Road to the Super Bowl Part I: The Front Office: Keeping Ben – Dumping Tone

Let’s say it out loud. We are pretty blessed to be Steeler fans.   Those of us who are members of the Steelers Diaspora, know what a dysfunctional football franchise looks like (I am looking at you Washington). There are dozens of them, and we get to watch year in and year out as they load up on great free agent talent, hire the latest and greatest coaches and let the reality TV freak show roll. 


Even great franchises have their share of problems, and the Steelers are no strangers to trouble (See, Roethlisberger, Ben). But I firmly believe that leadership is what separates good organizations from great organizations (and from bad ones for that matter). The Steelers have great leadership and the results show.

Getting to the Super Bowl requires many stars to align. But good teams make their own luck.  One of the ways they do that is by having a culture that makes success possible.  The Steelers have built just such culture and it starts at the top.

The Rooney’s:

In 2003 Art Rooney II replaced his father Dan as President of the Pittsburgh Steelers.  The media was informed of this transition the same way it had learned that Dan Rooney had replaced his father, the legendary Art Rooney Sr. as team President; the news was published in the team media guide. There was no press release, no announcements, no speeches. Dan Rooney simply handed over day to day management of football operations while staying on as an active member of the leadership team, much as his father had done before him.

That meant that in the summer of 2009, when Dan Rooney became the United States Ambassador to Ireland, there were many fans who didn’t realize that Art II was already president of the team. Many more worried that Dan’s departure would have a negative impact Steelers culture.  After all, the son is not the father, and Art II had very large shoes to fill.  Still coming off a second Super Bowl victory in 5 years, hopes were high. 

When the defending champs lost 5 in a row in the middle of the 2009 season,  however, the critics came out in full force.  Art II was no Dan, Tomlin was no Wisenhunt let alone Cohwer and Bruce Arians was everyone’s favorite whipping boy, and Kevin Colbert was being criticized for missing on mid-round draft picks and throwing up duds in 2008 and 2009.  

Needless to say there were some challenges facing the Steelers organization. These took a turn of the worse when the summer saw the Steelers two top offensive players embroiled in scandals and their best offensive lineman go down with a fluke season ending injury.  Huge free agent signings by AFC north competitors made some nervous that the Steelers were in for serious trouble.  Six months later the Steelers are on their way to their third Super Bowl in six years, while Terell Owens is managing to make headlines for his talk show. 

Let’s take a moment to tip our hat to the Front Office that helped set the tone for that trip and review some of the key decisions that paved the way for a great season.

Key Decision 1: Keeping Ben and Dropping Tone:

Back in the 2007, Dan Rooney launched a media firestorm after trying to explain his decision to keep star Line Backer James Harrison while releasing back-up wide-receiver Cedrick Wislon.  Both men had been arrested for domestic violence charges.  Rooney defended Harrison, because the incident occurred when Harrison was trying to take his son to be baptized.  He was roundly criticized by domestic abuse organizations who felt he was execuising Harrison’s behavior. 

I agree with the criticism.  What Rooney said sent the wrong message. Harrison broke down a door, slapped his ex and broke her cell phone.  There is no excuse for that behavior even if it had good motivations at it’s root(the desire to get his son baptized) the attempt to explain it in those terms was counter-productive.

But I also agree with the overall tact that the Rooney’s took in this case.  Football is a brutal game played by tough young men, brimming with testosterone. These guys are not angels. They are warriors and they are far from perfect. If you are going to run a great football organization, you have to know how to work with them. You have to know when to work with a player, and when to quit on them. You have to know which ones are worth fighting for. 

The Steelers are known as an organization that goes out of it’s way to recruit players who have character.  That does not always mean that they take guys who have no issues. It does mean that they pay attention to the potential of these men to turn into the type of football players it takes to win championships and the type of men that as a rule are not an embarressment to the club. 

It’s hard to say why the Steelers fought so long and hard for Harrison. Harrison when he came up as a troubled young guy, with anger management issues (he once shot at his High School coach with a BB gun, and was rumoured to get so frustrated during practice in his early years that he would throw up his hands and walk off the field when he didn’t understand a play).  Yet clearly there was something there that inspired coaches and management to stay with the guy.  

My sense is, that despite the issues, they saw something in this guy that made them believe he could turn into the type of guy you want on your team. They were right.  Cedrick Wilson never made another NFL squad after being cut by the Steelers.  Harrison went on to win the DPOY in 2008, the year the Steelers took a gamble and fought to keep him. He just made his fourth consecutive pro-bowl.  He has not been in trouble with the law since. 

Football wise, the Steelers made a good decision. My sense is that they did in part because they saw the potential for Harrison to develop as a football player, a team player, and as a human being.

