It was a miserable Western Pennsylvania day, typical February, with several inches of snow coating the cars in the parking lot at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. Even though the snow had stopped falling, the misery was far from over, because the weather front that had cancelled school in so many of the surrounding communities was calling for a round of freezing rain before changing to all rain.
But inside the Complex’s media room surrounded by a gathering of media for a pre-Scouting Combine briefing, General Manager Kevin Colbert was in Jacksonville, where it was 73 degrees and sunny on a mid-November Sunday. But it still was a decidedly unpleasant atmosphere there as Colbert recalled a day when the Steelers were halfway through a game they needed to win and were doing a poor job of it.
The Jaguars led, 9-0, and the Steelers walked off the grass toward their locker room with as many punts as first downs (four apiece), with their defense having allowed twice as many rushing yards as their offense had gained altogether (141-66), with the Jaguars owning a decided advantage in time of possession (22:15-7:45).
And in Colbert’s re-telling of the story, the climate inside the visitor’s locker room at halftime of this mess was unsettled with storm clouds forming. It was then that Ben Roethlisberger stepped up.
“If anyone wants to question the leadership of this player,” said Colbert about Roethlisberger, “in Jacksonville I saw it firsthand when we came into the locker room at halftime and he brings everybody up: offense, defense, coaches, you name it. He got everybody’s attention, and he said, ‘Look first and foremost, I have to play better in the second half, but we all have to, offense, defense, special teams.’ He challenged everybody and during the 12 minutes we were in there he grabbed the team right away and that was the whole crux of that halftime.
“And then he goes out in the second half and helps us with a comeback win, so there’s no question Ben is the leader. But there’s also no question the other guys have to fill in the blanks. Ben has to play better. He’ll be the first one to say that. He was the first one to say that in Jacksonville. Players on both sides of the ball and on special teams, they have to show up more, bottom line. Like I have to show up more, those other guys also have to show up, and not only help him but help themselves get to where they want to get.”
This anecdote was a part of a multi-pronged point Colbert was making about the Steelers, about how they have much work to do as a 9-6-1 team that wasn’t good enough to qualify for the playoffs in 2018, a team that is nine years removed from its last Super Bowl appearance and 11 years removed from its last Super Bowl championship, and how a team that’s all of those things would be wise to turn to the only player among them who has a first-hand understanding of what’s necessary to be handed the Lombardi Trophy as confetti rains from the sky.
“Ben is the unquestioned leader of this group,” said Colbert. “He’s the elder statesmen and the (only) Super Bowl winner (remaining on the roster). If our players were smart, they’d listen to him because he’s been there, he’s done it. He can tell them, ‘No, guys, what you’re doing is or is not good enough.’ And I honestly believe that can be a burden on him more often than he may like to admit, because he has to … he’s got 52 kids under him, quite honestly. I want them to step up and say, ‘Hey, Ben, what do I have to do? Can I do this better? What do we have to do to win a Super Bowl?’
“I think that once you win it, you’ve got 53 guys who can say what it took, but right now, he’s the only one, so I have no problem with him. He can call me out, and that’s fine.”
Roethlisberger has been in the spotlight to this point during this premature Steelers offseason, because President Art Rooney II has talked openly about extending the contract of his soon-to-be 37-year-old quarterback, and because Antonio Brown has been critical about being criticized by the player the general manager says has every right to be a critic.
“What (Ben) does, I totally respect, because I see him too many times win games for us and come through in situations,” said Colbert. “That’s why I talked about the Jacksonville game. He brought that team in (at halftime). It was hot. It was nasty, and they weren’t allowed to get water. It was that immediate. Everybody over here right now. And the speech he made and the challenges he made, he backed up because he played better in the second half. He didn’t play well in the first half, and he said, ‘I’m the first one who needs to look in the mirror, and the rest of you better, too.’ So I have absolutely no problem with him.”
ON MORGAN BURNETT’S REQUEST TO BE CUT
It hasn’t received quite the attention of the Antonio Brown situation, but just one season after being signed as an unrestricted free agent, Morgan Burnett reportedly asked the Steelers to release him because he was dissatisfied with his role on defense.
The original plan for Burnett was for him to start at strong safety alongside Sean Davis, but that was before the Steelers spent a No. 1 pick on Terrell Edmunds. Then the plan changed to have Edmunds learn the position and the ways of the NFL as Burnett’s backup, but that had to be scrapped because a hamstring injury caused him to miss most of training camp and the preseason, and then a groin injury followed that and had him inactive for four of the regular season’s first six games.
By the time he returned, Edmunds was entrenched as the starting strong safety, and Burnett’s role became that of the dime linebacker, a job that had him lining up closer to the line of scrimmage. Burnett ended up playing 11 games with two starts – vs. Kansas City on Sept. 16 and vs. Cincinnati on Dec. 30 when Edmunds was injured – and he finished with 27 tackles and five passes defensed.
Burnett is due to be paid $5 million in salary in 2019, and granting him his request would cost the Steelers $2.83 million in dead cap money.
“Players will talk to us about their situation,” said Colbert about Burnett’s request. “Coach (Mike) Tomlin does exit interviews with each and every player. They know where they fit and what we felt about them last year, but again, just like I talked about the Antonio situation, whatever move we make with any player, it’ll be for our benefit and our benefit only.”