Super Bowl QBs get their shot at redemption

TAMPA, Fla.– From their respective playing styles to their preferred modes of transport – one’s the most infamous motorcyclist in NFL history, the other’s got a tricked-out van that fits all seven of his kids – Ben Roethlisberger and Kurt Warner are very different quarterbacks.

As they prepare to face off on Super Sunday, here’s one big thing the two men have in common: Each looks back upon his last trip to the Super Bowl as a horrible experience he can’t wait to avenge.

In Roethlisberger’s case, the sentiment is bizarre. Three years ago, in his second season, the Pittsburgh Steelers captured their fifth Super Bowl championship with a 21-10 victory over the Seahawks, which most starting quarterbacks would have considered a cause for abject elation. Not Roethlisberger. Because he did not have one of his better days, Big Ben viewed it as a Big Bummer.

Warner, for obvious reasons, looks back with a distinct lack of fondness on the Patriots’ 20-17 upset of his Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI. It was the biggest disappointment of a career that has had plenty of low moments, and it chafes him more than you know.

Hours after the Cardinals’ 32-25 NFC championship victory over the Eagles, I sat with Warner and his wife, Brenda, in their Paradise Valley, Ariz., home and asked him about that game in New Orleans seven years ago. It was a subject we had discussed extensively at a party the night before the previous year’s Super Bowl in Arizona – after a report (later retracted) surfaced that a former Patriots video assistant had taped the Rams’ walkthrough the day before the game – and one we had revisited several times since.

I had a pretty good idea what his answer would be.

“You mean that game?” he asked. “It was terrible.”

Warner wasn’t smiling. Since September of 2007, when the news of the Spygate scandal broke, Warner had wondered whether the Patriots had carried an unfair competitive edge into that game. Even after former Patriots employee Matt Walsh, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and New England coach Bill Belichick declared that Walsh had not, in fact, taped the walkthrough, the uneasy feeling about the way things unfolded remained.

In Warner’s eyes, Belichick’s players seemed to have a very good sense of what the Rams were doing on offense that day – and remember, St. Louis, one of the most prolific offenses in NFL history, scored just three points until a late flurry. It has been substantiated that the Patriots’ practice of videotaping the hand signals of opposing coaches, a violation of NFL policy, went back a number of years. The Rams and Patriots had played earlier that season, and logic suggests that Belichick might have gained an advantage through surveillance for the rematch.

“You can’t help but wonder,” Warner said Tuesday night. “Perhaps it didn’t happen that way – obviously, it could have been good coaching. But it’s possible that something else was also going on, and if so, think about the ramifications. People’s careers were altered. I hate to think about it that way, but it’s human nature.”

Photo Warner dejectedly leaves the field after Super Bowl XXXVI.
(Tony Gutierrez/AP Photo)

Warner is a man of principle who believes in absolute truth. The Patriots and their fans have given many rationalizations for the videotaping – everybody tries to steal signals in some form; other teams have also videotaped opposing coaches without being caught – but you can be sure he is not moved by those arguments.

If Belichick indeed cheated, Warner would not view the transaction as a minor one. Given the way Warner’s career unraveled after that Super Bowl defeat and the four-plus seasons he spent in NFL purgatory before his recent resurrection, can you blame him?

“Just think about how many careers that game affected,” Warner said to me a year ago. “If they had an unfair advantage, and that’s the reason we lost – just imagine how differently things would have played out if we’d won. Even after I got hurt and struggled, would the Rams have gotten rid of me? If I’m a two-time Super Bowl winner, I don’t think so. And things would’ve been different for a whole lot of people.”

Before Patriot Nation fires back in earnest at the two-time regular season MVP, understand that Warner isn’t the only guy in football who ponders these questions. Rightly or wrongly, there are many other players, coaches and front-office executives who harbor similar suspicions.

One of them is Warner’s current head coach, Ken Whisenhunt, whose first reaction to Spygate was one of anger. He flashed back to his time as a Steelers assistant and the two AFC championship games his team lost at home to the Patriots, after the ’01 and ’04 seasons, and a figurative light bulb turned on inside his head.

