This is the fifth and probably final article in the series about players who will help define the 2012 season. The fourth, on DE Ziggy Hood, is here. The third, on CB Keenan Lewis, can be found here. The second, on RB Isaac Redman, resides here. The first, on SS Troy Polamalu, resides here.
Ben Roethlisberger. There may not be another name in the NFL who inspires quite such a range of reactions, even if you’re only talking about his on-the-field persona. Despite his winning ways, there are even those in Steeler Nation who think the team would be better off without Ben. Those would be fans with short memories, however. Anyone who lived through the championship drought between Terry Bradshaw and Ben Roethlisberger just wasn’t paying attention if they think the team would be better off without Roethlisberger.
But even the biggest Ben boosters are frustrated at times by his seeming inability to consider the old axiom: "He who fights and runs away lives to fight another day." There were more than a few moments last season in which it was not entirely clear he would be back another day, at least in the 2011 season. (See Game 13 vs. Cleveland, for example.) And then there were moments in which it seemed as if the team would have been better off if he hadn’t taken the field at all. (See Game 14 at San Francisco.)
But the thing about a player like Ben is, what you see is what you get. Or, perhaps, he is what he is. Which made the firing of the Offensive Coordinator Ben loves, Bruce Arians, in tandem with Art Rooney II’s comment "Ben needs to tweak his game," seem odd at best. Top this by hiring a fiery, in-your-face OC to replace Arians and it wouldn’t be surprising if Roethlisberger felt as if a gauntlet had been thrown at his feet.
But perhaps the biggest non-story of the offseason has been the drama between Ben Roethlisberger and Todd Haley. Haley came in with his own terminology and the offense has had to learn a new language. Ben said it was difficult to do this. But in the end, whatever Ben has said to the press, here’s the reality, courtesy of Dejan Kovacevic:
Actual visible, audible signs of friction between Roethlisberger and Haley these past three weeks: Zero.
Roethlisberger has never been one to hide his pain behind an impassive exterior. During his rookie season Roethlisberger excused some poor play in the AFC Championship game by stating he played the second half on two broken toes. Cowher denied this, saying Ben was "exaggerating." Such stories have surfaced from time to time during Ben’s tenure, culminating in Hines Ward effectively questioning his toughness when Ben sat out a game with exertion headaches after a concussion during 2009. He told Bob Costas on a "Football Night in America" broadcast:
"It's almost like a 50-50 toss-up in the locker room: Should he play? Shouldn't he play? It's really hard to say. I've been out there dinged up; the following week, got right back out there," Ward said to Costas. "Ben practiced all week. He split time with Dennis Dixon.
This was a fascinating little scenario, for a couple of reasons. First, it highlighted the unease in the locker room during the very disappointing 2009 season. But more to the point, can you imagine a player saying these words publicly, not quite three years later? (Except perhaps James Harrison, who is clearly going to go on saying whatever he wants until the day people stop shoving microphones in his face.) If nothing else it shows how much progress has been made in the understanding of head injuries.
If anyone even secretly still questioned Roethlisberger’s toughness, the 2011 season put paid to the notion. No one who watched the Cleveland game, saw his leg bent into a pretzel, saw him limping off the field, and then saw him limp back on to play the second half could doubt he is one tough dude. He is focused on winning, and he will do whatever it takes to help his team win. The only problem is, sometimes "doing whatever it takes" might mean sitting out and letting someone else play, and it is almost impossible for someone of Ben’s mental makeup to assume anyone else could be of more use than he in any given situation. This is one of Ben’s greatest strengths, and greatest weaknesses.
Which might explain the Todd Haley hiring. I’m quite sure Bruce Arians wasn’t going to tell Ben to sit. Todd Haley might just be able to. But more importantly, a more diverse and less predictable offense might reduce the necessity for such decisions. I went back and looked at the play in which he was injured, and seven seconds had elapsed from the snap to the moment he was swarmed by Paxson and Schaefering.
Roethlisberger has repeatedly stated he isn’t changing his game, and we’re always going to see plays extended beyond where any sensible QB will have just gone down. It’s a big part of what makes Ben Ben. But I’m really hoping a greater variety of plays, more convincing play-action, and a wider variety of offensive weapons will make these extended plays less frequent. Because although I feel the offensive line is, barring a great many injuries, going to be substantially better than what we’ve seen in the past few years, nonetheless even the best line can’t hold rushers off for seven seconds.
