Keeping Score

A Big Break for Big Ben

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REUTERS/Rick Wilking

On Friday, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell cut his suspension of Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who was accused of sexual assault by a 20-year-old woman in Georgia in March, from its original six games to four games.

Goodell cited Roethlisberger’s improved behavior as a motivating factor in his decision to lighten Big Ben’s punishment. “You have told me and the Steelers that you are committed to making better decisions,” Goodell said in a letter to Roethlisberger. “Your actions over the past several months have been consistent with that promise and you must continue to honor that commitment.”

Though Roethlisberger was never charged or arrested in connection to the alleged assault incident in a Milledgeville, Georgia bar, we’ve since learned that, over the last few years, he’s acted like a bit of a lout. Goodell has done a nice job as football’s top cop, installing a strict personal conduct policy and holding miscreants like Michael Vick and Adam “Pacman” Jones accountable for their actions. And he can’t be faulted for giving guys like Vick  – now the backup quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles – and Jones – a cornerback for the Cincinnati Bengals – second chances after long suspensions. But in the case of Roethlisberger, he’s being too forgiving.

A six-game suspension seemed like the right fit for Roethlisberger. It wasn’t too harsh: after all, Roethlisberger wasn’t found guilty of any crime (though you could argue, with some justification, that a lack of arrest was more the result of the ineptitude of local investigators rather than the innocence of Roethlisberger’s behavior). Still, the commissioner was sending another strong message. Fame and ridiculous fortune does not give you license to act like a jackass. And the punishment would adversely effect Pittsburgh on the field. Roethlisberger’s quarterback fill-ins, Byron Leftwich – who injured himself in last night’s preseason game – and Dennis Dixon, aren’t enthralling Steeler Nation.

Now, the reduction to four games give Pittsburgh a huge advantage as it chases a second Super Bowl title in three years. If Roethlisberger were to sit six games, he would not be eligible to practice until a few days before Pittsburgh’s Oct. 31 road game against the defending Super Bowl champs, the New Orleans Saints. Now, not only does Roethlisberger play two extra games, he will return to practice before Pittsburgh’s bye week, and will thus have two weeks to prepare for Pittsburgh’s October 17 home game against the Cleveland Browns, who will probably be pitiful. Thanks to Goodell’s leniency, he will ease his way back into game shape, and in theory enjoy a more productive year.

As Peter King wrote in Sports Illustrated’s NFL preview issue, “on offense the Steelers’ MVP might be Roger Goodell.” He may have just saved Pittsburgh’s season. Too bad: it would not have hurt to make Big Ben squirm.