As Mournings After go, the one yesterday at Steelers headquarters wasn't all that depressing.
The players reported to work, as always. There was the usual teasing and laughter. Sure, there were more complaints about the officiating in the 41-38 overtime loss to the Atlanta Falcons Sunday. Everyone was more convinced than ever after reviewing the game tape that referee Ron Winter blew it when he didn't call a helmet-to-helmet penalty when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was injured in the third quarter, then made an even more grievous error on the final play of regulation when he called Steelers wide receiver Nate Washington for a false start penalty. But there was no indication anyone felt the season was over despite the deflating loss and the team's abysmal 2-4 record.
Roethlisberger was the reason.
He showed up with the other players and was feeling OK, aside from some expected minor head, neck and back pain, according to teammates.
It won't be a shock if Steelers coach Bill Cowher announces today that Roethlisberger will start against the Oakland Raiders Sunday as long as he makes it through the week of practices.
Who would have guessed that when Roethlisberger lay crumpled and motionless on the Georgia Dome carpet?
At that point, it was hard not to think about Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Trent Green. Green was knocked out in the opening game six weeks ago and won't play again until at least mid-November.
As Roethlisberger wobbled off the field and then took a cart to the Steelers' locker room, a vacant expression on his face, it was hard not to think about Hall of Fame quarterbacks Steve Young and Troy Aikman. Repeated concussions ended their careers prematurely.
How could you not wonder?
How much more trauma can Big Ben's head take?
After this hit and his horrific motorcycle accident June 12?
A lot more, apparently.
That's terrific news for the Steelers, probably better than they deserve considering how inconsistently they've played in digging a two-game hole in the AFC North Division behind the Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens.
There was a palpable feeling yesterday that Roethlisberger will be able to bring the team back. He and his offense have had two consecutive superb performances. He completed 16 of 22 passes for 238 yards and three touchdowns against the Falcons before his injury. A week earlier, he completed 16 of 19 for 238 yards and two touchdowns in a 45-7 win against the Chiefs.
It's nice to think the hit from Falcons defensive end Chauncey Davis won't set Roethlisberger back the way his emergency appendectomy Sept. 3 did, that it won't make him skittish in the pocket. He took advantage of a Falcons defense that loaded up to stop the run by completing 13 passes of 10 yards or longer. Backup Charlie Batch picked up where he left off with six completions of at least 12 yards, including gains of 70, 49 and 25 yards.
The Steelers' wide receivers are playing much better. You knew Hines Ward would turn it up once he settled in after missing all of the exhibition games with a hamstring injury. Cedrick Wilson has caught everything since the coaches started giving some of his playing time to Santonio Holmes. Holmes looks as if he's going to be a big-time player, although it would be helpful if he stops fumbling punts. Washington caught a 10-yard touchdown pass and set up another score with a 49-yard catch.
The Steelers know the 38 points would have been enough to win if they hadn't lost three fumbles and an onside kick. They think they still would have been enough if not for Winter's call on Washington that denied Steelers kicker Jeff Reed an opportunity to kick a winning 51-yard field goal.
"He was set before the snap. The ref was looking at Nate instead of the snap. That was no penalty," one player said.
You can't blame the guy for asking for anonymity. Like Cowher after the game, he doesn't want to be fined by the NFL. Only Dan Rooney complained publicly, telling the Post-Gazette Sunday, "These officials should be ashamed of themselves."
That isn't to suggest the Steelers didn't earn that 2-4 record or that they don't have issues to solve. All of the turnovers are alarming. The special teams have been lousy. So has the red-zone defense. And what happened to Cowher putting an end to those ridiculous excessive celebration penalties? Ward and Holmes made him look like a fool when they were penalized for joining Washington in a dance after his touchdown. Shame on them.
No, this is just to suggest it's still a little too soon to write off the Steelers' season.
They believe they can make up ground quickly on the Bengals and Ravens as long as their offense keeps playing this well.
They'll always believe that as long as they have a healthy Roethlisberger.