There are still a few mystifying things about the Haley hiring. For one thing, why was the hiring done in such a way as to seemingly deliberately annoy your franchise quarterback? Why ask an entire offense to learn a new set of terminology, rather than ask Todd Haley to rework his playbook to reflect the customary Steelers usage? And for that matter, why take on a coach whose style is so completely at odds with the majority of the Pittsburgh staff?
No one not privy to the actual events will probably ever be able to answer those questions, but I have some guesses. My first guess as to "why Haley?" would be because there would be no doubt as to who is running things. I won’t be surprised if Haley and Roethlisberger butt heads sooner or later, and I think Haley will win, because I expect part of what he was brought in to do was to help Ben make some adjustments to the way he thinks and reacts, for his own good.
And as strange as it seemed to me at the time, I suspect this is why the change in terminology. If you aren’t fluent in French, say, the automatic words you might have said to someone in English aren’t going to flow in quite the same way, and it causes you to change your habits and think about what you are saying a bit more. Speaking a new language, Ben may not be quite so quick to make calls he would have done under Arians’ tutelage. Obviously this can be a disadvantage, and a tremendous one, if everyone hasn’t become sufficiently fluent in the new language to act as opposed to think. But on the other hand it creates a window of opportunity for the coordinator to make slight changes during the learning process without being quite so obvious about it. While I certainly hope the language is becoming second nature, or will be by the end of camp, there’s a lot of interesting things which can happen during the assimilation process.
As to why the hiring was handled the way it was, who knows? But apparently Art Rooney correctly banked on Ben’s professionalism and will to win. So what if he whines to the media about the playbook? In my opinion, it is just Ben’s way of giving himself a cover story in case it turns out to create some initial difficulties in the early days of the season. Rather like the broken toes, it’s a way of shifting blame onto something outside of his control. I would guess he has already decided he’s unlikely to need the excuse, and he’s quite excited about the possibilities of the new offense. Hence, as Kovacevic said, "over the three weeks of OTAs and minicamp...[h]e pouted less with each passing day about Todd Haley’s playbook."
But what about Ben himself? So far I’ve pretty much talked around him. He’s turning 30 this season, and he, as well as many of the media pundits, feel he is probably entering his prime. While he may have lost some of the easy mobility allowing him to excel at sandlot ball in his early years, this loss is more than offset by his greatly increased abilities to read defenses and make [mostly] good decisions. So, since I love numbers, let’s look at Ben’s numbers over the past eight seasons.
First, a career comparison of his percentage of sacks, touchdowns, and interceptions per pass attempt:
2007 was a banner year for Roethlisberger, as we all know, including, interestingly, sacks (in a bad way.) He’s never again sniffed the stellar number of touchdowns, either overall (32) or as compared to attempts (an average of one touchdown in less than 13 attempts.) The closest year overall was, surprisingly, 2009, when he threw 26 touchdowns. However, the high number of attempts (506) brings the average down to one touchdown in close to 20 attempts.
2010 wasn’t one of his best years by any means, but the interceptions per attempted pass is amazing. This is not only because of the smallest number of attempts in any year, because of the suspension—he only threw five interceptions for the whole season.
2011 also wasn’t one of his best years, although I suspect if one extrapolated the numbers from the first 12 games through 16 games it would be a good bit better.
Next, completions compared to attempts and average yards per game:
Again, we see that surprisingly 2009 was a peak for both completions and average yards per game. Which just goes to show it isn’t entirely the quarterback performance which determines the success or failure of a team.
But the quarterback’s performance is pretty critical, and certainly this coming season the Steelers are depending on Roethlisberger to step up to the plate, both in terms of his on-field performance (which hopefully includes keeping the defense off the field for considerable portions of games) and his in-the-lockerromm leadership. They have provided him with what is perhaps the most exciting group of wide receivers in the NFL. They have given him several running backs, mostly unproven but with intriguing potential and one who knows how to get it done. Honestly, if this isn't a huge year for Roethlisberger (barring, God forfend, some other hideous injury,) then one has to start questioning whether he is in fact moving into the prime of his career, as he and many other people believe, or his prime has passed him by.
I believe the former until given evidence to the contrary, and I can't wait to see Ben use all his shiny new toys in his confusing (hopefully only for the opposition!) new offense. And, like Ben, I am looking forward to him standing with his baby son under the confetti next February.