Sports Nut

The QB That Saved Pittsburgh

Ben Roethlisberger leads the Steelers to an amazing comeback win in Super Bowl XLIII.

Ben Roethlisberger celebrates after the Super Bowl 

In last year’s Super Bowl, the Giants stunned the unbeaten Patriots thanks to the Manning-to-Tyree helmet catch, one of the greatest plays in football history. This season’s game-winner, from Ben Roethlisberger to Santonio Holmes with 35 seconds to go, was just as great in its own way. While the Tyree play was equal parts skill and fluke—a ball thrown up for grabs and miraculously hauled in— Roethlisberger-to-Holmes was a pure expression of football talent: a laser of a throw into a tiny window, a superb grab, and a tiptoe job in the corner of the end zone. Perfect throw, perfect catch, perfect outcome for Pittsburgh: a 27-23 victory over the Arizona Cardinals and a sixth Super Bowl title.

Besides the fantastic final quarter, Super Bowl XLIII had another happy outcome: It’s the game that will finally make the world forget Brett Favre. In winning his second NFL title, Roethlisberger proved he’s a supersized successor to the grizzled, Wrangler-wearing NFL icon. If anything, the motorcycle-crashing, spinal-concussion-getting Steeler is even more reckless and “gunslinging” than the erratic Favre. The difference is that Roethlisberger, who doesn’t look particularly fast or evasive, is uncannily efficient on plays that break down because of coverage or the pass rush. He’s so good at getting out of trouble—and at making a good decision once he escapes—that opposing defenses are almost better off letting the Steelers’ planned plays come to pass rather than give up one of Ben’s backbreaking ad libs.

Arizona’s Kurt Warner, who played well enough to complete his second Lazarus-like reclamation from the NFL scrapheap, made the mistake of throwing for the potential game-winning touchdown too soon. On what appeared to be the winning score, the Cardinals pulled both deep safeties toward the sideline, leaving a yawning chasm to be exploited up the middle. Once Larry Fitzgerald caught a simple in-cut, he sprinted down the middle of the field, untouched, to the end zone. Had Pittsburgh not pulled the game out, all-pro safety Troy Polamalu would have been the goat—he should never have abandoned double-coverage duty on Fitzgerald, regardless of the outside route.

Before the furious final three minutes, Warner’s interception at the goal line—and the return for a touchdown by James Harrison—had been the play of the game. It was a mistake by the Arizona quarterback not to suss out Harrison’s drop into coverage, but the Cardinals’ play-calling was far more questionable. The fade to Fitzgerald is the most unstoppable play in football, as was proved later in the game. If the Cards’ postseason run showed anything, it’s that a great player like Fitzgerald can win games single-handedly. That he never got the chance to make a play at the end of the first half will haunt Arizona.

NBC, whose football broadcasts have been television’s best all year, had another good outing. The network’s graphics always stand out: Sunday’s best on-screen stat revealed the astounding fact that the Steelers are 152-1-1 in the last 20 years when leading by 11 or more points. That made Arizona’s comeback to take the lead even more amazing—and underscored the Steelers tendency to find a way to win. Make it 153-1-1. Al Michaels was his usual self, adept at finding a middle ground that satisfies the hard-core fan while playing to the large casual audience the Super Bowl brings. And John Madden has bounced back from a mediocre stretch on Monday nights with ABC—perhaps he just prefers to work weekends. He was quick to identify that the Steelers’ rolling coverages, designed to stop Fitzgerald, were leaving the flats and middle of the field open.

The Peacock also scored with several excellent close-ups, including one of Fitzgerald mouthing, “no, no” as Holmes scored. One disappointment productionwise was that NBC had no conclusive angles on several extremely close plays. The lack of a perfect shot of Harrison’s touchdown dive was bad luck more than ill preparation—with the mobile camera along the goal line all the way at the other end of the field, NBC had to rely on higher-angle cameras, which couldn’t see around the tackler (Fitzgerald) to determine for sure if Harrison broke the plane before his knee touched down. NBC did better on the Holmes game-winner, but there was still a smidgen of doubt about that second toe touch. Next year: hi-def cameras in everybody’s shoes.

The 2008 season will be remembered as a wacky, utterly unpredictable campaign—up through Fitzgerald’s sprint past the Steelers secondary. The fact that Pittsburgh came back to win—and that the league’s top defensive team won it all—restores a bit of normalcy to a league that was teetering on the brink of absurdity. The recent trend, dating back to last year’s Super Bowl, has been that months of mediocrity can be trumped by a few weeks of strong play. The Pittsburgh victory does a bit to buttress the faltering concept known as the regular season. (A more unpleasant piece of status quo for the NFL: The big game’s two biggest stars, Holmes and Fitzgerald, have both been accused of domestic assault. Perhaps Holmes can stop off for counseling on the way to Disneyland.)

This year’s Steelers, with a fantastic defense and a mediocre offense, won’t be remembered as one of the league’s legendary champions. The team’s legacy will likely be its head coach. The success of the 36-year-old Mike Tomlin now has every foundering franchise searching for a young, hungry, relatively unknown assistant. Tomlin, who appears far more genuine than his predecessor Bill Cowher, whose chin-first outbursts seemed concocted for maximum media effect, has cracked the door for young, talented African-American assistants like Tampa’s Raheem Morris. Tomlin is the youngest coach to win the Super Bowl. An older man may not have had the heart to survive Sunday’s thrilling victory.