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Off-season Rant No. 3: Ben Roethlisberger vs. Todd Haley

In which the author attempts to make a case that isn't the usual one...

I told you, Ben, you're gonna have to wear the throwbacks sooner or later...
I told you, Ben, you're gonna have to wear the throwbacks sooner or later...
Karl Walter

The off-season Rant tally is up to No. 3, and it’s only the beginning of February. Furthermore, some great reviews are coming in! For example, here are a couple of quotes taken from an actual comment:

I personally feel...the humor...was like one of those SNL skits...

...novel ways to write about sports...

With great encouragement like the above quotes, I will be inspired to carry on for the remainder of the off-season, I’m sure. So keep those comments coming!

Today’s rant is about something which has been bothering me all season, but the final straw was an article in today’s Tribune-Review, by staff writer Alan Robinson. The article contains a number of quotes from NFL Network analyst and former quarterback Kurt Warner. Warner advises Ben Roethlisberger to embrace Haley’s offense and make it his own. Warner feels the key is for Roethlisberger to "buy into what [Haley is] doing and why [he’s] doing it... He should ask "Why are we doing this? How does it benefit me? How does this play into my strengths?"

Robinson states:

While Roethlisberger never fully wrapped his arms around Haley’s controlled passing offense the way he did Bruce Arians’ down-the-field system, he was on pace for his best season until getting hurt nine games in. Neither Roethlisberger nor the Steelers were the same again.

I have a great deal of respect for Kurt Warner, both on and off the field. But he is doing something people began doing the second the Haley hiring was public—making assumptions. Unless Warner has spoken extensively with both Haley and Roethlisberger recently—and the article gave no hint of it if this is the case—he is making assumptions about a lot of things, and really, he should know better.

Whether Roethlisberger had completely "bought in" to Haley’s system in the early part of the season, everyone who knows Roethlisberger in any capacity says he is first and foremost fiercely competitive. The fact he was on pace for his best season statistically can hardly have escaped his attention. He may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer (another assumption often made about him, which he's given a few reasons to credit), but he’s not dumb.

But, you may protest, that’s all very well, but look what happened when he came back. It all went out the window. Well, yes, it did. But there are a great many possible reasons for this besides the apparent default position of assuming Roethlisberger decided he knew better than Haley. Here are some of the other possible reasons, and my case for why they are more likely to be correct.

1. Roethlisberger suffered an injury which not only kept him out for almost a quarter of the season but was possibly life-threatening.

I have no idea who first promulgated the idea of Ben’s rib possibly puncturing his aorta and killing him. I would presume it would have been one of the medical personnel he saw. It could have even, I suppose, been his wife, who is, after all, a physician’s assistant and consequently knows a good bit about medical matters.

Ben has the reputation of being a bit of a drama queen over injuries, and his coaches have tended to dispute Ben’s assessment of the severity of some of his injuries. Nonetheless, he has sustained a number of serious injuries both on and off the field, and this gets old after a while. However much of a competitor he may be, he surely gives the occasional thought to the probable quality of his life after football, and one would think as a new father these thoughts took on more urgency.

Whether it was ever a real possibility the rib could have punctured his aorta is, really, moot. You know the image was in his head, and you know he had to be wondering if his doctors really knew for sure the rib dislocation was sufficiently healed to absolute prevent that possibility. After all, it is an extremely rare injury, so rare the only "recently" documented case was in 1998, 14 years before.

2. Ben admitted he was afraid. What he actually said was, “Once I take the first hit I’ll be okay.”

No one, surely, can blame him for being nervous, whether the "life-threatening" aspect of the injury was real or merely supposition. The bigger question is, what effect did this nervousness have on his playing?

None of us know how many hits it took before it was business as usual with Roethlisberger, but from the visual evidence it was a lot more than one hit.

3. The injury was on his right (throwing) side, and even if his shoulder was not directly impacted, there was obviously going to be a number of residual effects which almost certainly did affect his throwing shoulder. Certainly his accuracy was greatly affected. Ben’s average completion percentage for the first nine games of the season: 65.5 Average completion percentage after he came back: 56.9.

If you remove the Week 10 game in which he was injured, the average is 67.4. If you remove the Week 1 game in Denver, which was the offense’s first go at the new system, and which was not a huge success, the average is 69.1. His highest completion percentage, post-injury, was 65.2%, in the very last game of the season. The highest of the other three was 60.0%. The highest completion percentage pre-injury? 77.4%. In five out of the nine first games of the season he hit 70% or better. That’s a pretty big drop-off. However you choose to look at it, Ben was much more accurate before the injury.

Let’s take these things together and decide what might have persuaded Roethlisberger to appear to abandon the new offensive scheme which had been working so well for him pre-injury.

One of the primary reasons would, I believe, be Ben’s realization his accuracy was clearly at least temporarily affected. Since the essence of a, to use the perjorative term, "dink and dunk" offense is accurate short passing, if you aren’t quite sure where the ball is going to end up, this is a problem.

Another big reason is fear. As we all know, fear causes us to act in ways we probably wouldn’t, if we had better access to our rational thought processes. It is telling to note the worst completion percentage all season, by far, was in the second Cincinnati game, when he only completed 50% of his passes. Naturally, the Cincinnati defense might have had something to do with this. But his completion percentage in the first Bengals game in Week 7 was 73.0%. Add the residual fear of being re-injured and of not being entirely sure where your passes will end up to the feeling they HAD to win the game, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

Ben may greatly prefer "Bruce Arian’s down-the-field" offense, but really, that isn’t the issue, so much as the fact he had been playing in said "down-the-field" offense for the previous five years. And Arians was his QB coach for the three years prior to being the play-caller. Anyone who has done a significant amount of performing, in any discipline. knows what this means.

The nerves which accompany performing for even the most seasoned performers can, if sufficiently severe, cause one to lose recent technical advances and revert to prior, presumably less successful techniques. In other words, if it isn’t completely a part of your automatic response system, (muscle memory, for instance,) it probably isn’t happening.

Someone, I can’t recall who, recently made a comment to the effect that Keith Butler preferred to draft players from small schools, so he wouldn’t have to work so hard to get them to unlearn the way they played in college. This is a great example of what I’m talking about. It’s much easier to install a system on a tabula rasa than a player with a significant amount of experience in a different system. Not because they necessarily don’t like your system or want to learn it, but because so much of what is automatic in their playing has to be painfully unlearned and replaced with the new material.

If this is the case with draftees fresh out of college, imagine how much the difficulty is magnified with a player who has played a certain way, with great success, for the previous eight years. And that’s just in the NFL. It’s not that Ben didn’t use the short passing game ever, or was incapable of it—it just wasn’t his default.

So, Mr. Warner and Mr. Robinson et al, I understand what you’re saying and why you’re saying it, but until such time as Ben Roethlisberger himself comes out and says he was deliberately blowing Todd Haley and his system off in the last quarter of the season, I respectfully decline to believe it.

P.S. I wish to assure my readership that all quotes in the article by actual named persons are, as far as possible, true to the intent of the original speaker. I did take a few liberties, you might say, with insaneman's comment to Rant No. 2...