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Keidel: Can Steelers Win Without Big Ben?

By Jason Keidel

With one misguided assertion, Jerry Krause went from heralded architect of the greatest NBA dynasty since the ’60s Celtics to an out-of-touch executive who forgot the obvious, parenthetic part of his infamous assertion.

Organizations win championships. Not so much. Turns out having Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen make winning organizations, not self-involved suits who take credit despite never scoring a point, grabbing a rebound or blocking a shot.

Of course, that’s the truncated version of Krause’s actual statement. But the sentiment more than chafed Michael Jordan, who left the Bulls forever. The franchise crumbled quickly thereafter.

The closest an NFL team has come to fitting Krause’s coda is the New England Patriots, who have a robust record without Tom Brady, their iteration of Air Jordan. The Pats win with Matt Cassel, Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett, while no other team seems able to carry on sans their star quarterback.

But the Pats’ dynasty is still very much tethered to Tom Brady, who is arguably the the best QB of the last 20 years, and perhaps the most decorated in NFL history. But the fact that they went 3-1 during his four-game absence as a result of DeflateGate speaks to their military unity and discipline.

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The Pats travel west this weekend to play the Steelers, whom many find the biggest speed bump on New England’s road to Super Bowl redemption. So far, the Steelers have played that role — last week’s brain cramp in Miami aside — with a pyrotechnic offense that flaunts the high-powered triumvirate of Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell.

But now the Steelers must navigate the next month without Big Ben, who was having a Pro Bowl season before his surgery to repair a torn meniscus. (He leads the league with 16 TD passes.) And instead of a polished Garoppolo trotting out in Roethlisberger’s place, they have Landry Jones.

Jones has yet to prove he’s worthy of life beyond the clipboard. So it’s especially daunting for Jones, the Steelers, and their fans to see him hurled onto the gridiron for the first time this year against the best team in the AFC, if not the NFL. The former Oklahoma Sooner has started two games, completing 32 of 55 passes (58.2%), for 513 yards, with three touchdowns and four interceptions.

This feels like a familiar theme with the Steelers. While they have played in three Super Bowls with Roethlisberger, winning two, it seems almost every year they have to hurdle some portion of their season with their hulking QB on the sideline.

Not to say he’s injury prone, but Roethlisberger has played a full slate of 16 games in just three of 13 seasons (with this season being his 13th). It’s hard to argue with the team’s record when he starts, of course, as they are 117-58 with Big Ben under center. So the Steelers, like most NFL teams, pivot off their QB play. For decades the Steelers were synonymous with bruising defense and muscular offense, yet they now rely on finesse more than ever.

Pittsburgh may not have the same on-field symmetry and pure Patriots ethos, with each part almost entirely interchangeable, but Pittsburgh has been branded Sixburgh for a reason. Not even New England has more Lombardi Trophies.

You could argue that no team has more long-term homogeny than the Steelers, who have had just three head coaches since man landed on the moon. Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and current coach Mike Tomlin give the Steelers’ sideline the feel of an old-world, college football powerhouse, where the man with headset becomes equal parts coach and patriarch, doubling as an ambassador for the team and town.

While Mike Tomlin’s resume hardly matches Bill Belichick’s, the Steelers head coach understands the corporate charter, when he says “The standard is the standard.” Like the Pats, the Steelers don’t win by whining or by dwelling in excuses. The standard is the standard.

But the Patriots in general, and Brady in particular, seem to be a kind of Kryptonite for the men in black & gold.

Indeed, Pittsburgh is 3-8 against New England since Brady became the full-time starter, a woeful record kicked off by a loss in the 2002 AFC championship game, Brady’s first. It was considered a bold move at the time, when Belichick decided to stick with Brady rather than give the gig back to Drew Bledsoe, the team’s marquee, longterm starter, who had been injured for much of the regular season.

Jets fans sardonically take credit for Brady’s career, while also lamenting it. In 2001, former Jets LB Mo Lewis blasted Bledsoe so hard he literally collapsed a lung, thus thrusting the young Michigan man into action.

You know the rest: six Super Bowl appearances, four wins, Brady’s face on the mythical Mt. Rushmore. Now Brady, with a cinder block on his shoulder after the DeflateGate mess, strolls into Heinz Field, full strength, to add a little more black and blue to the black & gold.

Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.

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