A Blast from the Past: A Bitter Pill

via newok.com Here’s what Ben’s ankle looked like the previous week…

After the double whammy of two AFC North games within four days of each other the Steelers were understandably battered and bruised, none more so than Ben Roethlisberger. He was sporting not only the Giant Shoe of Death (in which he, inexplicably, often plays well) but the Massively Taped Ankle of High-Sprainedness. I don’t know whether he generally plays well with a high ankle sprain (I’m guessing not) but he certainly didn’t in this particular case. Yes, I’m referring to The Embarrassment at Candlestick Park.

The game was not just an embarrassment for the Steelers. The power went out at least twice, making for major delays—something which probably wasn’t helpful, as it gave time for the pain shots to wear off and the affected muscles to get cold and harden up.

The big question on all lips, though, was, should Tomlin have even put Ben in the game in the first place? I’m guessing he wouldn’t have, had the Steelers not lost both games to the Ravens. I’m sure Tomlin felt the game was worth the candle if he could keep the arms race alive. But, alas, they lost, which was particularly annoying as the Ravens lost their West Coast game the same day at Qualcomm Stadium. In the end the Steelers and Ravens earned the same 12-4 record, giving the Ravens the division crown and giving the Steelers an early exit in the playoffs.

And considering that Tomlin chose to pull Roethlisberger the following week against the St. Louis Rams, and that Charlie Batch led the Steelers to a 27-0 victory, the decision looks all the worse in retrospect. It’s hard not to think that Charlie Batch would have managed better than Ben’s 25/44, no touchdowns, and three interceptions, or at least no worse than that. Perhaps not, but at least Ben would have had another week to heal.

On the defensive side, it also didn’t help that James Harrison was suspended, courtesy of Roger Goodell, and LaMarr Woodley’s stat line wasn’t as good as that of William Gay, back when Gay was everybody’s whipping boy. In fairness to Woodley, that was the last game he would play before the Steelers put him on injured reserve.

As Hombre said:

The Steelers loss to the San Francisco 49ers was a bitter pill to swallow, perhaps even more bitter of a pill than the loss to Baltimore at Heinz Field because this game gave them a chance to atone for that last minute meltdown.

But crisis breeds opportunity, or at the very least a chance to ask 5 Burning Questions on the Steelers.

Not surprisingly, Hombre’s first question was whether Tomlin should have played Roethlisberger. But I think we’ve established, with the benefit of hindsight, that it was a bad idea. So let’s see what else was exercising us back in those days.

Most of the other questions were quite specific to that game and that team, but this one was, I think, interesting to ponder even now, despite the fact it relates to the whole “play Ben or not” question:

2. Bill Cowher described the Rooneys as “hands on, but they let you do your job.” So, you ARE Art or Dan Rooney, what do you say to Mike Tomlin after a game like that?

Here’s how some of the readers back then responded:

Damnscot was short and to the point:

2. “Arians is fired!”

This has to do, undoubtedly, with the fact that, as Hombre said,  “On the one hand Arians ended up throwing 44 times and rushing sixteen times against the NFL’s number one rush defense….but on the other hand he did so on a night when injuries clearly limited his quarterback while his running back was running strong.”

Mind you, there were plenty of people back then who sort of reflexively suggested firing Arians as a panacea, so perhaps it doesn’t mean that much…

Homer J. had a more level-headed take:

2. You don’t tell Tomlin anything. You ask his thoughts. He brought a team playing with one hand tied behind its back into Candlestick and lost to a healthier team that didn’t have its best defender suspended, its best OL sidelined, and its QB gimping around. There’s a reason the Steelers have had 3 coaches in 43 years and the best NFL record in that span.

SteelCityRoller had similar thoughts:

2. I say nothing. We couldn’t run with Essex at LG. We have been improved with Legursky at LG, not at C. If we have a running game, we take pressure of Ben. Take pressure of Ben, Ben doesn’t feel the need to force throws he is in no position to force. Had Harrison been playing, perhaps they are slightly less successful. Its not like we got dominated. So many factors came into play to produce that outcome. If Ben wins the game 52-3, we’re not questioning his participation in the game.

I’m going to include Steelgator’s answer to the first question as well, since they are closely related:

1. Hindsight being 20/20 it looks like Batch probably should’ve started. You like to think that foresight being pretty good would’ve seen that, but not necessarily. If Ben looked like he could handle it in practice then they made the right call. The fact that Ben looked bad even in pregame warmups suggest that they probably made the decision to start him more on wishful thinking, but who knows? Maybe Batch had a terrible week of practice.

2. I’d ask “how are things going with the training staff?” Make sure there aren’t issues going on that Tomlin needs help dealing with, and give him an opportunity to voluntarily take the blame if necessary and move on.

Interestingly, Billy52’s slant on the question appeared to be greatly in the minority, but has an awful lot to be said for it:

2. If I’m the Steelers GM, I respectfully ask my head coach what he thought was the upside in playing our hobbled $100 million QB who we desperately need to be ready for the playoffs.

Of course, part of the respectful answer to that is that a win possibly gives the Steelers an extra week before the playoffs begin. And in hindsight, it would have been better for the Steelers to play almost anyone or anywhere than the Tim Tebow-led Broncos in Denver, as it happened.

Isn’t hindsight a beautiful thing? The really difficult thing is to remember that you really didn’t know any of this at the time. I wonder whether I would have thought playing Ben was a good idea at the time, or at least whether he shouldn’t have been pulled a lot sooner, Barnburner perhaps said it best:

If the Ravens had beaten the Chargers, I would’ve shut Ben down and started Batch. But since the Chargers win briefly opened a window to a possible 1-seed for us, I have to say that I agree with giving Ben the start and a shot at pulling out what would’ve been a huge road win.

But with the way the Niners game got so ugly in the second half, I would’ve definitely pulled Ben and put in Batch. I would’ve made the move somewhere around the 50th time that Aldon Smith broke through and sacked/knocked Ben down.

I’m guessing this is a question which will arise again in the future. And as things stand at the moment, it’s going to be an even more difficult decision, as we don’t have as good a quarterback as Charlie Batch backing Ben up. Or at least it doesn’t seem like it at the moment.

The knock (and generally unfairly, as it happened) on Batch was not that he wasn’t competent but that he was fragile. Landry Jones, though, seems to dole out his competent moments fairly sparingly. So perhaps this is what we should be debating now—what should the Steelers do about the backup QB situation? All I can say is, the answer isn’t obvious…

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