Ben Roethlisberger can either step up and embrace Todd Haley's offense, or continue being the Hollow Man in T.S. Eliot's poem of the same name.
The Steelers will end the 2012 season not with a bang, but a whimper. At the root of it all, it doesn't matter whether the Steelers win or lose against the Cleveland Browns come this last football Sunday of the regular season, nor does it matter in the end how well the wide receivers perform, or how balanced the running game is in the overall game plan.
Let's get the obvious out of the way first: The revolving door of injuries to the offensive line was a material contributor to the Steelers' uneven offensive performance throughout the season. For yet another year the Steelers were forced to use ten or eleven different configurations on the O line as one player after another fell to injury. Even center Maurkice Pouncey was replaced for a couple of games and started at left guard in another. At various points throughout the season, one if not two rookies found themselves starting. Rookie RT Mike Adams started in place of injured Marcus Gilbert, and then was himself replaced by rookie Kelvin Beachum. Rookie David DeCastro started at RG alongside Beachum at one point.
Rookies starting games, and starting players filling in at unfamiliar positions is a recipe for trouble for any team; rookies play like rookies as DeCastro proved against the Bengals, where he was repeatedly manhandled and otherwise looking quite lost on many plays.
But injuries strike all teams to one degree or another and compensating for them is part of the game. Every team has a variation of "the standard" or a "next man up" mentality; they have to because it is part of the nature of professional football.
A decision was made after last season to retire Bruce Arians (or let him go, take your pick) and bring someone in who had a track record of utilizing the skill sets already in place with the team, and to devise an offensive philosophy that would best suit those skills while protecting and enhancing the qualities of the franchise's quarterback. Roethlisberger is getting older and all the sacks and beatings he has taken were seen as likely to shorten his career.
And yet, the single overarching theme surrounding the selection of Todd Haley to replace Arians, given Roethlisberger's public support in keeping Arians and his expressed concerns over the selection of Haley, was whether the "temperamental Todd Haley" and the "prickly" franchise QB would get along or do battle. Everything revolved around Roethlisberger, or as T.S. Eliot wrote in his poem "The Hollow Men":
"Here we go round the prickly pear
Prickly pear prickly pear
Here we go round the prickly pear..."
From day one the media and the fans waited with baited breath, asking: "Have they spoken yet? - Why not? - What did they talk about? - Are they getting along? - How will Ben perform under the new scheme? - What did Ben mean by that statement? - Is there discord between the two? - Is Ben questioning the new scheme? - Does Ben stick to the new scheme? - Did Ben question the play calling? - Who will prevail, Haley or Ben?" And on, and on, and round and round it went.
The signs are there that Roethlisberger has never fully committed himself to the offensive scheme Haley was hired to produce, and that Mike Tomlin has approved (otherwise, why was Haley hired and the scheme implemented in the first place?). And by failing to fully embrace the new offense, Roethlisberger has cast a shadow that has permeated the entire offensive unit; or, as Eliot wrote:
Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow
Ben Roethlisberger was elected to be one of the captains of this team, and rightfully so; he is a franchise quarterback on whose shoulders the team's success depends. But for all the maturation Roethlisberger has shown this past year, after all the acceptance of "blame" for the losses and poor performance the offensive unit has suffered, it is quite apparent the underlying issues affecting this offense are still unresolved.
...Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
The signs have been plentiful: not one, not two, but all three wide receivers not being fully engaged throughout the game, almost every game, by their own admissions and thus not quite being where they were supposed to be or dropping passes or fumbling at the most inopportune times. And why was this happening? Was it just the petulance of a "I just wanna get paid" Mike Wallace, or the big-contract hangover of Antonio Brown? Or could it be that they sensed that their quarterback was not fully on board with the new offensive scheme and its requirements for quick reads and check downs to get rid of the ball as opposed to the QB scrambling and trying to create plays that aren't there? Were they trying to hedge the running of their assignments under that new scheme because they thought their QB may revert back to how they "used to do it"?
And what of the running game component of Haley's new offensive playbook? Yes, injuries to the offensive line directly impacted the effectiveness of the running game, as did injuries to the various backs. But no running back is going to be effective if the Steelers only run the ball 17 times in a game, and employ a revolving platoon of backs to share those 17 carries. It has long been axiomatic that a running back needs a substantial number of carries in a game to establish a rhythm in order to be effective.
Why then was the running game relegated to such an insignificant role in seven of the Steelers' eight losses? The Steelers' average rushing ratio in their eight losses was 36.6 percent; in their seven wins it was 47.8 percent.
Out of the six Steeler wins with Roethlisberger playing, the Steelers never ran less than 44 percent of the time, and Roethlisberger's quarterback rating was over 92 in four out of those six wins (the Eagles game and the game he was injured against the Chiefs being the exception). His rating for the year is currently 95.5.
Before his injury, Roethlisberger had a cumulative quarterback rating of 100. In the three games since his recovery, his cumulative rating is 82.5. A logical expectation would be that upon Roethlisberger's return from injury, the Steelers would emphasize the run in order to ease their quarterback back into his rhythm. And yet that didn't happen. Only one of the three post-injury games saw the Steelers run the ball more than 30 percent, and that was the last Bengals' game at 53 percent.
Of the six losses that Roethlisberger played in, only one game saw the Steelers rushing ratio exceed 40 percent; two games in a row the Steelers ran the ball only 29 percent of the time (against the San Diego Chargers and Dallas Cowboys). Out of those six losses, Roethlisberger's quarterback rating failed to break 90 four times, with the second Bengals game being the nadir at a paltry 58.6.
Could it be that upon his return, the offensive game plan was changed back to what Roethlisberger really wanted it to be, rather than sticking to the style Haley was brought in to implement? Could it be that the offensive game plans became Arians-esque in order to make Roethlisberger "happy"?
Was it a coincidence that in the week leading up to the Chargers game, Roethlisberger's first game back from injury, Mike Wallace is quoted in an interview that "When I don‘t get the ball for a certain amount of time, I lose focus sometimes," he said. "It hurts me when it‘s time for me to make a play."
And was it a coincidence that in that game the very first Steeler offensive play from scrimmage is a 10 yard pass to Wallace?
And was it a coincidence that after the Chargers' game, when asked by reporters about the lateral pass intended for Antonio Brown that was called when the Steelers were on their own 5 yard line, Roethlisberger's response was "...ask the Coach"?
And was it a coincidence that after the loss to the Cowboys, there was enough substance to the implications Roethlisberger raised in the answer he gave about the play calling that he felt compelled to meet with the coaches and apologize?
Until such a time as an offensive strategy that is equally and completely embraced by the Steelers franchise quarterback, his receivers, and the Steelers' coaching staff; until such equilibrium is reached, the Steelers' offense will not shine, and neither Roethlisberger nor the offense will emerge from the shadow of this discord.
All of the potential embodied by Roethlisberger, Wallace, Brown, Sanders, Heath Miller, Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman and the rest of the Steelers' offensive unit will remain unrealized potential lost in the shadows of Roethlisberger's hollow platitudes uttered for reporters, the shadows of all of the hollow apologies he issues for letting slip a true glimpse of his frame of mind, and the shadows of all of the hollow acceptance of blame for the Steelers' losses. For if Roethlisberger continues to be The Hollow Man then, as Eliot writes:
Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow