Roethlisberger, Rodgers take center stage
DALLAS — Storylines such as whether Cowboys Stadium could hide in Brett Keisel's beard mercifully have waned.
The most significant subject that figures to unspool in Super Bowl XLV is the duel between the two quarterbacks who staged a shootout last year in Pittsburgh.
Don't look for Ben Roethlisberger and the Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers to combine for nearly 900 passing yards like they did in December 2009. But the most important position in football will loom large in the outcome tonight if history is any indication.
Quarterbacks have won three of the past four Super Bowl MVP awards and a disproportionate number of them in the game's history. It easily could have been four given the way Roethlisberger marched the Steelers down the field for the game-winning touchdown at the end of Super Bowl XLIII.
Since becoming the 10th quarterback to win multiple Super Bowls, Roethlisberger has fallen from grace and then rescued his career from the wreckage he caused with reckless off-the-field behavior.
The backdrop that Rodgers takes into the meeting of NFL royalty tonight makes him no less a compelling figure.
Rodgers didn't have a Division I-A scholarship offer while in high school in northern California and spent a season at a junior college, where some of his teammates included ex-cons.
He waited patiently behind Brett Favre in Green Bay and then didn't flinch when the Packers nudged their iconic quarterback into his first retirement — and thrust Rodgers into the crosshairs of angry fans and defenses.
Both Rodgers and Roethlisberger have weathered storms to get here. The outcome of tonight's game could come down to which one makes more plays.
Or as Pro Football Hall of Famer Rod Woodson said, "It will be which defensive coordinator can make the opposing quarterback make a mistake."
Plenty of folks made a mistake about Rodgers, especially the San Francisco 49ers.
They passed on the prospect in their backyard and selected Alex Smith No. 1 overall in the 2005 draft — the year after Roethlisberger, Eli Manning and Philip Rivers were taken with three of the first 11 picks.
"The first thing he said was he should have been the first pick in the draft," said receiver Donald Driver, who has been in Green Bay since 1999 and is the longest-tenured Packer. "He had all the cockiness in the world, and that's what I love about him."
The Packers had other reasons to love him.
The 6-foot-2, 225-pounder, whose career passer rating of 98.4 attests, has the arm strength to make every throw. Rodgers also has the athleticism and elusiveness to make him a threat when the pocket collapses, and he finished second to Michael Vick this season in rushing touchdowns (four) by a quarterback.
The Packers didn't start the transition to the post-Favre era without knowing what they had in Rodgers. Offensive coordinator Joe Philbin recalled coaching in the Pro Bowl after the Packers lost in the 2007 NFC Championship Game.
"We were watching the different quarterbacks throw the ball, and I said to (quarterbacks coach) Tom Clements at the time, and Brett Favre hadn't retired, 'Tom, no disrespect to any of these other guys, but the guy we've got sitting back in Green Bay can throw the ball every bit as well as these guys can if not better,' " said Philbin, a Washington & Jefferson College graduate.
Rodgers' past — specifically the year he spent at Butte Junior College before moving onto the University of California — prepared him for the uncertain future he stepped into in 2008.
"I learned a lot about myself that year, playing with guys from all over the country and different countries, a 25-year-old center, guys who had been to prison, guys who had been bounce-backs from Division I," Rodgers said. "Trying to be an 18-year-old and lead those guys, I learned a lot about leadership and a lot about myself."
To put into perspective what Rodgers has done in succeeding Favre, a future Hall of Famer, consider that the Dolphins are still looking for a worthy heir to Dan Marino in Miami, and that John Elway still casts as much of a shadow over Denver as the Rocky Mountains.
Even the Steelers know how fraught with uncertainty quarterback succession plans are.
They made just one Super Bowl between the time Terry Bradshaw retired in 1980 and Roethlisberger joined the team in 2004.
The 49ers are one of the few teams that have made that successful transition. That came in the early 1990s when one future Hall of Famer (Steve Young) followed another (Joe Montana).
Still, Young had some rocky moments, and some 49ers fans may never have fully embraced him, even after he led San Francisco to a Super Bowl title in 1994.
Rodgers, who could find himself in a similar situation even if he beats the Steelers, has become close with Young.
"Steve obviously had a very similar (path) being a guy who followed a legend," Rodgers said. "Steve has been a great guy for me to lean on, and he's made time for me."
Ben's place among the best
The gentle side that Roethlisberger displayed at Super Bowl media day last week may have included a disingenuous moment.
Roethlisberger, at one point, was asked who was the better quarterback, him or Rodgers.
"Aaron Rodgers," he answered without hesitation.
The answer was consistent with the aw-shucks approach Roethlisberger has taken at times, whether it's praising contemporaries such as Tom Brady and Peyton Manning or saying that a Steelers win tonight won't put them in the same class as the Steel Curtain teams of the 1970s.
Deep down, Roethlisberger is as competitive as anybody who will step on the field at Cowboys Stadium.
His unique style, his trademark ability to keep plays alive in the face of a fierce pass rush, can be traced to that competitiveness as much as his size, strength and uncanny feel in the pocket.
The Packers sacked Roethlisberger five times last season during a game at Heinz Field. But he escaped the pass rush on numerous occasions and threw for a career-high 503 yards and three touchdowns, including a 19-yarder to Mike Wallace on the final play of the game.
"We had some of our big linemen last year that somehow fell off him," said Packers secondary coach Darren Perry, a former Steelers player and assistant coach. "It's just hard to get him on the ground, and (Steelers receivers) have grown to know what he is, and they run their routes accordingly."
They learn about that sandlot style early in their career.
"We work and talk about the scramble drill every day," said rookie receiver Antonio Brown, whose third-down catch two weeks ago clinched the Steelers' eighth trip to the Super Bowl. "If things break down, you've got to know where you are on the field to get into his vision."
If Roethlisberger beats the Packers, he would improve to 11-2 during the postseason and join Brady and three others in winning at least three Super Bowls.
Roethlisberger also has a chance to surpass Brady in passer rating during the postseason. He trails Brady (85.7) by just three-tenths of a point.
"I think his style of play is so unique, totally different from Aaron Rodgers, that it has to be appreciated," Bradshaw said of Roethlisberger. "He wins football games, and he wins them in dramatic fashion."
Yet some are still taking a wait-and-see approach with Roethlisberger and his place among the quarterbacks of his generation.
"This is the game for me that I think can put him in that category with Terry. ... He's never going to lead the league in touchdowns, he's never going to lead the league in passing," said Woodson, the former Steelers great. "But this is the game that's going to be an indication of where he's at."
If recent history is any guide, coach Mike Tomlin will remind Roethlisberger of where he is before the Steelers take the field.
Before the Steelers' 27-23 Super Bowl win against the Arizona Cardinals two years ago, Tomlin put a note in Roethlisberger's locker with a list of quarterbacks who have won the most Super Bowls, starting with Bradshaw.
"He said, 'Where do you want to fit in that group?'" Roethlisberger recalled.Additional Information:
Steelers (14-4) vs. Packers (13-6)
Sunday, 6:30 p.m., FOX, Cowboys Stadium, Arlington, Texas
Opening line • Packers by 2
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