Kovacevic: This one's on the franchise QB
Ben Roethlisberger looked about as down as I'd seen him since that Super Bowl defeat in Dallas.
Yeah, less than two years ago.
Must have felt like forever ago to most everyone involved with the Steelers' sickening, season-snuffing 13-10 loss to the Bengals - the Bengals! - Sunday at Heinz Field.
And none more so than the $102 million franchise quarterback, who stood surrounded by media in an otherwise silent locker room, and absorbed the blame.
Not part of the blame. That was last week.
All of it.
Listen to Roethlisberger describe what he was feeling: "Disappointment. Pain. Letting a lot of people down."
On throwing that killer late interception, his second in as many weeks: "Nothing to talk about. You saw it. I threw it to them."
On how a team with this much talent won't be going to the playoffs: "We should be ... if it wasn't for me."
Sounds dramatic and all, particularly that last line, but it's difficult to dispute.
You know, I was behind Roethlisberger last week when, after saying "this is on me," he proceeded to clearly criticize Todd Haley's playcalling. It's rarely healthy to air such things in public, but the Steelers' offense had become so stagnant that speaking up seemed reasonable.
Besides, Haley's playcalling was terrible.
It was terrible again Sunday, for that matter. It was laughably predictable - run, run, pass, punt - and unimaginative in utilizing the most dynamic players.
One wonders what linebacker James Harrison might have meant after the game when he spoke of coaches needing to do a better job of "putting our players in position to make plays."
Think he was talking about the defense after the game those players had?
On this day, though, not even playcalling loomed larger than the simple failure to execute, mostly by Roethlisberger. It's not just that he was 14 of 28 for 220 yards. It's that he took four sacks, failed to find open targets, misfired on two balls that could have brought six points each and, above all, threw those picks.
The first came when he eyeballed Heath Miller across the middle but "didn't see" Leon Hall poised to jump the route. Touchdown, Cincinnati.
That's on the QB.
On the other near the end, Roethlisberger rolled right, saw Mike Wallace 15 yards upfield and tried to drop a softy into a tight space. The ball badly overshot Wallace - never easy but achieved twice on this day - and landed into the eager arms of the Bengals' Reggie Nelson.
That's on the QB, too. And moreover, it's right out of the QB's treasured Ben-being-Ben portion of the playbook.
Game over, season over.
Here's a fair question: When was the last time Roethlisberger pulled off one of those NFL Films-type rallies, one of those that brought him - deservedly - his rep as a big-time player?
Finishing off the Jets to reach that Super Bowl?
It's enough to make you wonder not only where he's been but also where he's heading.
Remember, this season was supposed to mark the start of a second phase, one in which he would do less scrambling, get hurt less often, survey the scene from the pocket. That's why Art Rooney II chased off Bruce Arians, and it's why the noted take-no-guff-guy Haley was brought in. They'd reinvent their star player to save him and the Steelers for years to come.
All of it failed.
Yes, one could point to Roethlisberger's major rib injury as a pivoting point for his performance. But the cold fact remains that this offense never looked fluid. So to that end, Roethlisberger failed, Haley failed and, ultimately, Mike Tomlin failed for being unable - or stubbornly unwilling - to find other ways to make it click.
Was Tomlin really OK with putting the Steelers' season in Jonathan Dwyer's hands?
Because that's basically what they did Sunday, with Dwyer needing 14 carries to muster a molar-extracting 39 yards.
This can't happen again.
Roethlisberger remains the franchise. That won't change in the foreseeable future, and it's something all concerned need to not just tolerate but to embrace. The Steelers will have other issues going into this offseason, but that's No. 1. Tomlin has to look hard at why this offense never found any semblance of rhythm over 15 weeks with top-tier players at QB, tight end and wide receiver.
And, I'll repeat here, he's got to be honest with himself as to whether Roethlisberger and Haley can coexist. Not just in niceties but meaningfully.
This was Wallace's pointed assessment of how they coexist now: "You don't have to like the people you work with. He doesn't have to like Ben; Ben doesn't have to like him. But we're all on the same team, so we have to work together."
Until they do, get used to scenes like Sunday's ruining more Christmas Eves to come.