Sportsbooks listed Ben Roethlisberger as the favorite for the NFL Comeback Player of the Year award before the season started, and all the Steelers quarterback has done since then is lead Pittsburgh to the only undefeated record in the league.
And yet he’s no longer the favorite.
The future Hall of Famer, who missed all but two games with an elbow injury last year, has been passed up by a QB who has mostly manned the sideline for a woeful team. He played in one game in which he passed for all of 37 yards.
That player, Washington Football Team backup Alex Smith, carries odds of -167 from FOX Bet to be named the league’s Comeback Player of the Year. Roethlisberger is +180, with others such as Cam Newton (+800), Rob Gronkowski (+900), and Aldon Smith (+1300) far behind.
Other sportsbooks among the 10 online sites in Pennsylvania weren’t posting odds for the award Tuesday morning, but when they have in the past two weeks, they have also had the winless, seldom-used Smith ahead of the undefeated Roethlisberger.
So what gives?
Big Ben has a strong case, normally
Voted on by media members, the Comeback Player of the Year award is a somewhat vague one that has been described this way on Wikipedia: “While the criteria for the award is imprecise, it is typically given to a player who has overcome adversity from the previous season — such as an injury or poor performance — and performed at a high level.”
Before the season’s first game in September, FanDuel already had Roethlisberger as the award favorite at +260, ahead of candidates such as Newton, Gronkowski, J.J. Watt, and Nick Foles. Newton actually passed him up as the favorite before he missed action due to testing positive for COVID-19, got benched Sunday due to poor performance, and saw the Patriots’ record fall to 2-4.
As with most individual awards, it also helps when a player contributes heavily to a successful season by his team. And at this point in the season, Roethlisberger would hit all of the checkboxes:
Overcoming adversity: The 38-year-old hadn’t thrown a pass in an NFL game in about a year when the season started, due to the injury suffered in 2019’s second game and the lack of preseason action this year due to COVID-19.
Performing at high level: While not among the NFL’s statistical passing leaders, that is partly because the Steelers also rely on a strong rushing game and defense and don’t try to pile up passing yards. Big Ben’s 99.6 passer rating based on completing 146 of 214 passes for 1,446 yards, 13 TDs, and four interceptions is solid.
Team performance: The veteran deserves a lot of credit for the Steelers’ 6-0 record, as the rest of the team resembles the same one that went 8-8 without him a year ago. Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl odds have improved from 25/1 before the season started to 10/1 or better now, and a win this Sunday in Baltimore would provide another huge boost.
By any standard, Roethlisberger is your prototypical Comeback Player of the Year winner, but …
Back on the field after 17 surgeries
Alex Smith, 36, came into the league one year after Roethlisberger and to higher expectations, having been the first overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft by the San Francisco 49ers.
He’s had a nice career since, though not as successful as two-time Super Bowl winner Roethlisberger, but that career crashed to a halt Nov. 18, 2018, when his right leg’s fibula and tibia were shattered in a game.
It was unclear if he would ever use the leg again to walk, let alone play QB. There were fears it would require amputation. Instead, he underwent 17 surgeries.
After rehabilitation, he returned to the Washington sideline this year, backing up starter Dwayne Haskins and No. 2 Kyle Allen. Haskins was benched due to poor performance, however, and when Allen had to leave a game vs. the Rams on Oct. 11 due to injury, Smith relieved him, completing nine of 17 passes for 37 yards in the loss.
Allen has returned to starting for Washington since, and Smith has seen no other action. But after that one appearance, he leapfrogged Roethlisberger in Comeback Player of the Year odds, getting ahead as far as -330 compared to +420 on FanDuel two weeks ago.
ESPN wrote about the new odds, highlighting how the sentiment of an inspirational story such as Smith’s can take precedence over on-the-field exploits.
As FanDuel spokesman Kevin Hennessy told ESPN in mid-October: “While Smith’s numbers may not match those of others in the market, it is incredible that he has returned to the field and we think the current odds reflect how voters are likely to view it.”
It’s a little similar to 2005
More than half the season is still to be played, and a lot can change. Roethlisberger could either lead the Steelers to a near-undefeated record at season’s end or receive another injury of his own. Circumstances could return Smith to the field as a regular, or he might remain merely a one-game symbolic hero.
Receiving last year’s award, Tennessee Titans QB Ryan Tannehill had no courageous success story to compete with when coming off the bench six games into the season to lead his team unexpectedly into the playoffs with a franchise-record quarterback rating.
But if it comes down to a choice between voting for on-field success or a Hallmark-style, feel-good story, there is precedent in the 2005 Comeback Player of the Year award.
Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith had missed all but the opener of the 2004 season, a game in which he broke his leg. He returned in 2005 to win the “Triple Crown” of receiving, leading the NFL in receptions, yardage, and touchdowns.
Meanwhile, New England Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi was inactive early in 2005 after suffering a stroke in February that temporarily had him partially paralyzed. He underwent strenuous rehabilitation in order to return for a game Oct. 30 and played most of the rest of the season.
Voters had a clear and distinct choice between the two. Their split decision: Smith and Bruschi shared the award, the only such tie since the Associated Press resumed handing out the award in 1998.
So it might not be a shock if the same thing happens to another Smith — Alex — and Roethlisberger at the end of 2020. Both appear deserving, at this point.
On the other hand, Roethlisberger could keep the Steelers winning and make a move in the MVP standings, where his odds are now 25/1 compared to no better than 40/1 before the season started. (Russell Wilson is the favorite, currently +100 at multiple sites.)
The Steelers signal-caller has never come close to winning an MVP award despite his stellar career. That one might have more meaning to him, although the Comeback Player of the Year honor would also be special — not just for Roethlisberger but for those who bet on him without anticipating he would ever need to compete with an inspirational story out of Washington.