After a long NFL season and an exciting and somewhat surprising playoff run, the match-up for this year's Super Bowl is finally set. We've got quite a bit of time to go over every storyline, statistic, and shit-talking salvo in the next week and a half, so I thought before I got into a full-on Super Bowl preview and revealed my pick for the game's outcome, I would take a long look at the guys who play quarterback for each team.

The two players we're talking about here, Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers and Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers, are men of contrasting styles and characters for the most part, and are definitely going to dominate many of the headlines as the Super Bowl draws closer. Rodgers and Roethlisberger are both talented and capable quarterbacks who have steered their teams through the long, arduous journey of the NFL season and planted their flags firmly in Dallas, where the Super Bowl will be played in the tricked-out house that Jerry Jones built.
Aside from Michael Vick, there is perhaps no other quarterback in recent memory that has been in the headlines for the wrong reasons more than Ben Roethlisberger. Big Ben seems to have some uh...you might say...trouble getting along with the ladies, as he followed a dust-up with a female paramour in Lake Tahoe in 2008 with an eerily similar encounter during the 2010 off season in Georgia. I should be clear here and state that Roethlisberger has never been convicted or even charged with any criminal wrong-doing in either case, though there were civil accusations in 2009, which followed around a year after the 2008 incident and are still pending.

Of course, the NFL has their own justice system. Roethlisberger was suspended for the first six games of  this season for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy, but ended up serving a reduced penalty of only four games because of a vague belief by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell that he had displayed good behavior during his time of woe. So, Ben sat out four games and the Steelers went 3-1 in his absence. Just as he had  deftly avoided so many defenders in the past, Ben similarly stiff-armed a couple of twenty-something female accusers and faced few on-field consequences in the process--he is playing in the damn Super Bowl for chrissakes.

With all that out of the way, I think the guy's pretty much a creep. Roethlisberger has always been a standoffish, brooding lout toward the media and general public, (not to mention his hometown in Ohio) but that coupled with now repeated suspicious incidents with college-age women makes for a guy that is certainly not on my list of favorite athletes. If there's one thing that can't be excused, it's being a bully towards women, and that should be an especially important rule if you're nearly six and a half feet tall and right around 250 pounds. I don't have time to go over the ins and outs of those cases, but if you'd like to learn more, you can click here and here and read for yourself (although some of the info you might wish to know about the incident in Georgia did go missing rather mysteriously...).

I never want to be one to judge at a distance, but when you're talking about sports it becomes hard to avoid that particular vantage point. I don't know the guy personally, but I think that his track record with women, even from a removed perspective, doesn't exactly jibe with the prevailing social sentiments towards the matter. He just has that aura about him now, and no matter how much you believe that people can change, and I surely do, there hasn't been enough time passed or difference in Roethlisberger's demeanor right now for me to be on his side. And this is coming from a guy who has respect for Mike Vick's turnaround.

The point here is that Ben has incurred a rather large amount of personal baggage over the last couple of years, while in the meantime risen to the top of the heap at his position and collected two Super Bowl championships in the process. A guy with a surly attitude and a predilection for intimidating the opposite sex is hard to root for, but there is no way to argue that Roethlisberger hasn't excelled at the quarterback position. He's got two rings and he's only twenty-eight. That's one less than and one more than the two guys that always get brought up as being the pinnacle of the QB position, they being Tom Brady and Peyton Manning respectively.

Ben doesn't put up their kind of numbers statistically, but he definitely wins football games and has proven his mettle as a clutch performer that makes the big plays down the stretch, when the outcome of a game is on the line. The drive he engineered at the end of the 2009 Super Bowl to beat the Arizona Cardinals was breathtaking and the one that killed the rest of the clock in this year's AFC Championship Game against the New York Jets was another example of his ability to face down the big moment and will his team to a win.

I've always been one to defend Peyton Manning despite his lack of big game "moments", the kind that can make or break a QB's legacy, but if you look at Brady, Roethlisberger, and Manning, I think you have to put them in that order as far as the best in the game. Big Ben's rings and his clear-cut mastery of the game's most important moments put him ahead of Manning's jaw-dropping statistical dominance and MVP trophies (Brady meanwhile, trumps them both by possessing a stunning combination of clutch performances, championship rings, and stats for days).
So I don't like him, but Roethlisberger has proven to me that he's one of the game's elite QB's, and as a football fan, I can't say I'm disappointed that he's in the Super Bowl.  He can only make the game more exciting and competitive for one, and his troubled past makes for some added juice if you happen to write a blog about sports.

On the other side of the ball two Sundays from now will be a player that has both a boat-load of athletic talent and nothing but my utmost respect and admiration. The former will help him more than the latter as far as the Super Bowl goes, but Aaron Rodgers is both the kind of QB that general managers swoon over and the kind you want to knock a  few beers back with, as cliche as that might sound.  Rodgers is now in his third year as an NFL starter and has already proven that he's a playoff performer and leader of men, the kind of QB that can get his team to the biggest game of the season, this year and beyond.

The Packers played their way into the playoffs over the last few games of the season, with each being a do-or-die contest as far as their post-season hopes were concerned. After that, they only beat the Philadelphia Eagles, dismantled the Atlanta Falcons with a historic performance by Rodgers, and outlasted a gutty Chicago Bears team--all on the road--on their way to the Super Bowl against the Steelers. Rodgers beat the resurgent Michael Vick in Philly, went 31 for 36 with 366 yards and 3 touchdowns against the Falcons, and while he wasn't overwhelming against the Bears, made every big play he had to, gutting out a vicious hit by Julius Peppers and making a touchdown-saving tackle on Brian Urlacher after throwing an interception.

Rodgers's playoff run not withstanding, he also put the injury riddled Packers on his shoulders all season long, emerging as the top quarterback in the NFC down the stretch (all apologies to Mr. Vick). He did so without his starting tight-end and running back for practically the entire year, all the while throwing masterful passes and making play-saving runs in the shadow of Brett Favre. The Packers were Favre's team, but right now there isn't a man, woman, or child in Green Bay that would take Favre back for all the whiskey in Ireland (ahem, hate to say I told you so but...). These are the new Packers, and they don't need a salt-and-pepper drama queen to steer the ship anymore. They've got a throttling defense and number 12 behind center and as-such aren't messing around these days.

On top of his ability, Rodgers is easy to root for because of how well he has handled everything during his NFL tenure. Coming out of college at California, Rodgers was initially projected as the number one overall pick by most prognosticators. As draft day neared, things started to shift and the whole country watched as the guy who should've had the shortest stay on the draft board slipped all the way to number 24, where the Packers took Rodgers to back-up the at that time still vibrant Brett Favre. Rodgers took it all in stride and did his duty as Favre's back-up. When he was finally named starter and Favre un-retired to try and take his old job back, he was equally calm and collected, allowing the drama to pass by and assuming his new role with class and restraint.

After that, the dood just went off. He has played increasingly well in all three years as the Packers' starter and has proven to be as tough and upstanding a guy as his past behavior had intimated. Not only that, but he's just as passionate and exuberant as Favre was in his heyday. Rodgers is hard on teammates but well-liked by all, displaying a love of the game with a consistent on-field smile and a pro-wrestling championship belt celebration for his TD's (which culminated with a fantastic, nuanced rendition during the NFC Championship game against the Bears where Rodgers merely pointed to his waist). He's playing and acting like a world champ, and is now in the position to make it happen.

Like I said before, you don't want to try and feel like you know a professional athlete too well from a spectator's view, but unlike Roethlisberger, Rodgers has a respectful, professional way of doing things that leads to him being one of this writer's favorite players to watch. Don't give me that cancer patient, autograph-dodging stuff either (if you don't know what I'm talking about, click here and check out the video. It looks bad, I know, but the woman involved doesn't have any hard feelings and Rodgers has obliged her with many an autograph in the past). Rodgers is a man of character on and off the field and unlike the man he replaced in Green Bay and the one he'll face in the Super Bowl, doesn't crave or disgracefully attract the limelight whatsoever.

As I discussed in my recent post on the quarterback position, teams with stellar QB's have a nose for the Super Bowl, and much of a team's success rides on who is taking the snaps. Rodgers and Roethlisberger were the deciding factors in their teams' victories on Championship Sunday, where both the Packers and Steelers were evenly matched defensively against the Bears and Jets.  The four QB's lined-up with four equally impressive defensive units, and the two quarterbacks left standing are the two that were better than their opponent at the position when it mattered most (although Jay Cutler did miss the entire second half of the Packers/Bears contest with a knee injury--and by the way Jay, everyone's watching now so don't take the stairs man!).

It's my opinion that we're in for a Super Bowl with a similar set-up. With the Matthews/Woodson led Packers and the Polamalu/Harrison led Steelers battling each other on defense, it will be up to Rodgers and Roethlisberger as to which team's offense will win the day, and most likely the game. While I think you know who I'm going to be rooting for, there's no doubt that the quarterbacks in this year's Super Bowl will be a joy to watch as they compete for the ring and a study in contrasting styles that will hopefully make for an exciting and dramatic Sunday in February.



There is a great lineage of "what if's" in sports that many of us can relate to from experiences in our own day-to-day lives. It isn't just the pivotal moments that could've gone one way and not the other, nor is it simply the paths that we've chosen to walk down when others were there to be traveled. Instead, it is the cumulative effect of both that leads us to where we're at and who we are. In life it can define our sense of self, while in sports, it often defines an athlete's legacy, shaping how they are remembered and how we as a sporting public view their accomplishments.

As the NBA trade deadline looms a few weeks down the road, one name that continues to pop-up has definitely made me think of what could have been as far as a player's career and legacy are concerned. I'm talking about Steve Nash, the two-time league MVP point guard for the Phoenix Suns, whose name is at the center of trade talks to a variety of teams that could most definitely benefit from his services. While my man Ian Thomsen can tell you it makes no sense for the Suns to trade Nash if they want to win now, I certainly hope they understand that their chances at success in the West are dwindling by the day. That way, they can let Steve find a happier home and get their rebuild project going now instead of later.

Full disclosure: I love Steve Nash's game. He is one of the most accurate three-point shooters I've ever seen at the point guard position and is perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the modern NBA's crackdown on hand checking. Giving a guy with his quickness, vision, and playmaking ability free motion off the dribble is damn near criminal, evidenced by the way he weaves in and out of the lane, even under the basket and back, to find open teammates or a good look at his own shot.  He has everything you could want in a point guard and his career statistics get gaudier by the year. At the end of the day, we're talking about a back-to-back league MVP that will sure-as-shit be in the basketball Hall of Fame (oh yeah, he's tough as nails too, click here if you need some proof).

Nash is closing in on 37 though, damn-near ancient as far as NBA players go, and while he is a no-doubt hall-of-famer and one of the greatest point guards of his generation, Nash's career is an acute study in what might have been. He came into the league by traveling a unique path: he's Canadian, went to a small college (Santa Clara) and was largely unheralded on the national scene when he was drafted with the 15th pick by the Phoenix Suns in 1996. After a couple of less than impressive seasons with the Suns, they shifted him to Dallas, where the spry Canuck flourished alongside seven-foot sharp-shooter Dirk Nowitzki.

Things went well in Dallas and the team was on the rise, but after the '04 season, Dallas owner Mark Cuban decided to let Nash move on in free agency, when he landed back with the team that drafted him, the Phoenix Suns. In retrospect, this was a crucial move for both parties involved. Cuban obviously didn't think it was worth it to match the Suns' offer and probably felt more comfortable moving forward with extra cash on hand to build around the younger Dirk. Nash did what was better for him financially, taking the Suns offer of more money and more years on the deal. It's a shame too, because it sure looks like Dirk and Steve had good times on and off the court...

In all seriousness though, I think if you asked Cuban and Nash, they would both tell you they wished they could have worked things out. The Mavericks have been to the Finals and lost, but other than that have found themselves step-brother to the real titans of the Western Conference like the Lakers and Spurs. Nash meanwhile has found himself in a similar situation, reaching only as far as the Conference Finals in his second tenure with Phoenix. Together, Nowitzki and Nash might have built a team to rival LA and San Antonio, but apart, both parties have failed to reach the promised land.

It's one of those things, in life and in sports, where diverging paths most certainly would have led to different outcomes. Instead of being part of a stellar team in Dallas, Nash finds himself swimming with small fish from the NBA talent pool in Phoenix, especially now that Amare Stoudemire has bolted for New York to join the Knicks as their go-to guy. Interestingly enough, most prognosticators led us to believe that Stoudemire would most certainly miss Nash in NY, but after his MVP-like start to the season, it seems more and more apparent that Nash is the one who misses his big man in the middle, and not vice versa.

Nash is now left to wonder about another move, perhaps to chase a championship if he can have any say in the matter. It's sad to think that Nash's legacy will be one as the best two-time MVP to never play in (let alone win) an NBA Finals, but it's the hand that been dealt him to this point in his career. Success in sports is just as much luck and happenstance as it is ability and desire to win, and Nash has come face to face with this reality in the twilight of his career. It can happen to anybody if you think about it. Talent, ability, and intelligence are sometimes no match for luck, advantages, and the cold hand of fate in all walks of life.

Perhaps creating the most daunting obstacle for Nash is the sport he happens to play. The NBA, more than any other major American sport, is a top-heavy league where only a handful of teams have the talent and pedigree to make a run at the title. Nash has honestly never been on one of those teams. You could argue that the Mavs had a chance at one point, considering their Finals appearance, but the way they folded in that series against the Heat says a lot about what it takes to win, and I'm not sure that even Nash could have put that team over the top. Similarly, the Suns have never played enough defense or had the depth to contend, despite Nash's brilliance.

In the years following the Mavericks Finals appearance, when the Lakers and Spurs were facing a bit of an identity crisis in alternating seasons, the Mavericks could have moved in for the kill with Nash and Nowitzki, but now that's all just speculation. Speculation that I can assure you has cost Steve Nash a few nights of restful sleep. I don't want to try and get inside of his head too much, but I think we all know that regret is a part of life that can drive you crazy if you let it, and in sports, where championships determine legacy more often than not, I'm sure that regret can reach levels unknowable to the general public.

So what's next for Nash? He is on a team that is going relatively nowhere--a playoff team, but not a contender. The Suns and Nash have to know that it's not going to happen, so shifting him before the trade deadline this season would be a boon to the aging superstar and perhaps the Suns as well in the long term. What I hope is that Nash is afforded the opportunity to find a contender with some money to burn and a few draft picks to let go of, so the Suns get something for him and he has a shot at a ring.  At 37,  Nash is in incredible shape and still has a spectacular game to go along with an obvious hunger to win. 

Let's just hope he finally gets to eat at the big kids' table before all is said and done.



So I took some time away from The Hip for the holidays and a whole lot has happened since the last time I put fingers to keys. The NBA season is hitting its stride, college hoops have begun in earnest, the Winter Classic went down on a cold night in Pittsburgh, and the college football bowl season has damn near reached its end. Beyond all of that, the biggest story that popped up from my perspective is of course the suspension of five members of the Ohio State Buckeyes football team for the first five games of the 2011 season.

The news broke on my birthday, December 23rd, and as an unmitigated Buckeye fan, there was nothing that could've spoiled my born day more. Not only did I learn that five members of my favorite team in all of sports would miss the first five games of next season, but I learned that among them were the Buckeyes' top running back, wide receiver, and our star quarterback, Terrelle Pryor. The players involved in the suspensions were found to have sold several of their trophies and awards earned during their college careers and to have traded autographs for tattoos and other discounts. 

After the shock wore off, I started thinking more and more about the situation from a non-Buckeye fan perspective. The whole thing leaves me confused, angry, and frustrated. I was of course disappointed in the guys from my team for making some truly bonehead moves, but as a guy that follows sports and especially college football with a religious enthusiasm, I can't help but be most puzzled with the increasingly hypocritical way in which the NCAA doles out punishment.

First of all, the players involved in the scandal will be permitted to play in the team's bowl game, the Sugar Bowl, which takes place tomorrow night in New Orleans against the Arkansas Razorbacks. As a fan, I want nothing more than to see my guys get to play, but as a realist, I know in my heart that if they're going to miss the first five games of next season, there is no earthly reason they should be allowed to play in the bowl game, which if you believe what the NCAA consistently tells the media, is a reward to the school and in particular the players for a spectacular season on the gridiron.

The student athletes from OSU involved in this whole shitstorm do not, in my eyes, deserve anything resembling a reward for what they have done. It turns out that the violations they are being punished for occurred in 2009 and that the items that they sold for thousands of dollars are awards and trophies that include those given to them for past bowl appearances as members of the Buckeye football team. Now that just doesn't smell right from the jump, but it stinks for more reasons beyond the obvious (that being the fact that they sold-out on the rewards previously given them, only to be rewarded with another bowl appearance and a list of new swag that comes to all athletes participating in bowl games).

