Remember late in the fourth quarter of the Steelers Wild Card playoff game in Denver two years ago, when Ben Roethlisberger scrambled to his right and hit Jerricho Cotchery with a 31 yard touchdown pass to tie the game at 23?
That play sticks out in my mind because it's the last time I can recall Roethlisberger really doing what he does best and leading his team from behind late in a game by using the rare combination of athletic and passing ability that few quarterbacks in the NFL possess.
Following that game, a 29-23 overtime loss, Pittsburgh went in a different direction in terms of offensive philosophy. I won't get into any controversies or comparisons regarding past and present offensive coordinators (that's been done to death).
Focusing on the here and now, a lot has been said this week about Roethlisberger, and the fact that he's been struggling since returning to the lineup in Week 14 of 2012 after a three week layoff with a sprained SC joint. And that's hard to ignore. In six games since his return, Roethlisberger has thrown six picks--including three critical INTs in losses in Weeks 15 and 16 of last year that more than played a huge role in knocking the team out of playoff contention.
However, even before then, when he was throwing 16 touchdown passes to only four INTs during the first eight weeks of the 2012 season (stats that were garnering potential league MVP talk for the then nine year veteran), Roethlisberger just didn't seem like his old self. Sure he was efficient. Sure he led an offensive attack that was one of the best in the league at converting third downs. However, there was a certain spark missing.
Besides, as I wrote about in this article, most of Roethlisberger's numbers (touchdowns, yards and interceptions) were almost identical to what he was doing the year before under the old OC. And in terms of points scored for the offense, there really was no difference.
What was different was Roethlisberger's ability to lead his offense from behind late in games, and maybe, more importantly, the absence of the swashbuckling mentality.
It was the kind of mentality that was on-display in a Thursday night game against the Browns in 2011, when Roethlisberger returned in the second half after sustaining a pretty serious high-ankle sprain and somehow managed to work his magic and hit Antonio Brown for a 79 yard touchdown catch and run late in the fourth quarter that put the game away.
It's the sort of swashbuckling presence in-which Roethlisberger excelled at for the majority of his career.
I know what you're going to say. Yes, the change in philosophy to shorter passes and a more sound running game (a whole different problem) was done in order to preserve the veteran quarterback and prolong his career.
My question is: At what price?
If the Steelers prolong Roethlisberger's career for another season or two, it is going to matter if they strip away the essence of what made him great, in the first place?
For all the talk of Roethlisberger's "schoolyard" style, he's only had one year in which he threw more INTs than touchdowns. For all the talk of Roethlisberger wanting to draw plays in the dirt and just "improvise," he has a career passer rating of 92.4. For all the talk of his conditioning and weight issues, he's never missed an entire season of action, despite the many bumps and bruises he's accumulated, along the way.
For all the talk of wanting to reign him in and tweak his style, the Steelers have never had a losing season since No. 7's been their quarterback.
Many have been grasping at straws this week, searching for the answers to what ails Roethlisberger and Pittsburgh's very anemic offense that has produced one non-garbage time touchdown in eight quarters of action through the first two weeks of the 2013 season.
Steelers blogs and message boards have been dominated by talk of the horrific running game and how the team can improve upon it. But no less an authority on running than Jerome Bettis, the future Hall of Fame running back and poster child for Pittsburgh toughness, came out on ESPN on Tuesday and basically said the Steelers should blow up the philosophy that new OC Todd Haley has been trying to implement (for now, at least) and just let Ben be Ben and do what he likes--including using the no huddle attack.
The Steelers scored their only touchdown Monday night on a drive near the end of the first half in-which most of the yards were accumulated with the offense in the no-huddle mode.
As Mark Kaboly mentions in this piece, Roethlisberger loves the no-huddle, so why not let him do it as much as he wants to do it? Regardless of whether or not Haley is the right fit for the offense, the no-huddle package is part of his playbook, and if the franchise quarterback likes it...........
Not only could the no-huddle lead to more points, it might actually keep said franchise quarterback upright and healthy.
I know, the offensive line hasn't had a good reputation in that regard since..........OK, but if you think back to the offenses that always used to give Dick Lebeau's "pre-no turnovers" dominant defenses fits, it was the ones that used three and four wide receiver packages and forced the defenders back on their heels.
As it stands right now, the base offense simply isn't working. Why? I really don't know, but 9.5 points per game sure isn't going to get it done.
Might more passing attempts lead to a greater risk to Roethlsiberger's health? Maybe, but Manning missed an entire year with an injured neck. Brady missed all of '08 with a knee injury. Stuff happens. I think we can all acknowledge that football is a tough sport, and the NFL is the toughest football league; sometimes, great players get hurt.
Like Bettis said, maybe the Steelers should just put the ball into the hands of their best player, and let the chips fall where they may.
What's the worst that can happen? Another loss? More sideline drama?
Or maybe the offense will actually look like it's being led by a franchise quarterback.
What a concept