Ben Roethlisberger entered this season with a new head coach, new coordinator, new quarterbacks coach and a desire to return to the old days.
He had to prove that his first two seasons were not flukes after his tumble in 2006.
"A lot of people wrote me off as a two-year kind of hit wonder," Roethlisberger said. "So it's good to be able to bounce back."
His bounce-back performance was officially acknowledged yesterday when he was elected to his first Pro Bowl as a backup, adding another honor to his growing list.
The game will be played Feb. 10 in Honolulu.
Roethlisberger was joined by four teammates, including another first-timer in linebacker James Harrison. Not only did Harrison make it in his first season as a starter for the Steelers, replacing former Pro Bowler Joey Porter on the right outside, but he also was chosen as a starter for the Pro Bowl.
"I'm as happy as a kid in a candy store," said Harrison, who usually carries a Jack Lambert-like dour look about him. "This is probably the most you'll see me smile in a long time."
Guard Alan Faneca also was picked to start, his seventh consecutive Pro Bowl. Only six Steelers have made it more often and all are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame: Joe Greene (10), Jack Lambert (9), Mike Webster (9), Franco Harris (9), Ernie Stautner (9) and Jack Ham (8).
Two others chosen as backups for the AFC squad were Willie Parker, the NFL's leading rusher who made it for the second consecutive time, and strong safety Troy Polamalu, making his fourth trip in a row.
Roethlisberger did not hide his delight at making his first Pro Bowl, joining mainstays Tom Brady, the starter, and Peyton Manning on the AFC team.
"From the time you're a kid, it's always a goal to win a Super Bowl, get to a Pro Bowl, all that stuff," Roethlisberger said. "I'm not going to lie, it is a great honor. But a lot is to attributable to the rest of my offensive guys, my team."
Roethlisberger became the first quarterback to compile a 13-0 record as a starter in 2004, his rookie season. He was the youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl the following year.
Then came his infamous 2006. After a motorcycle accident in June and an appendectomy five days before the opener in September, a mediocre season followed in which he led the NFL with 23 pass interceptions and his passer rating dropped more than 20 points to 75.4, as his team went from Super Bowl champions to 8-8.
Today, he's third in the AFC and fourth in the NFL with a 100.5 passer rating and he has 11 interceptions. He broke Terry Bradshaw's 1978 team record with 29 touchdown passes, and the Steelers lead the AFC North Division at 9-5.
His teammates and coaches say hitting bottom last season in more ways than one motivated Roethlisberger in 2007.
"He's a great quarterback," said defensive end Brett Keisel, among Roethlisberger's closest friends, "and I think what happened last year has just caused him to maybe put that much more [pressure] on himself to come out this year and play really well for this team.
"I think he put a lot of what happened last year on his shoulders -- not only with his off-the-field things but with what happened with us. It wasn't all his fault, but obviously some of it he took to heart and he came out this year and played really well."
Hines Ward, who has been the leading receiver in each of Roethlisberger's four seasons, thinks his quarterback has matured.
"There was so much added pressure, coming back from the motorcycle accident and that appendectomy," Ward said. "He was trying so hard just to prove a point that he could come back. This year, he's come back more focused."
That new coordinator, Bruce Arians, asked Roethlisberger to help him streamline the playbook, then put more responsibility on his shoulders. Roethlisberger has the ability to scratch some scripted plays and suggest his own, and he makes the pass-blocking changes at the line.
"He's been consistently good this year," Arians said. "The numbers bear that out: the interceptions are down, the touchdowns way up, the completion percentage up. And he's made plays, he's made the special plays his ability allowed him to do on a consistent level. And when your peers see that, they recognize that."
Arians predicted more improvement as the years go on. "He's just scratching the surface. He has a lot of ability, his understanding of the game has increased tremendously and I really look forward to what he can become."
Harrison, at 29, has become an overnight sensation. Like Parker, he was an undrafted rookie, three years before he finally made the roster. He was the No. 1 backup for three seasons until the Steelers released Porter and turned to him.
Harrison leads the team with 8 1/2 sacks and produced one of the franchise's legendary defensive performance the night they honored their 75th anniversary team. On Nov. 5 at Heinz Field, Harrison had 3 1/2 sacks, three forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and an interception in a 38-7 rout of Baltimore.
"That's football justice right there," coach Mike Tomlin said after learning Harrison will start in the Pro Bowl.
The complete Pro Bowl rosters • Page D-7
Ed Bouchette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .