Roethlisberger keeps good company

LATROBE, Pa. -- You know you have to hand it to the Pittsburgh Steelers' star quarterback, 23-year-old Ben Roethlisberger.

The kid shoots for the moon.

"I want to be the best that ever played," Roethlisberger said this week following an hour-long autograph session, which followed 30 minutes of media interviews, many of which, these days, include some form of what is the Big Question around here: Can Big Ben avoid a sophomore slump? All of which, by the way, followed a two-hour practice in near-90-degree temperatures at St. Vincent's College.

Roethlisberger had had his dinner, and now he was talking about how intense his hunger is even after the most successful debut season for a quarterback in league history (15-1, including playoffs). He has Pittsburgh in the palm of his hand. What he really wants, though, is just a spot in Canton.

"I want to be mentioned with Marino, Kelly, Montana, Elway -- all of them," he continued. "When I retire I want to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

"I'm never satisfied. None of that is going to be possible if I'm satisfied with where I am. I'm a big fan of you either improve or you regress. You never stay the same. I always want to improve."

This offseason, Roethlisberger did the only sensible thing: Since he'd like to be regarded among the all-time greats, he spent a lot of his free time around them, picking their brains. Whether it was golfing or dining with Dan Marino (to whose first year Roethlisberger's most often was compared), or hanging in NASCAR pits with Jim Kelly, he made it a point to consume every morsel of information and insight possible.

You have to hand it to the young man. He keeps good company. Roethlisberger met Marino about a year or so ago at a golf event for Mario Lemieux, Kelly at the regular season finale at Buffalo. He's hooked up with each several times since. If it's got anything to do with quarterbacking, chances are they've discussed it with the new jack. The passion of Pittsburgh. Expectations. Life in the limelight. Leadership. Roethlisberger said of Marino, "It was amazing how much he's helped me. He's a true mentor to me."

Now Roethlisberger isn't about to toss 48 touchdown passes, á la Marino in his second year. But if you're waiting for him to come crashing down to Earth, you may find yourself waiting awhile. By kicking around feelings and ideas with a pair of Hall of Famers this spring, Roethlisberger is now armed with a better understanding of what it takes to stay on your game and keep from falling off.

Marino set the standard for rookie quarterbacks in 1983, then for all passers the following year. His advice was rather simple. "I asked him," Roethlisberger said, " 'What were your expectations your second year?' He said people expected bigger and better things. So he gave them bigger and better things. He said, 'They expect you to do it, so that's what you've got to do.' And that's what I'm going to try to do."

Kelly led star-studded teams that included the likes of Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed, and Bruce Smith. "When he played, he played with a bunch of big-name players," Roethlisberger said. "And so I just wanted to kind of get a feel from him about how you handle having a bunch of egos and big-name guys and how you deal with that as a quarterback, being a leader on your team.

"I'd just sit down and brainstorm with them. Tell them what I'm thinking, they'd tell me if they thought it was a good idea, and we'd just kind of talk about things."

Roethlisberger has had to discuss the dreaded second-year jinx more than he'd care to. He strolls around St. Vincent's campus to the soundtrack of his IPod, and at this point he certainly can relate the kind of pressure artists face to follow-up a chart-topping debut album. Realizing it's unlikely he'll have an undefeated regular-season record much longer, he has a standard answer for questions regarding what will be a highly scrutinized encore:

"I think we still have a great team. People have to realize that we can be a better team with a worse record. I can be a better quarterback and not win 14 games. We can still get to a Super Bowl if we don't win all the games, we can still get to the playoffs.

"Everyone expects me to slump or have that jinx or that sophomore slump - whatever you want to call it. Do I expect it? No. I don't ever expect to fail.

"It's another one of those 'fuel-the-fire' things … People are doubting us again. That's fine with us."

Although Roethlisberger's former favorite receiver, Plaxico Burress, is a New York Giant now, and the team's top wideout, Hines Ward, is, for now, a holdout, expect to see more balance and a more varied passing attack this year from Pittsburgh, which ran a league-high 618 times last season (to 358 passes, though many of those rushing attempts can be attributed to clock-killing second-half possessions). Roethlisberger estimates the Steelers used 60 to 65 of its playbook with him at the helm in '04; he expects they'll be utilizing 90 to 95 percent of it by the time they've completed installation.

Naturally, Roethlisberger has a greater command of the Steelers' scheme in Season 2, so much so that a few times this week during practice and once again outside the campus cafeteria following the aforementioned workout, offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt commended his quarterback on his wise decision-making.

Roethlisberger knows what he's doing now to the point where he can with confidence tell others what they should be doing: The other day he had to pull the ball down and run, and his way back to the huddle he took a moment to explain to first-year wideout Zamir Cobb where he should have been on play.

Whereas last year he seemed to be more or less tagging along for the Steelers' 15-1 magic carpet ride, Roethlisberger clearly is comfortable captaining the ship.

"He can actually say the play in the huddle and look at the guys," backup Brian St. Pierre said. "Last year he was just trying to get it out as fast as he can."

"He's assuming control, he exudes confidence," said tailback Jerome Bettis. "He knows it's his huddle, he's the man. He was still finding his way [last year]. It's hard to ask a rookie to be the leader of men because he doesn't know how to talk to this guy or address this particular issue.

He was too busy trying to learn the plays. He didn't have time to figure out the nuances, the heartbeat of an offense. Now he understands how the offense works. Not just plays, but how we feed off each other and how we work. So now he's able to come in and really inspire everybody to do this and that, talk to guys, and settle us down the times we need to be settled down."

Said Roethlisberger, "I'm not trying to overtake our natural leaders. Our leaders are Jerome, Hines, and Alan Faneca on offense. My job is to slowly just become a leader."

Roethlisberger's accomplishments as a rookie are all the more impressive when considering just how little he knew about playing the position. Don't worry yourselves, Steelers fans. Roethlisberger's newfound enlightenment hasn't inspired Bill Cowher to force Big Ben into becoming a pocket passer; as a matter of fact, Pittsburgh's coaches have been devising ways other than his own improvisation to take advantage of Roethlisberger's athleticism.

But there will be a noticeable difference.

"[Last year] I think I was a kid that was running around throwing the ball," Roethlisberger said. "This year, hopefully, we'll see a better quarterback."

Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.