A survey taken in May of Pittsburgh Steelers fans by a professional pollster found that only 48 per cent wanted Ben Roethlisberger back at quarterback.
Although "Big Ben" steered the Steelers to two Super Bowl wins, the team's following is more family-values than most. His pattern of boorish behaviour had become borderline illegal when he was investigated twice for possible sexual misconduct, more recently this past off-season over an alleged assault in Georgia.
Ever since Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner, slapped a six-game suspension on him, Roethlisberger has said - and apparently done - all the right things. Contrite, he pledged to change his ways and has kept a low profile, not even venting over the stripping of his captaincy.
Whether walking and talking the straight and narrow was self-serving - Goodell did reduce the punishment to four games - is to be determined.
After spending his banishment training with a quarterbacks coach at a Pittsburgh high school, Big Ben is back in the spotlight today, career rescued. The Steelers, though 3-1, need him as badly as he needs them.
With undeveloped Dennis Dixon and fading Charlie Batch filling in, coach Mike Tomlin milked the clock, shortening games as much as possible with play-calling tilted toward the run. As a result, Pittsburgh ranks last in passing and first in points allowed.
The reins figure to be loosened. Whether Tomlin slackens his grip gradually is the subplot of his return against Cleveland.
"Practice is one thing, games are another," said Tomlin, hinting that he may not resort immediately to the old playbook. "Ben has been very active over the time he's been away in terms of throwing and working on his game, but that's not playing football."
Because the Browns are offensively challenged, Roethlisberger might be afforded the chance to hand off more than usual.
"I think we will be very balanced, and we're going to take what they give us," he said.
Many of the anti-Roethlisbergers in the poll may have softened their stance, aided by the uninspired play of the back-ups. The other day, Roethlisberger said: "I'm anxious, excited. A lot of emotions."
Those feelings presumably include gratitude. Tomlin kept Big Ben's job open, and his teammates laid the groundwork for a third Super Bowl run in his seventh, albeit shortened, season.
Today’s feature games
• New Orleans at Tampa Bay: The Saints offence, crippled by the absence of running backs Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas, confront the overachieving Bucs. A Saints loss would sink them deeper into third in the NFC South. Turnovers tell the woeful tale; they have forced one all year and committed nine in the past three games.
• Atlanta at Philadelphia: The anticipated match-up between quarterback Michael Vick and the Falcons will not happen – at the start, anyway. Vick might be available if his ribs have healed, but Kevin Kolb will start. The Falcons have quietly forged a 4-1 record behind a vastly improved defence that leads the league with 10 picks. • Dallas at Minnesota: Two teams fighting for their play-off lives. The Cowboys continue to throw too much at the expense of a potent running attack. The Vikings got a lift Monday night from prodigal son Randy Moss, who plays his first home game in Minnesota since 2004. The Vikes had a short week to prepare.
Today’s other games Baltimore at New England Seattle at Chicago Miami at Green Bay San Diego at St Louis Detroit at NY Giants Cleveland at Pittsburgh Kansas City at Houston Oakland at San Francisco NY Jets at Denver Indianapolis at Washington
Tomorrow’s game Tennessee at Jacksonville
Stat of the week Only nine teams that have started a season 1-4 reached the play-offs. The loser of the Cowboys-Vikings game Sunday falls to 1-4.