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Monday, June 8, 2009
Timing was perfect for Steelers, Big Ben

By John Clayton
ESPN.com

Ben Roethlisberger
The key to Ben Roethlisberger's development as a quarterback was that he joined a proven, winning team that made it easier for him to grow.
Some recent mailbag responses have provoked an interesting debate about Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

Darryl, an e-mailer, questioned my thoughts about Roethlisberger's benefiting by coming to a playoff-caliber team. "You and everyone else couldn't be more WRONG," Darryl said. "The Steelers had a losing season the year before Ben arrived and were headed in that direction again before Tommy Maddox got hurt and Ben was allowed to play."

Here's the point you're missing, Darryl. Teams don't necessarily win every season. I know that the Indianapolis Colts have put together seven consecutive winning seasons and the New England Patriots have eight in a row, but that's rare. In the salary-cap era, things catch up to the good teams and they drop for a season or two. That's when the good franchise has to make the right moves.

The Patriots fell to 5-11 in 2000 and picked Richard Seymour in the subsequent draft. The Colts dropped to 6-10 in 2001 and drafted Dwight Freeney. Roethlisberger fell to a 6-10 Steelers team that had pulled together winning seasons the three previous years against a tight salary cap.

There is no question Roethlisberger was a winner from his first season. But the key was that he joined a proven, winning team that made it easier for him to grow. Darryl uses the logic that Roethlisberger is so good, he doesn't have to throw 40 passes a game to prove he's a top talent. He notes that Troy Aikman didn't have to throw the ball that often, either.

Well, Roethlisberger doesn't have a Hall of Fame running back like Emmitt Smith to give him the luxury of needing 30 or fewer throws per game to win. Willie Parker and Rashard Mendenhall are good, but they haven't rushed for more yards than any back in league history. Last year, Big Ben had a 6-2 record in games in which he had to throw 30 or more passes. In the four seasons before that, his record was 5-12 in such games.

This is the perfect marriage. The Steelers had the talent that helped him grow, and he was the perfect quarterback to grow in that system.

Let's go to this week's mail.

From the inbox

Question: John, what happens to the franchise tag if the NFL goes into an uncapped season? Would it still exist?

Paul in New York City

Answer:
Paul, the franchise tag has an even bigger impact because teams have a right to transition or franchise two players. Remember, the uncapped year was created to discourage letting the collective bargaining agreement run out. Players don't get a great free-agency period in an uncapped year. Players need six years of experience to qualify instead of four years, meaning only players from the 2004 draft and before qualify. The best two free agents on a team can be tagged as a franchise or transition player. Teams that finish in the final eight of the playoffs can't sign a free agent until they lose a free agent. In other words, good players seeking riches in an uncapped year aren't going to be allowed to hit the market.

Q: John, I am a die-hard Broncos fan, and I honestly cannot comprehend what the Broncos are trying to do. Orton for Cutler? What are the possibilities or options on the Broncos acquiring Michael Vick or Vince Young? At least then we would have a QB who could pick up a first down with his feet, and still complete the checkdowns.

Chris in Texas

A:
No chance of the Denver Broncos doing something with Vick or considering a trade for Vince Young. Neither of them fits the type of quarterback Josh McDaniels wants, an accurate quarterback who can work out of the pocket. Even though Young was a winner as a starter in Tennessee, he isn't the type of pocket passer who fits McDaniels style, and it's pretty obvious he values his system of offense. And I'm still getting bombed by e-mails from Broncos fans wondering why I'm questioning the trade of Jay Cutler. Kyle Orton is good. Cutler is better. We stand together in our thinking.

Q: In regards to the Seahawks, can you envision a season similar to their 2005 Super Bowl run? I know that they lack the incredible run game they used to employ, but this is a much different team. Are they going to catch the world off-guard once again? I really see them making some noise this season, especially since most people are writing them off after last year's (fluke) 4-12 season.

Russ in Germany

A:
I don't see things coming together as well as they did during the Seahawks' Super Bowl run, but I clearly think they can have a potential playoff season. They had nightmares with injuries on offense last year. That can't happen again. QB Matt Hasselbeck is looking awesome during the offseason. He's practicing and training with a chip on the shoulder. Don't count him out for a Pro Bowl year. If that happens, they will be a contender. If Hasselbeck stays healthy, I think they should be able to score 24 or more points a game. Their defense will be more aggressive. I love the signing of CB Ken Lucas and the acquisition of DTs Cory Redding and Colin Cole.

Q: With all the weapons on offense, do you think that the Cardinals' defense may be overlooked this year? With Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie having a year of experience, he'll only be better. The same with Antrel Rolle with a year of safety experience under his belt.

Martin in Chandler, Ariz.

A:
I can only see the defense getting better. They didn't lose much this offseason except for Antonio Smith. While that hurt, the core of the defense returns. I like how the secondary evolved last season. Face it, there is no great defense in the NFC West. At best, every team in the division is just hoping to be in the middle of the pack. As long as the Cardinals stay healthy, they should be fine.

Q: John, I am a huge Aaron Rodgers fan, both as a Cal grad and a Packers fan. Clearly, he has huge upside and the demeanor to succeed at quarterback. I'm curious if you think he will be a solid quarterback over the course of his career (barring injury, of course), or if you think he might eventually reach the level of a multi-time Pro Bowler.

Eric in St. Paul, Minn.

A:
I'm a big believer in Aaron Rodgers. The guy has one of the stronger arms in the league. I thought he did well in his first season as the starting quarterback. He threw for more than 4,000 yards. His only problem was in the final four minutes of games. He'll get better now that he's in his second year as the starter. The most impressive thing about Rodgers is that he played so well despite a shoulder separation. Rodgers is the complete package. He's a leader. He's a talent. He can put up big numbers.

Q: John, do you think that Matt Jones is a viable option to add depth at the WR position for the Cowboys? I like the additions they made in the draft, but I believe Jones could add height, speed, athleticism and some experience to their current receiving corps.

Chris in Round Rock, Texas

A:
Interesting question because Jones has to find the right situation. He would be best served to play in a smaller city. He would have too many temptations if he went to New York or another big city. It's a shame he blew the job in Jacksonville; it was the perfect place for him. You still get the feeling he could get a chance with the Dallas Cowboys because Jerry Jones tries to take care of fellow Arkansas alums. Jones probably has one more chance or he might be done in this league. He needs to make it right.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.