By Jim Wexell
Posted Mar 24, 2007
The story that Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger doesn't work hard enough is spiraling out of control. Here's the truth, according to one suburban beat writer:
It was a November sports article to me, whether Ben Roethlisberger was a hard worker or not, until one of my colleagues said this:
"I'd watch that 'Ben doesn't work hard' stuff if I were you."
It was cryptic. I asked for an explanation and he just raised an eyebrow and left, like it was a serious warning, like he was trying to help me out.
Hogwash, I thought. So what if the quarterback doesn't talk to me? That's like the head coach not talking to you. You rarely get either of them one-on-one anyhow, and if you do they just spout a bunch of cliches'. Sure, if I had a radio show, as my writer/sportscaster friend - the one who gave me the warning - had, I might have to worry.
The point is I could see lines being drawn in the media back then. And when I watched Joe Starkey of the Tribune-Review demanding that Ron Cook of the Post-Gazette reveal his sources during one of those Sunday night TV shout-fests, I wondered whether those drawn lines pitted one newspaper against another newspaper for the love of Ben Roethlisberger.
Trust me, placating members of the front office, coaches or star players, in my experience, doesn't work. You lose the respect of the targeted source, for one thing, and, sure enough, Roethlisberger gave his side of the story to the Post-Gazette this week.
A lot of good it did the Trib to take Roethlisberger's side in this "work-ethic" debate. Two columnists from that paper swear Ben's a hard worker, and that maybe -- in the words of Starkey to Cook - the rumors are just coming from the mouths of "jealous defensive players."
Yes, I'd heard of one defensive player, one with a reputation as a straight-shooter, who'd been complaining that he was "sick of the coaching staff babying Ben." That was back in November. But I'd also heard an offensive coach -- now a former offensive coach -- claim that Ben didn't work hard enough. I'd also heard this coach worry about the future of a franchise that was about to plunge a fortune into a quarterback who'd enjoyed too much early success and didn't figure to change his ways at this point.
Those are some of the points Ron Cook had made in a Post-Gazette column that supposedly had Roethlisberger going crazy. He wanted to tell his side, and this week he did.
In the interview, The P-G's Ed Bouchette, first of all, asked Roethlisberger about the comments former offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt had made at the combine in February, that the Steelers had rushed Roethlisberger back too soon from his motorcycle accident.
"No, I don't agree with Whis," Roethlisberger said. "There were a lot of things I didn't agree with Whis about, and that's another one."
Ouch. Apparently, the two aren't getting along.
Bouchette did ask Roethlisberger if there was truth to the rumor that he doesn't work hard enough.
"Not at all," Roethlisberger said. "It's actually quite the opposite. It's funny to me because the guys know and Mr. Rooney knows and coach knows that I worked out five days a week, which -- maybe that was my problem -- but Super Bowl year I never worked out. Last year I was in the best shape of my life. Body fat was down. I was lifting. I gained back muscle, which was awesome, so all that stuff they talk about, not working hard, I've got to let it go."
But that was only half of the answer to the work-ethic question, and it meshed with what Hines Ward told the Beaver County Times at this year's Super Bowl:
"Physically, Ben looked great," Ward said. "But the mental part, well, you'll have to ask Ben."
Roethlisberger didn't discuss "the mental part" with the P-G, and that's the point I'm finally getting to, because it's a point a former offensive coach made with me not long ago.
Now, you can't swing a dead cat without hitting a former offensive coach of the Steelers these days, but this one is the most reliable, the most stable, the most sober, the wisest, and the one with nothing to gain and no axe to grind.
He asked that I not use his name and I promised I wouldn't. At the time, it wasn't for public use anyway, but this story has spiraled out of control, with many readers demanding an opinion from me, a suburban beat reporter. So the only reason I've given the clues I've given about this coach is that he really didn't say anything damning about Roethlisberger.
In fact, after all I'd heard from the defensive player, from the other former coach, from Ward, from other reporters and their sources, I expected my source to shake his head, wave both hands, and tell me how glad he was that he didn't have to put up with this quarterback anymore.
But he didn't.
"Ben will give you everything he has out on the practice field," the former coach started. "And he'd give it to you for eight hours, if you wanted to practice that long. No, this is one tough kid who works his *** offon the field. But he needs to improve his study habits. He needs to watch more video and study his playbook more because the game is just too difficult these days with all of the packages coming and going. You have to really study.
"Bobby Lane could get away without studying; so could Joe Namath. But those guys played back in the days when it was a much simpler game. Even back in the 80's, when Jim McMahon partied all week and went out there and let it fly by the seat of his pants, played by his instincts, and still won, you could get away with it even then. But you just can't get away with it today."
I asked the coach if he considered this to be a serious, lasting problem with Roethlisberger. He said that he didn't think it would be and cited the work Roethlisberger's doing with new offensive coordinator Bruce Arians.
A streamlined playbook is being installed and Arians asked for input from Roethlisberger on what to keep in, what to take out, and what changes to make. My source believes this bit of inclusion will spark Roethlisberger, as will the recent wave of negative press.
"I'd coach that kid any time," he said. "He'll be fine."
And there you have it. The truth behind not only Ben Roethlisberger, but much of the media -- a capitalist media, to be sure -- that often worries more about getting the exclusive with the quarterback than reporting the truth.