Ben Roethlisberger has made news recently with comments he made in an interview with Ron Cook. It’s been covered quite a bit with many people debating whether Ben Roethlisberger was throwing shade at the team, his coaches, teammates, etc.
That’s been covered plenty of other places, and I’m not going to rehash it here. I read the interview and found one part of it very interesting. One of the questions Roethlisberger answered was about his biggest regrets. His answer went first to the Super Bowl loss to Green Bay, but then to the lack of playoff success after that loss. A quote from the article stood out to me:
I feel like the game has changed. I feel like the people have changed in a sense. Maybe it’s because I got spoiled when I came in. The team was so important. It was all about the team. Now, it’s about me and this, that and the other.
He continued, talking about social media, Name, Image, Likeness licensing for college athletes, and coaches pampering young players. Roethlisberger isn’t the first person to complain that the younger people had it easier than he did and that they don’t have the same work ethic. It’s quite common when people talk about co-workers who are significantly younger than they are. He isn’t wrong either, the NFL has worked to make the league safer, and the league is far more profitable, and the players share of that profit has grown with it. Players that were retiring as Ben Roethlisberger was new in the league could have said the same thing about his generation of players. But while those factors certainly have impacted the game, it would be hard to say that those factors only affected the Steelers, and not other teams, especially as teams with younger coaches who are “player’s coaches” are having playoff success and winning Super Bowls.
But while Ben Roethlisberger’s “soap box” about the kids being spoiled and not putting the team first doesn’t explain the Steelers struggles, his previous statement that is quoted above says a lot about the Steelers struggles. Especially when you put it in the context of the time he is talking about, and another quote from the article:
... when I came in, I didn’t have to be special. There were times we did special things, but we had such a great defense. We had Jerome [Bettis]. We had a veteran line.
Ben Roethlisberger in the first quote admits he was spoiled. He came to a team that didn’t ask him to do too much. A team with a defense that could cover for the offense when the offense didn’t produce. He had a great offensive line and Jerome Bettis. That he would bring up Jerome Bettis is especially telling here. Bettis made the Pro-Bowl in 2004 but no one would mistake the player Bettis was then for the guy he was in his prime. In 2005, when the Steelers won the Super Bowl, he had an even smaller role. Jerome Bettis only started 8 games during Ben Roethlisberger’s career. So why was Ben Roethlisberger so spoiled to have Bettis on his team.
The answer is leadership. Jerome Bettis was the leader of that team, and that team won a Super Bowl in large part because they wanted to win it for Jerome Bettis. He was loved and respected. Ben Roethlisberger was the starting quarterback, he started 31 games in the same time that Bettis started 8, but Ben Roethlisberger didn’t have to be a leader on that team. He just had to go play football.
After the 2011 season the Steelers lost two veteran leaders that had been on the team Ben Roethlsiberger’s entire career, Hines Ward and James Farrior. Any Steeler fan who remembers the 2012 season knows that things went downhill pretty quick. I’ve covered that failed transition in leadership and the drama that came out of it, centered around Antonio Brown.
The failure then sounds a lot like what Ben Roethlisberger was calling out in his interview with Ron Cook. That it was more about the individuals than the team. Specifically, the “Young Money Crew” of Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown. A group that had held it together when Hines Ward was on the team suddenly became a focal point of team disunity.
The Antonio Brown saga doesn’t need to be rehashed here, but from that 2012 season on, you can see what Ben Roethlisberger is lamenting. That team-first atmosphere he found when he joined the team wasn’t there anymore, and instead you had players consistently looking out for themselves. Whether that caused the Steelers to lose or not isn’t the point of this article, instead I want to ask you a question: How many players from 2012 to 2021 can you think of that you would say embodied the individual over team dynamic? Think about it. Now answer a second question: How many of those players were on offense?
You may come up with a few defenders that you can argue fit, but nothing like what the Steelers offense had. To me, the big difference is leadership. And not just any leadership, a specific kind of leadership. A leadership role I’ll refer to as a “team-first enforcer.” The Steelers had Ryan Clark after James Farrior retired. Ryan Clark was a team-first enforcer. They would struggle for a while after Clark retired until Cameron Heyward really took over the defense, but it’s hard to think of players from the last 5 or 6 years that put their own wishes above the team success. The offensive line didn’t have many either, as that unit had a fantastic leader in Maurkice Pouncey. Ramon Foster recently gave an interview on the Raw Room podcast where he talked about that offensive line and how they fought for each other. It’s a great listen, and when compared to what we saw from the rest of the offense in those days, really drives home the problem Ben Roethlisberger is talking about.
The real issue was the Steelers never replaced the leadership of Jerome Bettis and Hines Ward on the Steelers offense. I’m not slighting Ben Roethlisberger here either, he was clearly a leader, and became a very good one later in his career, but he wasn’t the type of leader that kept guys in check and kept them focused on team goals. It’s not an insult, Troy Polamalu is one of my favorite football players of all-time and he wasn’t that guy either. Troy led by example, and Ben Roethlisberger did that too. The difference is the Steelers were able to replace the “team-first enforcer” leadership on the defense, but never did on offense. When you look at the last few seasons, the Steelers have had Cameron Heyward leading the defense, but they also have had T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Joe Haden leading that unit. On offense? Ben Roethlisberger and “kids” to appropriate Kevin Colbert’s statement prior to the 2019 season.
The Steelers have now moved on from Ben Roethlisberger, and the keys to the franchise are fully in the hands of young players. Players that won’t have it easy, according to Roethlisberger:
It’s hard for these young guys, too. Social media. They’re treated so well in college. Now, this new NIL stuff, which is unbelievable. They’re treated so special. They’re coddled at a young age because college coaches need them to win, too.
When we look at players like JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool and Najee Harris, remember that they didn’t have the advantage Roethlisberger did. There wasn’t a Jerome Bettis or Hines Ward on the Steelers teams that they joined. This young team is going to have to find the solution that has eluded the Steelers since 2012. They are going to have to be the leaders that turn the culture of the Steelers offense around.