Ben Roethlisberger: Necessary Confidence or Unbridled Egotism?


Matt Freed/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

In yesterday’s Five Smoldering Questions Hombre de Acero linked the following quote from a larger article:

It all seems like decisions are made to keep the $100 million QB happy. And this loss starts with Roethlisberger. We see far too many people who live in world of comforting beliefs rather than facts. Never is that more apparent in society than during election season. Roethlisberger is no different. He “believes” he can do exactly what Tom Brady does. But he can’t. Because for whatever reason the facts are that there are 2-4 games a year when Ben looks like a completely different human being out there. He never has shown that he ever will be that consistent when it’s all on him. Most games he hums along beautifully, but then out of nowhere come games of erratic passing and decision-making. Ben doesn’t want to “believe” he never has nor ever will be as consistent as Brady. So he’s pushed and pushed to change the foundation with which this franchise built six championships. Meanwhile if seems like Todd Haley and Mike Tomlin don’t want to rock the boat of a guy who makes nearly a hundred million more than they do.

As you can tell, author Matt Steel didn’t pull any punches. In fact, the article title—”Loss in Miami Exposed Steelers—Again” makes the tone of the article fairly clear. And Steel makes some interesting points. Neither he nor anyone else knows whether they are valid, of course.

Those of you who have read a reasonable amount of what I’ve written over the past six years or so are undoubtedly aware that the subject of the psychology of performance is very interesting to me. And as a musician I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s the same issues for all performers, whether you’re talking about my field, acting, sports, or even public speaking.

Every person to pull on a uniform or don a tuxedo or a tutu or whatever the preferred costume for one’s particular type of performance varies tremendously in the skill set they bring to bear upon their chosen profession. If they don’t have enough skills of the necessary sort, of course, they tend to lose their jobs sooner or later, or at least fall out of the professional ranks (assuming they ever made it there in the first place.) But I believe there is one trait that everyone who performs needs a baseline amount of—confidence. Otherwise they wouldn’t be up there in the first place.

Their outward demeanor may or may not display this. For whatever reason one may choose to downplay one’s accomplishments or attributes to some degree. Troy Polamalu is one who comes to mind. I watched an interview on CBN in which he discussed the difficulties he had, as a Christian, in dealing with pride. But pride (and the frequently attendant out of control ego) aren’t the same thing as confidence.

It is telling that Troy, who I always assumed might even retire before it was obviously necessary, instead still felt he could play when no one else thought he could. The confidence that he could do what needed to be done on the field had not left him, even as his abilities diminished.

There is a dichotomy here which even plays out in the feelings of the fans. It’s one thing to see a guy pounding his chest in the heat of the moment when he’s just gotten a sack or an interception or caught a touchdown. But in most cases it isn’t particularly well received if, an hour or two later at the press conference, the same athlete expresses his belief that he is the best ever to play the game. In this case confidence, and the subsequent boost which is gotten through a successful play, has crossed over into hubris.

This is probably part of why the Clay Matthews commercial in which he calmly declares himself to be the greatest is so irritating. Even if it is supposed to be funny. But the truth is, underneath, every player has to feel that while he is perhaps not the best ever, yet, he can be one day, and in the meantime he has the ability and training to accomplish the tasks at hand.

So as I read Matt Steel’s article, I interpret him as saying Ben is suffering from hubris. In Steel’s opinion, Ben does not have a realistic view of his abilities, and when he is successful it merely serves to pump up the egotistical monster which rages inside.

Articles like Steel’s generate a lot of attention and controversy, but the truth is almost always far more nuanced than the confines of a 1200-or-so word article can convey. And of course I don’t think Steel was at all interested in being nuanced, anyhow. But making assumptions about the inner motivations of someone else, as I just did with Mr. Steel, is never a great idea.

My view would be that at the moment of truth—when the ball is about to be snapped—every single man out there has to believe in his ability to carry through his task. An offensive lineman needs to believe that, whatever happened the previous play, he is capable of blocking the guy across from him. The receivers need to believe they can get open, and can catch the ball if it is thrown to them. The running backs need to believe that, this time at least, they can make it through the opposing defensive line. The opposing defense also needs to believe they can stop whatever the opposing offense throws at them, literally or figuratively.

And most of all, the quarterback has to believe he has the ability to assess the defensive alignment and pick (in conjunction with the coordinator or not, depending,) the play with the greatest chance to succeed. And the confidence he needs to make this choice also leads him to believe that he is capable of executing the play he chooses, be it a handoff or whatever sort of a pass, in a manner which gives everyone the greatest chance of bringing it to fruition.

There’s an interesting ilustration of this in baseball, which is often called a game of failure. After all, if you are successful a third of the times you come to bat you might be the MVP of the league. But watching the interplay between the catcher and the pitcher when the catcher signals the next pitch is really interesting. In theory, the catcher has the better idea of how a pitch is going to be received by the batter. He has studied for many hours the tendencies of the batters on the opposing roster as well as the abilities of his pitcher to execute the pitch he calls.

And yet the pitcher sometimes “shakes off” the call, asking for a different one. Why is this? My guess is, the pitcher doesn’t, at that particular moment, have the confidence that he can make that pitch in the way the catcher wants it. It’s reasonable to assume that the confidence level of football players ebbs and flows in a similar manner.

