PITTSBURGH – Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s surgically repaired right knee is on its way to a full recovery.
So too, it seems, is Roethlisberger’s relationship with offensive coordinator Todd Haley.
Following a somewhat rocky year in which the two couldn’t seem to warm to the idea of the other, the admittedly headstrong men behind Pittsburgh’s offense appear focused on moving forward after the Steelers slumped to an 8-8 finish.
Haley approached Roethlisberger and several other players during the offseason asking them about changes they’d like to see made, and the result is an attack they hope is a little more streamlined than it was in 2012.
“You want your guys that are out there, especially Ben who is handling football on hopefully an every down basis, to feel invested in what’s going on,” Haley said.
Something that didn’t happen regularly last fall.
Though Roethlisberger consistently took the blame when things fell apart, he also expressed frustration at the playcalling and at one point reverted to old hand signals left over from mentor Bruce Arians’ run as the offensive coordinator.
Roethlisberger struck a more conciliatory tone while watching minicamp on Tuesday. Though relegated to highly paid spectator by minor surgery on his right knee last week, Roethlisberger gave Haley credit for being proactive in attempting to find common ground.
“Just the simple fact that he came to me and asked what I thought about it, changing the names of things to kind of make more sense to all of us, (helps),” Roethlisberger said.
Having the face of the franchise at ease is a plus. Roethlisberger looked relaxed watching backup Bruce Gradkowski work with the starters as minicamp opened and said his knee feels so good he could “start on Sunday” if the calendar read September instead of June.
Roethlisberger underwent arthroscopic surgery last week to relieve “discomfort” in the knee that he attributed to wear and tear. He endured a similar procedure in 2005 after hyperextending the knee. There was no direct trauma this time.
“I’d come in on Tuesday to practice and it would feel good, and by Thursday, it was almost like a tire was slowly losing air,” Roethlisberger said.
When team doctors suggested addressing the problem now to prevent bigger problems down the road, the two-time Super Bowl winner couldn’t find any room to argue.
“We figured it was time to get it done,” he said.
Roethlisberger expects to be 100 percent when training camp opens on July 26. The down time will let him get a better handle on the tweaks Haley has been working on.
The most significant change focused on the terminology. Roethlisberger thought older players were struggling to get a handle on the new jargon so Haley opted to give it an overhaul, mixing the old and the new. He also promised to revisit certain things during the season if the players come at him with well thought out suggestions.
“Your big dogs have to have input,” Haley said. “They’re the ones out there facing the live bullets.”
Ones the Steelers had issues dodging in the second half of the season. Pittsburgh hummed during the first nine weeks, keeping Roethlisberger’s jersey clean and converting third downs at an absurd rate while taking care of the ball.
The turning point came just before halftime against Kansas City in November, when Roethlisberger went down with a fractured rib and missed three weeks. The Steelers went 1-2 in his absence — including an eight-turnover nightmare in a loss to Cleveland — and things were never the same.
Pittsburgh finished 21st in total yards and 22nd in points scored and its minus-10 giveaway/takeaway ratio was 23rd. Not even the top-ranked defense in the NFL could compensate and the Steelers found themselves out of the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
The offensive coaching staff watched every single snap on tape and pledged to learn from the mistakes. The first step came in a series of talks Haley had with his players. It’s something he’s done since working as the wide receivers coach with the New York Jets in the late 1990s and something he called part of the progression from Year 1 to Year 2 on a new job.
“Guys are just naturally more comfortable coming to you,” Haley said.
And Haley insists his door — and his playbook — remain open. Though former Pro Bowl wide receiver Mike Wallace took his sprinter’s speed for Miami in the offseason, Haley doesn’t think that means the Steelers can’t get deep.
Haley helped Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin make the Arizona Cardinals one of the most feared passing attacks in the league while serving as coordinator in 2007-08. Last time Haley checked, neither of those guys were going to be mistaken for Usain Bolt.
“You look in the Hall of Fame, there’s not a lot of these sub-4.4 guys in there,” Haley said. “We’ve got plenty of speed, not a lot is going to change from that standpoint.”
Maybe, but the rapport between Haley and his team’s most important player has changed markedly. Hopefully for the better.
“It feels night and day ahead of where we were last year at this time,” Haley said. “I think (Ben) would say the same thing.”