Ben Roethlisberger didn't play this well when he led the Steelers to a 14-1 record and the AFC championship game as a rookie in 2004. He wasn't this good in 2005, 2008 or 2010 when the team made it to the Super Bowl. He is playing the best football of his life in his 10th NFL season and the Steelers are 5-7 and all but out of the playoff chase.
Shame on Roethlisberger's teammates and coaches for letting him down.
It's appropriate that Emmanuel Sanders dropped the late 2-point conversion pass Thursday night that would have tied the score against the Baltimore Ravens. Roethlisberger's receivers have dropped passes all season. Sanders dropped a long one at the Tennessee 15 on the first play of the first game. Talk about a bad omen. Sanders also had two other drops against the Ravens in the 22-20 loss. Will Johnson dropped a touchdown pass a few moments before Sanders' dropped conversion try. Le'Veon Bell and Derek Moye dropped touchdown passes earlier in the season. Antonio Brown is the NFL's leading receiver, but he dropped a big pass in a loss at Oakland and let another pass slip through his hands for an interception in that same game. Even Heath Miller -- usually the most dependable player on the team -- dropped a couple of touchdown passes.
It's fair to think the Steelers would be at least 7-5 if the receivers held on to even half of their drops.
Roethlisberger won't blame the receivers, of course. He learned a long time ago that a quarterback takes blame for everything even when it isn't warranted. "I needed to put that ball in a better spot for Emmanuel to catch it," he said after the failed conversion play.
That was nonsense. Roethlisberger put that pass in a perfect spot. Nearly all of his passes were on target in the second half against the Ravens when he completed 17 of 26 for 179 yards and led three long touchdown drives.
Roethlisberger also knows it's important for a quarterback to be the team leader. That's why he sought out Sanders in the locker room Thursday night. "I just told him to keep his head up. He's made too many big plays for this team to get down on himself." Roethlisberger read the situation differently after the Oakland loss and challenged Brown to play better. Then, there was the exchange Roethlisberger had with Bell Thursday night.
"It was after the play he tried to kick it outside and tripped," Roethlisberger said. "I just told him there are times he's got to set the tone for the team. It can't always be on the linemen. There are plays when he's just got to put his head down and go for it."
Bell did just that late in the game, trying to score the touchdown that would give the Steelers a chance to tie. He didn't quite get there; his helmet was knocked off and he left with a concussion. But no one can question his effort.
Roethlisberger has become a strong leader.
But the best way a player can lead is by performing on the field. For all of the speculation that Roethlisberger isn't happy working with offensive coordinator Todd Haley, he is on pace for nearly 400 completions and 4,500 passing yards, which would be career bests. He has thrown for nine touchdown passes and just one interception in the past four games. He didn't have a turnover in the past three.
"Stats aren't important to me," Roethlisberger said. "Only wins matter."
Roethlisberger's game has soared since the Steelers started using the no-huddle offense more. He loves it because he can call the plays at the line after watching the defense get set. His teammates love it because they often can play faster. "It lets Ben do his thing," guard David DeCastro said.
The Steelers used the no-huddle extensively in a win against Detroit, a little less in a win against Cleveland and, for some baffling reason, not nearly enough early in the loss in Baltimore. It probably is too late to save the season, but do you think it makes sense to maybe use it more against Miami Sunday?
That will be a difficult game because the Steelers offensive line is battered beyond recognition. Center Fernando Velasco is done for the season because of an Achilles injury. Tackles Kelvin Beachum and Mike Adams left the Baltimore game with injuries. Who knows who will start against the Dolphins? It's unfortunate because the line has done a better job protecting Roethlisberger. He wasn't sacked in the past two games after being sacked 36 times in the first 10. He has played every snap this season.
"I'm proud of those guys and the way they bust their tails for me," Roethlisberger said.
Roethlisberger has shown, again, just how valuable he is to the Steelers. Look at what is around him: A constantly changing line filled with replacement parts, no running game to speak of, receivers who drop too many passes and a defense that has given up a ridiculous amount of big plays. Yet, other than the loss to Chicago in September when he threw two interceptions and lost two fumbles, Roethlisberger has given the Steelers a chance to win every week. You don't think that's important? Did you watch Buffalo send out EJ Manuel at quarterback? Did you see Cleveland's Jason Campbell and Brandon Weeden? A team has no chance to win in the NFL without a franchise quarterback.
The Steelers are lucky to have one. They need to do a long-term extension with Roethlisberger after this season even though he is 31 and has two years left on his current deal. He has denied reports that he is unhappy here and will ask for a trade. He also has said he will do whatever it takes to stay.
That's admirable on Roethlisberger's part, but it's hardly necessary. He shouldn't have to give the Steelers a hometown discount. He deserves to be paid as an elite quarterback. The team needs to recognize that and step up.
Maybe Roethlisberger won't get the same deal that Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco did after leading the Ravens to the Super Bowl championship last season. Flacco is three years younger and also had the added leverage of being a free agent.
But something Steelers safety Ryan Clark mentioned last week on his radio show on 93.7 The Fan is worth repeating.
"If you give me Ben Roethlisberger or Joe Flacco a choice 10 times, I take Ben 10 times."
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.