I believe this is part of why a game which is not going particularly well can start to spiral out of control. As the unsuccessful results pile up I suspect the players begin to question their abilities and/or decision-making. If, like Ben, you have been making a preponderance of good decisions over the course of years, you continue to believe in yourself.

But add an injury—one such as Sunday’s knee injury—which effects one’s ability to plant properly to make the throw—and I suspect even Ben starts to doubt himself. Add to that the fact that as you get further behind you have to throw more and more, and you get a result like we saw last Sunday.

And, curiously, we have a perfect example of what happens when the signal-caller is insufficiently confident in Ben’s backup, Landry Jones. I read in several different articles this week that the players who were interviewed about Jones all said, in different ways, that what he has lacked as much as anything has been confidence, and it is up to them to help him feel confident on the field.

This would certainly explain a certain hesitancy one sees in Jones’ decision making. In the heat of a game you have to make a decision quickly, for better or worse, and believe in your teammates’ abilities to make a play. Of course, if you throw it to the guy in the wrong-colored jersey it doesn’t help. And Jones has been prone to this. This could also be an artifact of a lack of confidence, perhaps. Perhaps if you’re worrying too much about someone intercepting you throw it too high or too far or not far enough. Whatever the case, I would argue this begins with a lack of confidence.

As to the contention in the article that the coaches are afraid to cross Ben, I think it’s highly unlikely. They also have confidence—confidence that Ben gives them the best chance to win, and knows what he’s doing. Otherwise someone else would be out there. They, too, are basing their decisions (and confidence level in their players) on previous experience. They might be wrong. But does anyone think the Steelers had a better chance of winning last Sunday’s game with Landry Jones? Whether you do or not, the coaching staff clearly didn’t.

I questioned the wisdom of keeping Roethlisberger in at the end of the game. But it was all part and parcel of the same attitude which caused Tomlin to put the results of the San Diego game last season into Bell’s hands rather than taking the safe option of kicking the field goal, an attitude we all loved. I can’t have it both ways…

Whatever one may think of Ben Roethlisberger’s abilities, the fact is, if his confidence is gone he’s done. I wonder how much his famous “rust” after an injury is a confidence issue. Part of it is also perhaps a concentration issue, as he wonders how his surgically-repaired knee or not-quite-sufficiently healed ankle or whatever are going to respond. It makes Le’Veon Bell’s play this season all the more remarkable, that he can apparently not even think about the past (or for that matter potential future) injuries.

And perhaps in the last sentence we have the key. If Le’Veon Bell is that focused and that confident, then he is the one who should get the ball for the most part until such time as the results shows this to be a futile strategy. And perhaps a rushing touchdown or two would help give Landry Jones the confidence he needs. It seems worth a try, anyhow.



  • Wow! Great read and gives a lot to think about. Thanks Momma


  • cold_old_steelers_fan

    Very good, as always.

    Since his serious rib injury I think Ben’s bad games, and this is totally unscientific, are a combined psychological and physical hangover from that hit. I don’t think he can still take the hits like he did when he was a younger man. His body has been too badly banged up and no amount of off season working out is going to completely repair that.

    I also think that some hits, like uncalled crown of the helmet to the shoulder or chest hits, rattle him mentally now. He has a lot of pride though so he trys to play through and in the process over compensates. Trying to makes plays that aren’t always there. This may well be ego vs confidence in action (I know, this is just what you you were saying, so I guess I am agreeing).

    I suspect that there is also an issue with receivers not always being on the same page as Ben. We have a lot of new(ish) receivers who may not always be running the correct routes, or at least the way Ben would like them run.

    p.s. I haven’t finished my first coffee yet this morning so I will apologize if this doesn’t quite hold together.


    • The rib injury also crossed my mind, and I think you have something there. Whether it was Ben being overly dramatic or actually the case, when you think to yourself that you could have been dead it changes your perspective, especially when you now have kids. As to the uncalled hits, we know for sure he’s thinking about the concussion issue in a way he never did before. So perhaps the true key to Ben playing well is when he is completely confident that the line is going to protect him. No one can fault him for that. Brady doesn’t play as well in the games in which the opposing defense is hitting him on a regular basis. It just doesn’t happen to him as often.


    • And as for your comment about the routes, even AB has screwed up a couple of routes lately. I wonder what’s up with that?


  • Good article. I’ve been reading Matt C. Steel’s stuff for a long time, and he always presents solid arguments backed by facts. The one presumptuous points of his was on the motivations of the coaching staff.

    On that, I agree with you, that’s a fairly large leap if he does not have access to sources on the South Side.

    However, we know, or at least evidence strongly suggests, that Bruce Arians got the ax because he and Ben were too close, or more specifically he wouldn’t do anything to have Ben get rid of the ball sooner (ironically, Tom Brady getting dressed down by his offensive coordinator in the Steelers 2011 win over New England has been cited as the moment motivating the Steelers management to make a change.)

    I’ve often wondered why the Steelers have come out flat, and their is a bit of a pattern to the games that Steel cites. After the Tampa loss in 2014, I wondered if Ben didn’t have too much autonomy.

    Even if that isn’t the case, something was seriously wrong with the Steelers offensive game plan and in-game adjustments. With a depleted wide receiver corps it is mind boggling that Todd Haley only found a way to get Le’Veon Bell 10 carries.


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