Pushing beyond the fact that the players will be allowed to participate in the game and collect its accompanying perks, the whole situation raises numerous red flags because of the way the NCAA continues to shift the way it punishes schools and athletes according to the ring of theirs and the television networks' cash registers. The bowl games are incredibly big business, bringing in millions of dollars for the schools, networks, the NCAA and of course, the organized crime syndicate that calls itself the Bowl Championship Series

If Boom Herron, Devier Posey, and Terrelle Pryor hadn't been Ohio State's leading runner, receiver, and pass-thrower respectively, I doubt that we would see them tomorrow night in the Sugar Bowl. But because the bowl system is reliant on television contracts and the resulting revenue, the players will be on display because of their star-power and to ensure a more competitive game. The Sugar Bowl president has already come forward and said as much, and I'm sure ESPN (who will broadcast the game) is thinking the same thing to themselves, even as they devote their networks' echo-chamber to reporting the story ad nauseum. 

This whole situation stinks to high heaven, but it isn't the first time the NCAA has picked and chosen who to punish and to what extent. What I keep coming back to in regards to the institutions and athletes involved is my old man's favorite words of advice: 

Heed the voice.

My father is always ready with a piece of advice when I need it, but usually boils things down to that simple dictum in more cases than not.

What he means by that is: get to know your conscience, because it has an uncanny ability to steer you in the right direction. The voice inside your head seems to be indelibly linked to your brain's moral compass, no matter how often yours points towards the right thing to do. It's a simple acid test anytime you're faced with a decision between right and wrong. Despite any rationale or gimmick you may use to force yourself into the wrong move, that voice, that immutable internal dialogue that is always going on in your head, it knows which decision is the right one. It's up to us all to listen and act accordingly.

That said, the players involved in this scandal had to know that they were making bad decisions, even if they felt they were not in the wrong (for though they have apologized, some have indicated that the items sold were theirs after all, and they do have families back home that might be struggling). Selling the trophies and awards you've earned, no matter what the reason you may give, is wrong however, and their internal voices all knew it. 

Not only that, but getting tattoos in exchange for jerseys or autographs or their notoriety in general (which are among the other NCAA violations that resulted in punishment) is wrong, and they knew that too. It doesn't matter if a coach or advisor hasn't spelled out the letter of the NCAA law to the players regarding such actions, they knew what they were doing was wrong. They had to have known and as such, deserve whatever punishment follows. 

But that doesn't mean they're the only ones misreading their moral compasses. The NCAA and the BCS are made up of boards and committees, which are in turn made up of individuals. The individuals who make the decisions that govern these institutions prove in this case and many others (AJ Green comes to mind) that they refuse to heed the voice as well. They have to know that they have created a corrupt, money-hungry system that does not reward the student athlete, the university, or the fan, but instead continues to pad their pockets and increase their level of power over college football and in a broader sense, college athletics as a whole.

Perhaps they are listening to a voice, but it is the ghostly howl of dead presidents, not the admonishing din of their collective consciences.

By allowing the five suspended Buckeyes to play in the Sugar Bowl and by sweeping the allegations against the sport's biggest star, Cam Newton (who you may remember from a couple posts back...), under the rug because of his team's appearance in the National Championship Game, the NCAA and the BCS are ignoring the cause of morality and justice in order to garner the highest possible ratings and reap the continuing financial gains that are a direct result of the on-field ability of the student athletes involved in the games in question.

There are now generations-old debates about whether student athletes (especially those involved in the two big money-making sports - basketball and football) should be paid a stipend in addition to their scholarships while attending school, but I don't think I've got time to sort all of that out in a book, let alone a blog post. All I will say is that if you're going to make near-criminal amounts of money off of these kids and expect them not to do a bit of paper chasing of their own, you're delusional at best and outwardly hypocritical at worse.

Sure, my knucklehead Buckeyes didn't heed the voice, but they only learned that ignorance from their NCAA and BCS parents, who never stood on the kind of moral ground necessary to offer that sage piece of the old man's advice.