The latter game, a 41-27 defeat, occurred during Roethlisberger’s rookie season, when Whisenhunt was Pittsburgh’s offensive coordinator and play-caller. Recalling that chilly evening in January of ’05, Whisenhunt remembered plays he sent in that, as soon as the ball was snapped, New England’s players defended perfectly. The Pats’ uncanny sense of what was coming baffled him at the time, and now he had a possible explanation.

The next season Whisenhunt experienced the thrill of a Super Bowl victory, joyously celebrating with his fellow coaches and 52 Pittsburgh players. The 53rd, Roethlisberger, looked utterly miserable. He was the first guy I saw when I entered the locker room, and he didn’t return my huge smile.

After grimacing for a few seconds, all he said was, “Ecccch.”

Roethlisberger had completed just 9 of 21 passes for 123 yards, with a pair of interceptions. He had scored a touchdown on a quarterback sneak which, in retrospect, probably should have been overturned on a replay review. The biggest pass of the game, the 43-yarder to MVP Hines Ward for the game-clinching TD in the fourth quarter, had been thrown by receiver Antwaan Randle El (on a trick play called by Whisenhunt that, to his relief, the Seahawks didn’t seem to know was coming).

Eventually, Roethlisberger showered, got dressed and enjoyed the victory party. Then he got grumpy again, and he continued to beat himself up for several weeks afterward.

“Had to,” Roethlisberger said Monday night as he and many of his teammates socialized at Blue Martini, a bustling Tampa nightspot. “What are you gonna do?”

Later, I asked him if he had ever watched the film of that game.

“Nope,” he said.

I normally detest the citation of single-game (or, worse, single-quarter) passer ratings, but in this case I’ll make an exception: Roethlisberger’s 22.6 rating was the lowest ever by a Super Bowl-winning quarterback.

“I don’t know what [the exact rating] was,” Roethlisberger said Tuesday during his media day interview session. “But I know it wasn’t good.”

Asked a follow-up question by a foreign reporter – Will you try to improve it this time? – Big Ben gave a sarcastic reply: “No, I was gonna see if I can get it lower and still win. That’s my goal.”

He was smiling. Roethlisberger has vowed to enjoy every bit of his Super Bowl XLIII experience, partly because he didn’t three years ago, and he feels as though changing his routine might lead to a better performance.

Photo Roethlisberger was also sacked once in Super Bowl XL.
(Mark Humphrey/AP Photo)

“You learn from experience,” he said. “So you try to be a little bit different.” His attitude, he said, is “just enjoy it, because you never know if it’s gonna happen again.”

Until a few weeks ago, Warner felt as though a shot at assuaging his Super Bowl sore spot might never come. Through all the tough times – his demise in St. Louis, the washout with the Giants, the earlier disappointments in the desert – the deeply Christian quarterback kept telling himself that it was all part of God’s plan, even if he had no idea what that plan was.

His is an all-in philosophy, but it has its limitations. Sitting in his family room after the NFC title game a week and a half ago, I tried to help him get over his Super Bowl XXXVI frustration by giving him a taste of his own faith: Apparently the plan called for him to experience defeat, given that it ultimately led him to Arizona.

“No,” he said firmly. “Losing that game was not part of the plan.”

For the next few seconds, he looked as distraught as Roethlisberger had in the locker room after Super Bowl XL.

Ten days later, as he sat in his room at the Cardinals’ team hotel Wednesday morning, Warner’s edge had been muted, his perspective changed. “I promise you I am not bitter,” he said. “I do believe this is all part of God’s plan, and the ironic part is a lot of that pondering [about Super Bowl XXXVI] has disappeared, because I feel I have a better idea of what God was doing through it all. I still wonder about the situation, but I don’t want to sit here and lay blame. The ultimate conclusion is that I probably wouldn’t be here if not for that game. Though, of course, the fact that we lost still bothers me – a lot.”

Come Sunday night, at least one of the quarterbacks will feel much, much better. Perhaps, depending upon how things play out, they both will.