Fast forward to the summer of 2010.  On March 5th 2010, it was revealed that the Ben Roethlisberger was being investigated for sexual assault.  In late March it was revealed that Santonio Holmes was being sued by a woman who claimed that he assaulted her in an Orlando night club.  Following the incident Holmes caused a bit more of a stir when he told a fan to “go kill himself” via twitter.  Shortly thereafter, Holmes showed why pro atheletes and twitter are a toxic combination when he posted about his intention to wake up and violate the league substance abuse policy to his Twitter account.  In early April it was revealed that Holmes would be benched for four games for a second violation of the league’s substance policy.

Still, when the Steelers traded Holmes to the Jets for a fifth round pick there was much hair pulling and rending of clothes in Steelernation.  Holmes was a Super Bowl MVP, and a truly dangerous receiver about to enter his prime.  Furthermore it was not all that clear what the Steelers had behind him, with Hines Ward slowing down and Mike Wallace still an unknown quantity, and Limas Sweed looking unlikely to develop it seemed like a dangerous move. 

What’s more the Steelers traded Holmes to the Jets – a team that had made the AFC championship and looked to be only one or two pieces short of going to the big dance.  Many imagined a scenario where the two teams would meet in the playoffs and Holmes would be the difference.  There others who argued that we got rid of the wrong player. Holmes, after all had really only smoked pot, while Roethlisberger could potentially be seen as a Serial rapist. 

While Steelernation second guessed the Jets celebrated:  "Wow we got Holmes this is crazy," All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis posted on his Twitter account. "We makin big moves this off-season. Putting the pieces together to get closer to that superbowl ring."

When the two teams met in the AFC championship, the Holmes story line was hard to ignore. The Holmes trade had clearly helped the Jets make it back to the AFC title game.  Yet, in a way it also opened the doors for the Steelers to make it back. With the 5th round pick the Steelers got from the jets they picked up two players.  They traded the pick to Arizona for Bryant McFadden and a sixth round draft pick. That pick netted them an unheralded shifty little receiver from Central Michigan, by the name of Antonio Brown.

Brown and fellow rookie third round draft pick Emmanuel Sanders were both finishing great first years and had played fantastic games in the Steelers victory over the Baltimore Ravens.  Indeed, Brown’s heads up 58 yard grab in that game will go down as one of the great receptions in Steelers history. It proved to be the game changing play. Holmes departure had also opened the door for Mike Wallace to become the Steelers number one receiver.  Wallace had used his 4.3 speed to bolt through that door compiling numbers equal to or better than any Holmes put up in 4 seasons in Pittsburgh. 

Holmes proved his talent in the game with a huge 45 yard TD reception in the 3rd quarter, but otherwise only had one catch. But Brown, Sanders, Wallace and Ben proved that the Steelers FO made the right choice.  For the second week in a row the rookie from Central Michigan made the game winning play – a huge 3rd and 6 catch, on a sweet little drag route, that was the nail in the Jets coffin. And for the second week in a row, he and the rest of the Steelers unheralded receiving corps, put on their aw shucks smiles and talked about “being happy to be there, happy to be part of the team.”  Holmes, in contrast, deflected questions about free agency and called out his offensive coordinator in the press.  

Brown, Sanders, Wallace are all under contract. I get the sense that they could put on quite a show next year as they gain some confidence and experience playing together.  

Meanwhile, Ben seems to have rededicated himself to being a team player and not distraction off the field.   He is entering rarified air with his third Super-Bowl appearance. A victory in the big game likely assures his status as one of the best QBs of his generation, despite his oddball status in an era when QBs are judged by their fantasy football stats not by their ability to win football games. 

This article has already gotten long, so I won’t spill more ink on laying out all the things I thought that the team did well dealing with the Ben situation. I will just add that there were some in Steeler Nation who compalined that Ben’s suspension was too harsh, considering that he was never charged with a crime.  Others felt that the Steelers let Ben off easy and that he should have been traded away or released.  I think we actually got the best of both worlds and that Rooney’s likely helped press for a suspension.  While only time will who Ben Roethlisberger has become as a man, he is a better, more focused football player than he was last year and a better teammate.  The cockiness is still there, but there is new genuine humility and appreciation for his teammates. As a Steeler fan it’s nice to see, partly because one get’s the sense that it helps the team win. 

It’s hard to imagine that Art Rooney saw it all playing out so well back in the summer. Sitting in his office reading the newspapers he must have felt the same sense of frustration and disappointment that we did as fans.  Hats off to Mr. Rooney and coach Tomlin for navigating the crisis with smarts, keeping the reputation of the organization intact and finding a way to field a winning team. 

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