It's certainly been a bit of a tumultuous offseason for the Pittsburgh Steelers following their .500 finish in 2012. Instead of playoff fight songs and Terrible Towel cakes, January and February were filled with arrests, cuts, coaching changes and, of course, talk of a fractured locker room, led by the always outspoken Ryan Clark, who called out his team after an anonymous source criticized linebacker LaMarr Woodley for his conditioning a season ago:
"That shows that this team that is normally close, you had the Joey Porters, the Alan Fanecas, just down the line, leader after leader, this team was close-knit. It shows there is a fracture in that. I think that is the most disappointing thing about that coming out."
And then, of course, you can't forget about the apparent "fracture" that developed between two-thirds of the "Young Money" trio a season ago after Antonio Brown signed a contract extension, while restricted free agent Mike Wallace only signed a tender. I guess it wasn't a fracture; as Brown tells it, it was more like an 'awkwardness':
"Some bit of awkwardness. You know, a guy who has been there longer than I and definitely wanting a deal, but you've got to not dwell on that and that kind of situation prohibits bad blood to a team where guys are there for themselves, and not buy into the team aspects and could definitely cause a drama within a team."
A lot of people are surprised by this kind of stuff. I'm not. These types of situations often arise after a season that doesn't live up to expectations--especially when those expectations are as high as they are in Steeler Nation.
Do the Steelers have a fractured locker room? Do they need someone to step up and fill the leadership vacuum created when players like James Farrior, Hines Ward and Aaron Smith left the team?
Perhaps, and there have been several candidates mentioned over the the past year, including Clark and the still very young Brown.
You can also throw in other names like Troy Polamalu, Brett Keisel and Maurkice Pouncey. Every player mentioned has exhibited leadership qualities in one way or another. Some, like Polamalu, lead by example. Others, like Clark and Keisel, lead vocally as well as with their play on the field.
However, of all the candidates normally mentioned to lead the way for the Black and Gold, one who is usually far down the list is someone who, maybe, should be at the very top: Super Bowl winning quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
After all the negativity that has surfaced recently, Roethlisberger went public last week and tried to put to rest all the talk of a locker room that's supposedly in disarray.
Here is a quote from the nine-year veteran courtesy of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette:
"For anybody to say there are locker room issues or leadership issues are completely off base," Roethlisberger said Thursday, shortly after he signed a restructured contract to create $6 million of salary cap room for the Steelers in 2013."I believe that's the frustration. I believe that it's frustration of last year, I honestly do."
As a huge fan of the Steelers, it was comforting to see Roethlisberger step-up and show some positive leadership. Maybe there was a bit of a problem in the locker room a season ago, but if flies on walls and beat reporters could really tell you what they know, we'd soon discover that every locker room has players who do not get along. When you have that many personalities working together, there is bound to be conflict--even in a Super Bowl locker room. Unfortunately, when a team has a season that includes losses to the Titans, Browns and Chargers, it is more likely that its dirty laundry will air in public.
It's no secret Roethlisberger's off-the-field activities were sketchy at best up until a few years ago, but even at the height of his "Party Like a Champion" days, you never heard him publicly criticize a teammate. Who was more supportive of the very sub-par offensive line during the Steelers' march to Super Bowl XLIII than the quarterback who it failed to protect too many times for everyone's tastes?
"Who's laughing now, O-line?" Roethlisberger proudly exclaimed as he stood on the championship stage in Tampa and made sure his linemen felt every bit a part of the team's sixth championship as Coach Tomlin and Mr. Rooney. He could have thrown his guys under the bus many times that season, but instead, he stuck by them.
Even when Hines Ward sort of called him out a season later for not playing with a concussion, Roethlisberger never really fired back at his receiver.
I don't know how well-liked Roethlisberger is in the Steelers locker room--he's only been voted team MVP once--but I do know he's never engaged in any public twitter fights, never called the NFL Commissioner a derogatory name during a magazine interview, and never put the blame on anyone but himself after a tough loss.
Maybe Roethlisberger going public the other day was his way of saying, "Hey, the past is the past. Maybe there were problems, but the only way you can fix them is by moving forward."
Being one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL for the past decade, Roethlisberger has a lot of clout and cache, and that naturally gives him the status of "The Man."
But having stature is one thing. Being a leader that people will follow is quite another. Roethlisberger just turned 31 on Saturday, and by all outward appearances, he's matured greatly over the past few seasons.
Maybe Ben Roethlisberger can be the guy to lead the Steelers' locker room through this time of transition, and maybe, just maybe, his 52 teammates will be willing to follow him into the future.