who became a starter after Tommy Maddox tore an elbow tendon against the Baltimore Ravens in the second game of the season. Roethlisberger replaced Maddox that day with his team trailing by 20. He threw his first two touchdown passes, both in the fourth quarter, but also threw two interceptions, one a 51-yard return for a touchdown by Ravens cornerback Chris McAllister that clinched the Ravens' 30-13 victory.
Roethlisberger has been helped mightily by the man he was forced to replace.
"He's the first person I see every day when I go on the field," Roethlisberger said. "He's done nothing but help me out. We watch film together and I'm always asking him questions. If there's any strain, I sure have not noticed it."
Roethlisberger has an 18-game unbeaten streak as a starter that dates from college (August 2003) and, although Maddox is ready to return to practice, Roethlisberger was officially named the starter Wednesday by Coach Bill Cowher. That an apt designation for a player who is already being described as the next Dan Marino, a Pittsburgh native and Pitt alum who was an NFL Hall of Fame player with the Miami Dolphins.
Bill Parcells, whose Dallas team lost, 24-20, to the Steelers on Oct. 17, called Roethlisberger "the best prospect I've seen in 10 or 15 years. I haven't seen anybody come in the league like that. The only guy I can say came in and in the first year started playing like he is playing is Dan Marino. . . . It looks to me like he can do anything he wants out there. He's out of the pocket throwing 50-yard passes right on the money."
Roethlisberger's numbers justify the early comparison. He is completing 70.1 percent of his passes, second in the league to Daunte Culpepper of the Vikings (70.6), with a 104.7 quarterback rating that ranks third in the AFC and fourth in the NFL. He's also second in the league in fourth-quarter passing, and third overall in third-down passing.
The next challenge for Roethlisberger is truly uncharted territory. For the second straight week, the Steelers will face an undefeated team at home. If he can beat the 7-0 Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday, he would tie the NFL rookie record of winning his first six straight starts. Former Steeler and Washington native Mike Kruczek (St. John's High) set the mark in 1976.
Even as jerseys with his name and No. 7 on the back are flying out of local stores, Roethlisberger seems to be handling his sudden fame well. Team owner Dan Rooney described him this week as "just a great kid . . . completely sincere. He does things right.
"His poise is what I'm really impressed by. You saw it against New England," Rooney said. "They throw a whole bunch of different looks at you, and he handled it really well. He really wants to be a good person. He's doing things in the community on his own. No one is forcing him to do it. He wants to, and that should tell you something."
Said Roethlisberger: "There's definitely been a change in my life, and things have picked up quite a bit. I'm getting a lot more interview requests, things like that. Today I met with Dan Marino for his ["Inside the NFL"] show. I'd met him before and we've talked some. He's given me some advice. The big thing he said is to take it all in stride and try to keep your head."
In Findlay, Ohio, Roethlisberger was a three-sport athlete in high school, a star in baseball and basketball and a wide receiver who didn't play quarterback on the varsity until his senior season because the coach started his own son at the position. He was not heavily recruited until his statistics began to attract the attention of big-time programs. But he had made an early commitment to Miami (Ohio), and he honored it. The school ran a pro-style passing offense and Roethlisberger, after redshirting his first season, spent the next three years breaking school and conference passing records.
The Steelers were interested enough to send Kevin Colbert, their director of football operations, to see him twice during his final year at Miami. The Steelers graded him in the same class as Manning and Rivers, but weren't certain on draft day whether they could get any of the three. The Giants and San Diego made the deal that sent Manning to New York and Rivers to California, and Roethlisberger was still on the board when the Steelers made the 11th pick.
"He's amazed everyone in this city," said Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward. "For the veterans on the offense, we're all trying to make his job easier, but he doesn't need much help. Words can't describe what he's done. He's exceeded all our expectations."
Cowher has been slightly less effusive, tempering his remarks about the quarterback with praise for the quarterback's supporting cast. But he knows the Steelers have something very special -- a young franchise quarterback, the club's first since Terry Bradshaw showed up in 1970 to help win four Super Bowls.
"He's very mature for his age," Cowher said. "He's a very good athlete, and he hasn't been overwhelmed by anything. He's handled things with great poise, and I think the best is ahead of him."
Roethlisberger said he loves playing for Cowher, if only because "he's got such a passion to win. He's definitely a player's coach. It's great to see the fire in your head coach. If I make a mistake, he's not yelling at me. He's letting the offensive coaches do it. He's a defensive guy, and he's always giving me tips."
Although the Pittsburgh fans are putting the pressure on -- with signs like the one that says "Ruthless-berger," Roethlisberger is remaining grounded.
"Having the wide receivers that we have, the running backs, the offensive line, it's definitely helped me," he said in what has become his mantra. "All the things that are happening to me are great, and I know the reason it's happening is because we're winning. That's all you want to think about. That's the only thing that really matters."