Cook: Ugly loss raises ugly questions

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OAKLAND, Calif. -- Let's put an end to the second-guessing that's surely raging this morning in every corner of Western Pennsylvania.

The pathetic Oakland Raiders didn't beat the more pathetic Steelers yesterday because of Ben Roethlisberger's concussion a week earlier, his emergency appendectomy Sept. 3, his motorcycle accident June 12 or that time when he fell off his bike when he was 11 and skinned both elbows.

The Raiders won, 20-13, because Roethlisberger played a Tommy Maddox game, a Kordell Stewart game, a Kent Graham game.

They won because Bad Ben stunk.

"Health-wise, he's fine," teammate Hines Ward said, answering the question of the day and the season about Roethlisberger.

"He wouldn't have been on the field if he wasn't healthy. I don't think the Steelers or the league would want that liability."

Left unsaid was the obvious.

All that's ailing with Roethlisberger is his game.

The man threw a career-high four interceptions, two that were returned for touchdowns that the lame Oakland offense couldn't have scored if the two teams had played all night.

It was the worst performance by a Steelers quarterback since Maddox sabotaged them in a loss to Jacksonville last season by losing a fumble in field-goal range in overtime and then throwing an interception that was returned for the winning touchdown. Actually, this was much worse. This was the worst game by a Steelers quarterback since Maddox gave the Houston Texans three touchdowns with two interceptions and a fumble that all were returned to the house in a 24-6 loss in 2002 in a game in which the expansion Texans were outgained, 422-47.

The Raiders were outgained, 360-98.

Afterward, there wasn't much wiggle room for Bad Ben to do anything but fall on his sword.

"I'm embarrassed by the way I played ...

"In my wildest dreams, I didn't think I'd play this bad. I'm letting the whole team down. Everybody else is playing good. The defense. The O-line. The receivers. It seems like one guy makes a mistake, and that's me.

"I've got to start playing better."

Sunday against the Denver Broncos at Heinz Field would be a nice time for Roethlisberger to start, although it's probably too late to save this season.

I'm looking more at the big picture here.

The Steelers need to get their franchise quarterback back.

Forget about the abysmal 2-5 record that has the team rightfully in a last-place tie with the Cleveland Browns in the AFC North. Who could have guessed there would be concerns about Roethlisberger as a big-time player? Who could have guessed it even after he was concussed against the Atlanta Falcons last week?

Roethlisberger had played brilliantly in that game and the one before it against the Kansas City Chiefs after a slow start early in the season that could have been impacted by his appendectomy. Despite the concussion, he practiced last week and "felt good."

There's also Ward's excellent point about liability. The Steelers wouldn't take a chance with any player, let alone the guy who is their future.

They would lose a game -- any game -- rather than risk a catastrophic injury to Roethlisberger if he weren't healthy.

"No," coach Bill Cowher said, firmly, when asked if he wanted to join the second-guessers from Aliquippa to Zelienople who are screaming that Charlie Batch should have played.

It's not as if Roethlisberger was jittery in the pocket. At times, he stepped up and made great throws, especially in the fourth quarter when he led one touchdown drive and brought the Steelers within a yard of a tying touchdown.

What Cowher couldn't have expected was Roethlisberger's horrendous decision-making. That was an unexpected problem that hurt him earlier in the season in losses to Jacksonville, Cincinnati and San Diego. It came back yesterday, most egregiously when he threw into triple coverage on a third-and-goal play at the Raiders' 7 early in the fourth quarter when the Steelers were driving for a 13-13 tie. Cornerback Chris Carr's 100-yard interception return gave the Raiders a 20-6 lead.

"They didn't beat us," Ward said. "We beat ourselves. It's been that way all season."

It wasn't all Roethlisberger's fault, of course. It's never all on the quarterback. Down 20-13, the Steelers had a first-and-goal at the Raiders' 1 only to have their offensive line blown up on consecutive plays as Willie Parker lost a yard and Najeh Davenport lost 3.

"Usually, when we need 1 yard, we get 2," Roethlisberger said.

Not this time.

Roethlisberger's fourth-down pass for Santonio Holmes from the Raiders' 3 was batted away.

"We're the Pittsburgh Steelers; we've got to get in the end zone there," Ward said.

The sad, painful truth?

The Steelers were more like the Arizona Cardinals on this dismal day. Unlike their earlier four losses, this one came against one of the NFL's worst teams.

It made for a troubling question.

Can Bad Ben and the Steelers really be that awful?


Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1525.


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