Early to Rise

Alan Grant

Bill Cowher was talking about a quarterback yesterday. I caught the tail end of his comments, so I’m not sure which quarterback it was.

But I heard what he said. He said “to give a quarterback a chance at success you have to let him throw the ball on first down.” Like I said, I don’t for which quarterback, or which quarterback's coach this was intended, but I do know that it was a lesson Cowher himself learned shortly after Ben Roethlisberger arrived.

Prior to that Cowher’s teams applied a formula that proved mostly successful. They ran the ball on first down, maybe even on second down, too. They ran powers and traps, with Alan Faneca pulling and Marvel Smith kicking out the defensive end.

By the time they reached third down, the hope was that they were close enough to have the option of running the ball again. If not, then Neil O’Donnell, Kordell Stewart, or Tommy Maddox, would be forced to make it happen on one play—which in those times an under those circumstances, was considered both necessary and evil.

That changed after Roethlisberger arrived. The Steelers began to throw the ball on first down. That’s a good concept, not just in game plans, but for any pursuit. There’s great value in getting things done early. It allows for some leisure, or at least less urgency. Things accomplished in leisure time are usually more personal and gratifying.

That’s Ben Roethlisberger’s story. It’s a recurring theme that has served him well. It began with his coach, Terry Hoeppner, then the coach at Miami of Ohio. Hoeppner was the first to see Roethlisberger throw the ball at a summer camp on the Miami campus.

At the time Roethlisberger had yet to play quarterback. His high school coach liked the skills he displayed at receiver so much he never considered the alternative. But beginning with the first game in his senior year, Roethlisberger was placed under center where he promptly made himself into a division one prospect.

He threw six touchdowns in Findlay High’s opening game. Hoeppner knew it was just a matter of time before every talent-seeker in the Midwest got wind of a 6-foot-5 kid who possessed a full battery of athletic skills.

Hoepnner did his work early. He made his pitch first and he made it strong. He offered Roethlisberger a scholarship the day after that first game, reminding him that Chad Pennington had built a legacy and first round status at then fellow M.A.C. school Marshall. He told Roethlisberger that he could do the same thing at Miami of Ohio. Hoeppner was a persuasive sort, one of faith, integrity, and unwavering vision. Before his death, he had the Indiana faithful voicing full-throated belief of its football program.

US PresswirePittsburgh offensive coordinator Todd Haley and Roethlisberger are still getting "acquainted."

Timing is everything for a quarterback.

When Roethlisberger arrived in 2004, the Steelers defense was the most consistently run and efficient organization in American business. The Steelers’ defense allowed a franchise quarterback to be one of the guys.

In Roethlisberger’s first season, he joined his teammates on the Bus. They lost just one game. But the following year, after they won a title, the Bus retired. And in his absence Bill Cowher had a forced epiphany. The power game was supplemented by play action, even on first down. The following season Roethlisberger threw the ball almost twice as many times as he had before.

Then Cowher was gone. But as a parting gift, he’d left the young Roethlisberger the standard bearer of a new Steelers philosophy. Oh, there was still that formidable defense. But the offense wasn't just good, it was fun to watch, too.

By February of 2009, Ben Roethlisberger had in his possession two shiny rings and glossy photos from the Pro Bowl. He had compiled a body of work. He was 26.

There’s value in getting your work done early. Dan Marino’s team got to the Super Bowl in his second year. All the hype and expectation that accompanies a so-called “franchise quarterback was temporarily assuaged by that early appearance. After the Dolphins lost to the Forty Niners, Marino said that he just always expected to get back there again. While he waited he threw the ball. He threw it for a total distance of nearly 35 miles. That became his story.

For a while Roethlisberger’s narrative—driven by a motorcycle crash and accusations of untoward behavior with women—was a journey through the dark prospects of leisure time. On top of that he began to resemble the stereotypical quarterback for whom fitness is a lesser priority. There’s danger in getting your work done early.

But today Roethlisberger’s story is entwined with the Steelers’ offense. It’s a hopeful tale, full of swift and agile characters. They’re part of a Steel town Renaissance, of sorts. There’s more speed in Pittsburgh than at any other time. Mike Wallace, Rashard Mendenhall, and Emmanuel Sanders are explosive, don’t you think? Then there’s Antonio Brown, who after he gets the ball in his hands—either by pass, end around, or punt return—moves as though a starter's pistol has sent him screaming from the blocks.

The plot is unbalanced, though. The defense is in flux. Troy Polamalu sightings are rare—not quite Komodo dragon rare, but pretty infrequent. But unlike years past, there aren’t top shelf replacements at the ready. The team's success will arrive when they do.

In the meantime these Pittsburgh Steelers are founded on offense (?)

Last night, against the Bengals, there were times when the Steelers’ offense, in theory, looked like all the others. This is neither compliment nor insult, just a statement of the times.

A decades-long hierarchy has been turned on its head—the college game now influences the pros. The down field passing game has been supplemented by the lateral concept. Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley, like other coaches, is getting the most out of his “satellite players”—speed guys who are problematic in space.

On the game’s opening play, Roethlisberger threw to Mike Wallace on a hitch screen. It got nine yards. On the following play he threw to Antonio Brown on another hitch screen for the first down. Roethlisberger made some traditional throws too, like the purposeful laser he fired down the seam to Heath Miller before halftime. That’s why Roethlisberger has offered some mild, yet pointed critiques of Haley’s “dink and dunk” sensibility.

Roethlisberger will be held accountable for his own bugaboos, namely his habit of holding onto the ball too long in hopes of making something happen. Many argue that this has been and will continue to be his undoing. And they have a point. But this is also his most endearing quality—as a quarterback and a young man.

His pursuit of more baubles clouds his better judgment. He tries to do it all on one play, like Steelers quarterbacks of the past.

Patience will get more work done.

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This story originally appeared on Nationalfootballpost.com