For QBs, a chance to razzle-dazzle 'em
Sunday's Super Bowl gives two quarterbacks - an upstart and a yeoman - a 'star power' occasion.
In many ways, the quarterbacks who will try to lead their teams to the Holy Grail of pro football - a Super Bowl victory - couldn't be more different.
Matt Hasselbeck, the balding Seahawks passer with a ready arsenal of jokes and one- liners, is a mid-career player who's had his share of downtimes, and just three years ago was on the bench backing up Trent Dilfer.
Ben Roethlisberger, sporting a mountain-man beard and a mild-mannered nature, has leapt to early success with the Steelers as only the third pro quarterback ever - along with Dan Marino and Tom Brady - to start in a Super Bowl in his second season. At 23, he's also the second youngest.
Neither has the star power nor name recognition that usually comes with starting-quarterback status at a Super Bowl. Sunday's game, then, holds the promise of offering one of them the sport's ultimate validation of greatness.
"This is [Roethlisberger's] coming-out party," says Rick Gosselin, a Dallas Morning News columnist and member of the NFL's Hall of Fame committee. "Young guys like this don't usually get to this level."
Hasselbeck, on the other hand, is akin to former Giants' quarterback Phil Simms, who played in a Super Bowl and two Pro Bowls but never basked in the true-legend glow that has suffused other winning QBs, says Mr. Gosselin.
But Hasselbeck has surprised his former detractors. Head coach Mike Holmgren, who, like Hasselbeck, came to Seattle from Green Bay, acknowledges that he and his quarterback "banged heads" a few years ago. "It's taken a little while, but right now we are in a very, very good place," Holmgren says.
Hasselbeck has become more consistent, using quick feet and a strong arm to fire missiles to wide receivers Joe Jurevicius or Darrell Jackson.
The big change, says quarterback coach Jim Zorn, came after Hasselbeck's time on the bench in his second season with the Seahawks.
"When Matt first started, he had certain ideas about how he wanted to play, and he's stubborn," says Zorn. "But he put on his listening ears, and he's been able to conform himself to the offense we have." Zorn commends Hasselbeck for his maturity, both on the field and in his personal life, with his wife and three kids.
If Hasselbeck has had to work to prove himself, Roethlisberger's star is just now rising. A No. 11 draft pick, he last year broke Dan Marino's rookie-quarterback records for completion percentage and passer rating - and compiled an unprecedented 13-0 record during the regular season.
The Steelers - particularly seasoned players like Jerome Bettis - seemed to take him under their wing, placing little pressure on him and giving him the best opportunities for success.
Still, with a strategy built mainly on running, the Steelers should give credit for a successful season to the whole team - not primarily the quarterback, say at least a few doubters. Roethlisberger's five interceptions in two postseason games last year only fueled speculation that he was overrated.
This year, he's risen to a new level, connecting with deadly accuracy pass after pass and playing a virtually flawless postseason. Despite the media attention this week to Bettis, who is coming home to his native Detroit, Roethlisberger is the anchor of the team.
Getting to the Super Bowl so early in his NFL career is hardly something the young quarterback takes for granted.
"Some guys never get to a Super Bowl, and then there are people like Danny Marino who get there in their second year and don't get back," Roethlisberger told reporters, referring to Super Bowl XIX when Marino lost to the 49ers. That other former prodigy has been a mentor of sorts this week.
"I asked him how to deal with it all, and he gave me some words of wisdom," Roethlisberger said. "He told me to enjoy it, but to take it serious enough, because you want to win it since it could be your only time getting here."
At Tuesday's Media Day, the annual feeding frenzy that often produces some of the more bizarre pregame moments, Roethlisberger chatted amiably with reporters eager for comments after a week of limited access.
Hasselbeck, meanwhile, traded one-liners with questioners who seemed more interested in his sense of humor than his throwing arm or his game plan. "Tell us a joke!" commanded one reporter, while an "Entertainment Tonight" representative presented him with an award for "player most likely to appear on 'The View,' " a reference to the ABC-TV talk show in which Hasselbeck's sister-in-law is a host.
The joking and joshing aside, it's clear both players are anticipating the biggest game either has ever played - the one that, for a quarterback, is the yardstick of greatness.
"That's the measuring rod, isn't it?" Seattle's Coach Zorn says of the annual gridiron showdown. A former quarterback for the Seahawks himself, Zorn never made it to the Super Bowl. "I still have a sense of an incomplete career because of that," he says. "A lot of past players will be playing through Matt on Sunday."