Ben Roethlisberger’s numbers have never been better. The Steelers quarterback is on pace to smash most of the team single-season passing records he already owns.
Last week he broke Terry Bradshaw’s franchise mark for career touchdown passes. Sunday night against Cincinnati he has a chance to go over 4,000 yards for the third time. A recent commitment to the no-huddle offense has given him a newfound freedom that has quieted critics who wondered if he was cerebral enough to call his own plays.
Oh, and his wife is expecting the couple’s second child in the spring.
And yet, in some ways Roethlisberger has never looked or sounded more frustrated, at least when talking about his job.
The Steelers (5-8) are all but eliminated from the playoffs with three long weeks to go, and Roethlisberger has spent the last month on the defensive. If he’s not denying a report he may ask for a trade in the offseason, he’s defending his relationship with offensive coordinator Todd Haley.
Though Roethlisberger insists he’s still focused on avoiding the first losing season of his football career — college, high school and Pop Warner included — he also offered an olive branch of sorts on Wednesday that could resonate into 2014 and beyond.
Amid the mounting losses and the almost weekly fending off of rumors and innuendo, Roethlisberger and the offense he controls have found a rhythm.
“I think the numbers speak for themselves,” Roethlisberger said. “I think we’re getting better every week. Obviously, the ultimate goal is to win the game, but offensively our goal is to get better every week and we’ve done that.”
The Steelers have gone over 20 points in six straight games, the team’s longest streak since 2009. Rookie running back Le’Veon Bell is becoming the reliable and versatile option the team envisioned when it took him in the second round of the draft. Wide receiver Antonio Brown is challenging Hines Ward’s club record for receptions in one season. Jerricho Cotchery already has nine touchdown catches, which is one fewer than the veteran had from 2008-12.
All this behind an offensive line that has featured six different starting combinations in 13 weeks.
“I think we’ve got a lot of pieces in place that can make that next step,” Roethlisberger said. “I think the cohesiveness that we have on offense is a good thing and hopefully it can translate into these last couple games and then into the offseason.”
Roethlisberger would prefer not to talk too much about the future, particularly what could happen this spring as he and the team figure out what to do about his contract status. He has two years remaining on his current deal, though Pittsburgh often reworks quarterback contracts two years out. With a base salary of $12.1 million, he’s a bargain for a two-time Super Bowl winner.
Despite speculation he may look for an out, Roethlisberger insists he is committed to Pittsburgh. There’s little doubt he remains dedicated in meeting rooms, where the competitive guy who has spent the last decade putting together a resume that is Hall of Fame worthy remains as intense as ever.
“He’s been razor sharp making sure young guys understood what’s at stake, making sure every man to a man knows their job, making sure every o-lineman comes in new or old understands protection and what needs to be done,” Brown said.
The Steelers hardly resemble the team Cincinnati smothered in a 20-10 victory back in September. Bell was out and the line, playing its first game without injured All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey was a mess.
Not so much at the moment. Roethlisberger, who was sacked 36 times in the first nine weeks, has been dropped just four times in the last four games. A defensive stop here or there and the Steelers are in the mix instead of playing out the string.
The pain of missing out is palpable throughout the locker room, no more so than on the face of the franchise, the one who is simultaneously having the best and worst season of his life.
“I’m not going to look back yet,” Roethlisberger said. “We’re still looking forward ... Maybe in the offseason we’ll look back and scratch our head.”