Hand Aaron Rodgers the MVP. Call Tom Brady the modern-day Joe Montana. Debate until you’re blue in the face whether Tim Tebow’s a real winner or a gimmick that won’t last.
But also realize this one absolute truth: Ben Roethlisberger is the toughest quarterback in the NFL.
On Thursday night, the league’s toughest quarterback limped back onto the field for the second half, heavily taped up with a high-ankle sprain, determined not to surrender an inch to the Baltimore Ravens in their AFC North division race.
His team was winning, but not by much, so he decided to come back. For the rest of the game, the one-legged quarterback hobbled to the line of scrimmage, handed off the ball gingerly, stood utterly immobile in the pocket and picked apart the Cleveland Browns defense, leading his Steelers to a 14-3 victory in a division game they didn’t have the breathing room to lose.
Referring to a performance on the football field as "gutsy" is one of the most overused terms in sports. Yet after the Steelers’ victory, watching Big Ben have to grab onto his locker to lift himself out of a chair, hearing him talk about his second-quarter injury and why he decided to play on it, there was no other word to describe his play. The dude’s ankle felt like it was "going to explode," yet he threw for 280 yards and two touchdowns, willing his team to victory.
"I don’t wanna let my guys down," said Roethlisberger, who finished 16 of 21. "It’s a close ballgame. We’re in a tight race right now. It’s an AFC North opponent. We were only up 7-3. So I was going to give it a go."
A couple hours before, the toughest quarterback in the NFL was looking mighty vulnerable, squirming on his back near his own end zone with 5:59 left in the second quarter. Roethlisberger had been dancing around in the pocket, looking for an open receiver, when Browns defensive tackle Scott Paxson grabbed his left leg for a 5-yard sack.
Hanging in the pocket so long is the blessing and the curse of Roethlisberger’s play. It’s what makes him great, but also what exposes him to injury and to sacks, which he leads the league in.
As Roethlisberger fell to the ground, his left ankle got caught under the 290-pound Paxson, bending in a way ankles don’t bend.
For several minutes Roethlisberger lay on his back. The air went out of Heinz Field. If the injury was bad, it could choke the Steelers’ playoff chances.
Roethlisberger was helped up, and with two Steelers by his side, he limped to the locker room. Fans applauded, a nod to the toughness of the quarterback who best reflects the toughness of the Steel City. Once in the tunnel, Roethlisberger hobbled onto a cart and was taken for an X-ray.
"I thought my leg was broke, honestly," Roethlisberger said. "It was one of the most painful things I’ve ever felt. When they came out and grabbed it, I just didn’t want to feel my foot was outside of my leg."
It wasn’t broken. Roethlisberger, head coach Mike Tomlin and a team doctor talked at halftime. Roethlisberger wanted to go back in. Tomlin knew his quarterback’s pain tolerance, so he agreed. They were going to give it a play or two, see how it went. Those couple plays became the rest of the game.
He couldn’t step into his throws. He couldn’t drop back to pass. He even struggled handing the ball off. But his offensive line kept him protected, and he got the ball to his receivers and let them run, even converting on a key third-and-20 in the fourth quarter.
"You appreciate the guy beside you laying it on the line," said wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery, who caught a first-quarter touchdown pass. "That was laying it on the line in every sense. You see a guy walk the opposite way, walk into the tunnel, not walk back to the sideline after they checked him out. You’re thinking, ‘Man, what’s going on?’ But we came in at halftime, he just taped his leg up and limped all the way out there and said, ‘I’m going to give it a try.’ We were like, ‘Man, this dude is a warrior.’"
That’s what sets Roethlisberger apart from every other quarterback in the league: He’s a warrior. No matter the rule changes to protect quarterbacks and wide receivers, no matter the continuing emphasis on player safety. Football is and will remain a brutal, violent game played by brutal, resilient men. Big Ben is a Big Brute who just happens to toss a tight spiral and direct an offense.
Rodgers is more accurate, Brady more clutch, Tebow more popular. But more than any of those men, Roethlisberger is a football player. He may not get the credit for it because of his off-field stumbles, but on the field he has the intangibles football players and football coaches respect the most: He’s as tough as an overcooked Sizzler steak. He’s the teammate you want on your side, because he’ll risk himself for the good of the team. He’s a man whose mere presence on the field improves his team, even if he’s playing on one leg.
"It’s a different thing with No. 7 back there in the huddle," said running back Rashard Mendenhall, who had 76 yards on 18 carries.
"His toughness is unparalleled," center Doug Legursky said. "For him to come back and play the way he did, I wouldn’t want any other quarterback behind us."
After the media dispersed from his locker, Roethlisberger limped slowly to the trainer’s room. He was going to get outfitted for a walking boot. On Friday, he’ll have an MRI to find how bad the injury is.
As Roethlisberger hobbled by like an old man, Tomlin shouted at him from a side door.
"Ben, that was magical, man!" he said, laughing. "That was Tebow-like!"
No, it wasn’t Tebow-like. Roethlisberger didn’t put up a performance like Rodgers or Brady, either. No, on Thursday night, his play was something more magical than that. It was vintage Big Ben.
You can follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave, become a fan on Facebook or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.