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PITTSBURGH – Mike Tomlin mulled the thought for a moment, but came up empty. The second-year coach didn’t have any really memorable story about Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
“Ben is kind of boring,” Tomlin said.
Somehow you get the feeling that Pittsburgh fans took no offense to the statement. They’re more than happy to take a Pro Bowl quarterback fresh off a team-record 32 touchdown passes and armed with a reported six-year, $102 million extension, even if he doesn’t light up the nightlife anymore.
It sure beats the alternative, such as when Roethlisberger nearly ended it all with a really bad Robbie Knievel impersonation in 2006. Or the time he mugged for cameras after a few too many refreshments.
Yep, boring is just fine off the field. While Tomlin wasn’t around for the previous incidents, others have seen the progression.
“He’s terrific … he’s a different guy. I shouldn’t say it that way. He has always been a good guy,” Pittsburgh owner Dan Rooney said. “Sometimes when you’re young, you drive a motorcycle without a helmet. It’s not what anybody wants, but it happens. He has matured that way as far as not taking crazy risks anymore and he’s also matured in how to handle people.
“That’s a big thing that young kids need to learn when they come in here as high draft choices. The way Pittsburgh loves the Steelers, it’s like the old saying that sometimes there can be too much love. It can get overbearing and you have to learn how to handle it as a young guy. Some never get used to it. But he’s doing really well.”
Really well is an understatement. Roethlisberger had one of the quietest 32-touchdown pass seasons you’ll ever see, overshadowed in large part by the record-breaking 50 scores that Tom Brady threw for New England and the breakout performance of Cleveland’s Derek Anderson.
What has happened for Roethlisberger, 26, is about trust, which earned him the biggest contract of this offseason and in team history.
That trust is a byproduct of the responsibility Roethlisberger has taken with his play. While some people would say that Roethliberger’s touchdown record was a result of the Steelers running game declining last season, it was accompanied by a sharp decrease in interceptions.
In other words, despite taking more chances with the pass, Roethlisberger didn’t let that lead to an increase in mistakes.
“I think it’s (offensive coordinator) Bruce Arian’s offense, the offense that he put in,” said Roethlisberger, who threw just 11 interceptions in ‘07 after a league-high 23 in ‘06. “I think it’s the evolution of the NFL. It’s changing; it’s becoming a passing league and you have to keep up with the times. I think it’s the big playmakers we have at receiver, tight end and running back. The combination of all those things. “
OK, but what about you?
“It’s an understanding of what’s going on, another year of maturing and understanding offenses and defenses, where my guys are going to be,” Roethlisberger said. Then, with a wink, he added, “Luck.”
That’s a nice bit of self-deprecation. The truth is that Roethlisberger was given more responsibility by Arians, who took over after former offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt left for Arizona. Roethlisberger, Whisenhunt and former coach Bill Cowher had their moments when they clashed about the play-calling. Now, Roethlisberger has an offensive coordinator and coach who are willing to trust him with both the offense and a leadership role.
“That says a lot that Bruce was willing to trust me with a lot of the play-calling, especially in his first year as coordinator, his first year running the offense with the stuff we have,” said Roethlisberger, who had combined for just 35 touchdown passes the previous two seasons. “Putting that faith and trust in me to run the things he calls, change the things he calls, run the no-huddle. It’s nice that he has the faith in me.”
Photo Roethlisberger with Tomlin last season.
(AP Photo/Ken Blaze)
Specifically, Roethlisberger was allowed to audible more than at any point in the first three years of his career. There were times when Arians allowed Roethlisberger to call the plays himself, particularly as the team went with more no-huddle offense toward the end of the season and into the playoffs against Jacksonville.
That may not sound unusual, but there was a time when Roethlisberger, for all his impressive early performances, was still considered a liability as a thrower. As a rookie in the AFC Championship game against New England in 2005, the Patriots ran a complicated zone coverage that essentially challenged Roethlisberger to beat them by daring him to throw.
In his second and third years, Roethlisberger was considered by many defensive coaches to be little more than a talented deep thrower who capitalized on a strong running game. Last year, however, he took a serious step forward.
“The book on him going into last year was that if you could get the Steelers into a throwing game and keep him throwing short, eventually he was going to make a few mistakes,” said one NFL head coach who declined to be identified. “I wouldn’t say he’s Peyton Manning or Tom Brady yet, but he really progressed last season. He was much more precise, much more careful with the ball. He’s not just firing deep passes anymore. This is a guy who can run a 10-play drive where he has to throw a lot.”
In the process, Roethlisberger has earned the respect of teammates and coaches who see the preparation.
“Working hard at practice, being consistent, being a good player, that’s how you become a leader,” Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward said. “I think Ben has done it that way. Now, he’s starting to be more vocal about it, but he has to be. He’s a quarterback. … Before, we had a lot of leaders, older guys like Jerome Bettis and Alan Faneca who would do the talking. Now, with them gone, it’s on Ben.”