It's that time. I've put it off for a few days, having not wanted to fully admit that the Steelers are out of it. But, they are, and the offseason has begun. In just a few short days since the final play of the 2006 season, the Steelers lost their coach and face of the franchise: Coach Cowher. There has been speculation abound about the future of offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt. Will he take over for Cowher or will he look elsewhere for his first head coaching gig. With the Atlanta job filled, the New York Giants job seemingly still with Tom Coughlin, and only two openings remaining in Oakland and Miami, it appears Whisenhunt's best bet at a head coaching gig is in Pittsburgh.
But, all of this will play out in due time. For now, let's start undertaking the ardous task of reviewing the 2006 season by position. This might help us get a firmer grasp on what the Steelers need to do this offseason to improve their chances next year. The obvious place to start is at the quarterback position.
What a year for Big Ben. The motorcylce crash, the apendectomy, the cuncussion, the expectations that come along with having the highest winning percentage as a starting NFL QB, etc.
Last year's playoff run set up an interesting dilemma for the Steelers offense in 2006. Remember, we made our remarkable playoff run largely due to the superior play of our passing attack. Teams expected us to pound the ball inside; we aired it out instead. Opposing defenses assumed we would ask Roethlisberger to manage the game and let our defense do the bulk of the work; Whisenhunt asked Big Ben to build early leads in the passing game. And, it worked. Big Ben proved he was more than capable of beating teams through the air if given the opportunity.
This preseason, we were talking about employing the 'no-huddle.' The thought was we'd give Roethlisberger more responsibility over the play calling at the line of scrimmage. The Steelers are synonymous with running the football, so why not try to catch teams off guard this year and throw the ball during 'obvious' passing situations?
It sounded exciting, and there was some logic to the decision. But, in the end, I think our over-zealous propensity to pass the ball this year cost us multiple football games. There's a reason the Steelers have been the most successful franchise in the NFL since Bill Cowher took over: we ran the ball effectively on a consistent basis. It's what we did, who we were.
Looking back, and of course hindsight is 20/20, the ingredients simply were not there for us to throw the ball as much as we did. Quick disclaimer to counter a point I know many of you may be thinking. Yes, we were behind in quite a few football games. Teams that are trailing tend to throw the ball more often. But, often times we threw the ball when only behind one score. We abandoned the run in far too many ball games this year, especially on the road, when a steady diet of rushes is necessary to dictate tempo and momentum. We'll return to this point later.
Back to the ingredients missing for a great passing game. For one, a healthy quarterback. We put far too much pressure on Big Ben to carry this team. In just his first game at Jacksonville, Big Ben threw the ball 32 times. Let me also remind you we were only down 3 points heading in to the 4th quarter of that game. Was Willie Parker ineffective in his first 11 carries? Yes he was, gaining only 20 yards. But, 11 carries is far too few in a close game like that, with a QB only two weeks removed from an emergency apendectomy. No reverses, no gadget plays, no willigness to stick with the run. A dangerous, irresponsible game plan by Whisenhunt and Cowher if you ask me.
Anyway, the Jacksonville game was just the first of many games when Roethlisberger threw the ball too many times. Big Ben threw the ball 39 times against Cinicinnati the following week against the Bengals, and 31 times against the Chargers. I don't need to remind you that we lost all 3 of those games. In fact, we didn't win until Kansas City came to town, a week we thought might be the one to get us back on track. In the 41-7 thumping, Roeth threw the ball only 19 times. Obviously you don't throw the ball a ton when you're killing a team like that, but finally we were doing what we did best: running the ball. Parker amassed 109 yards that day, Davenport picked up another 78, and there was an even a Verron Haynes sighting (21 yards on 5 carries).
But, we didn't learn our lesson. Perhaps we were overly enamored by Ben's awesome day against the Chiefs. He completed 16 of 19 passes for 238 yards and 2 TDs. Ben was precise, made quick, sound decisions, and seemingly was finally turning the corner health-wise.
And maybe he was. It sure seemed like it anyway the following week when Pittsburgh traveled to take on Atlanta. Big Ben completed 16 of his first 22 passes and had 3 TD passes before getting knocked out with a concussion. Just when it appeared he had found his rhythm, his confidence, his willingness to stand in the pocket and survey the field without getting skittish...he goes down...again.
Enter major coaching blunder #2 (well, maybe #3 if you count putting Ricardo Colclough back there to field punts during the first Bengals game): Cowher played Ben the following week against the lowly Raiders.
Roethlisberger had the worst game of his young career (it doesn't seem young after this past year does it?). Roethlisberger threw 4 INTs that day. Again though, check out the stats from that game. Take a look at his pass attempts. 37! Against a team that couldn't even surpass the 100 yard plateau on offense that day. That's beyond inexcusable. Hand the friggin ball off, protect Big Ben, and don't let the Raiders get any sort of field position or momentum by forcing a turnover. But, we decided to keep airing it out time after time. Ben was terrible with the ball that day, and the Raiders absolutely stole a win from us. That game killed our season more so than any other. I could go on, but I won't.
Roethlisberger had several nice games down the stretch as well as serveral lousy ones. Just like his whole roller-coaster season. Up..down...two steps forward...three steps back.
As bad as he was, the blame doesn't rest solely on his shoulders. The offensive line struggled at times (a subject we'll discuss later), the running game disappeared at several critical junctures this season--especially on the road when it's most needed, and he was mishandled by the coaching staff. In fact, I think this was the most critical reason Ben struggled (besides his health).
For that reason, I can't give Ben an F for his seaon. Had we been more intelligent with how we handled Big Ben after his health issues, he might have had just a mediocre, not god-awful, season. Instead, his 2006 performance will go down as one of the most disappointing encores ever by a Super Bowl quarterback.