Byron Leftwich watched ESPN's "SportsCenter" the other day, and they listed their top five candidates for NFL Most Valuable Player. • Ben Roethlisberger was not among them. "He should be a candidate," said Leftwich, who backs him up at quarterback for the Steelers in more ways than one. "The fact he was not listed is ridiculous. He's one of the elite; '7' can play the game of football, and he's playing at a very high level."
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What many believed might be a difficult transition season for Roethlisberger under a new coordinator and a new offense instead has been among his best. His 2,203 passing yards are on pace to break his own team record. His 16 touchdowns are on pace to tie his team record. His four interceptions are on pace to be his fewest other than the five he threw in 2010, when he missed four games and had just 17 touchdown passes.
His passer rating of 101.1 would be the second-highest of his career.
Most importantly, his play has been steadily spectacular while other areas of the team struggled mightily early in the season with the lack of a ground game, an offensive line not yet cohesive and a defense that gave up too many fourth-quarter leads.
Roethlisberger has led game-winning fourth-quarter drives three times, bringing his total (including overtime and the postseason) to 30.
"He's a big reason why we've been in games and why we feel we can win any game," defensive end Brett Keisel said. "That's why we feel we can go to the Super Bowl every year, because we have a championship-type quarterback."
All kinds of dire predictions were made when the Steelers fired Bruce Arians and hired Todd Haley as his replacement at coordinator. Haley came with a reputation that he could be confrontational with his students. Roethlisberger, who considers Arians a friend, was naturally skeptical.
But he bought into the new offense with its high-percentage passes and short check-downs to halfbacks, the lack of deep throws and an increased importance in the ground game. He's thrived and survived in it, his sacks cut way down at 17.
"He's a big-time leader, a big-time competitor, a fourth-quarter killer," Mike Wallace said. "He's the toughest quarterback in the league. ... He picked up the new offense really fast. I feel it's time he gets the recognition he deserves."
Roethlisberger made his second Pro Bowl last season (he turned down a chance for a third after the 2009 season). He's ninth in MVP odds, according to Bovada (www.bovada.lv) at 20-1. Peyton Manning is the favorite at 2-1 followed by Matt Ryan (3-1), Tom Brady (6-1), Aaron Rodgers (7-1), Eli Manning (12-1), Arian Foster and Drew Brees (both 15-1) and J.J. Watt (18-1).
His teammates aren't buying it.
"You see how valuable he is to our team, the plays he's able to make at 6-5, 245 pounds," Leftwich said. "Nobody else makes those type of plays. Nobody else his size is capable to do what he can do -- throw people off him all the time and make a play. Big guys can do that but then they can't move around enough to throw the ball 35 yards down the field to Emmanuel Sanders.
"He's a very unique football player, and I think sometimes by him being unique and the style he plays, he doesn't get enough credit for all the things he does right. He doesn't play the way people perceive the quarterback position to play.
"The great thing about him is he's never changed his game. He can't play someone else's game. If that comes out to winning two Super Bowls and be in three, you'd think people would look at that: Is he getting the job done or not? No one can say he's not. He's won 70 percent of his games."
And this year, he has elevated his own game in subtle ways -- the ways Haley has asked of him. He is also, again, among the most clutch players in the game. He leads all quarterbacks with a passer rating of 121.2 on third down. Tom Brady is next at 110.2.
"Sometimes he doesn't get mentioned with the elite quarterbacks for one reason or another," Keisel said. "We in this locker room consider him the best."
Reflected glory only goes so far
Scott Pioli won all kinds of honors when he was the personnel man for Bill Belichick in New England. Kansas City hired him as general manager to turn the team around, and he has done that by turning the franchise into a mess.
Pioli is another shooting star who gained his reputation working for Belichick and then failed on his own. Others include his current coach, Romeo Crennel, on his second failed job after the one he held with the Cleveland Browns; Charlie Weis at Notre Dame; and Josh McDaniels with the Denver Broncos. The most promising from the Belichick/Patriots tree is Bill O'Brien, who is off to a good start under difficult conditions at Penn State.
Things have gotten so bad in Kansas City just two years after the Chiefs were AFC West Division champs -- coached by Haley, who Pioli then fired during the following season -- that fans are booing their own team and may stop showing up for games, which is unheard of for one of the most loyal fan bases in the NFL.
A bad move rising?
If Jonathan Dwyer and/or Isaac Redman continue to pound out 100-yard games and the Steelers return to Rashard Mendenhall when he's healthy, it will rank among the more controversial decisions in a while at a skilled offensive position.
It will be reminiscent of that brilliant decision the coaching staff made in 2003 when it picked Amos Zereoue in training camp to bump Jerome Bettis out of his starting job. Or another in 2000 when Hines Ward was temporarily bumped from his starting job so they could install their two first-round picks, Troy Edwards and rookie Plaxico Burress, as the starting wide receivers.
Another one worth recalling came in 1992. With Neil O'Donnell nursing an injury toward the end of that season, Bubby Brister, pictured inset, guided the Steelers to a 4-2 record down the stretch. The Steelers earned a playoff seed and had a week off before the Buffalo Bills came to town. Bill Cowher decided to return to O'Donnell at quarterback and he obviously was either rusty or not ready and in Three Rivers Stadium the Bills drubbed the Steelers, 24-3, in Cowher's first playoff game.
It would be Brister's last game with the Steelers, and he went out the door saying about O'Donnell, "I can out-throw him, and outrun him."