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Labriola On

Labriola on Ben, a Happy 22nd Anniversary

Ready or not, here it comes:

"(The Steelers) are going to be last (in the AFC North) because they have the worst quarterback in that division."

It deserves clarification that the above statement was made by Mike Tannenbaum, whose current resume lists him as an NFL commentator on ESPN, but it also deserves mention that as the man in charge of the New York Jets he once spent the fifth overall pick of the 2009 NFL Draft on Mark Sanchez. Still, even someone with a documented sketchy understanding of quarterback talent such as Tannenbaum realizes that the linchpin to the 2021 season for the Steelers is going to be Ben Roethlisberger's performance over the course of what will be his 18th NFL season.

It's not exactly in-depth analysis to point to Roethlisberger as the key to the Steelers' fortunes, because it has been that way now for just about every year since the team made him its first-round pick in 2004. That's simply the way it is in the NFL with teams that employ and heavily invest in franchise quarterbacks.

Tannenbaum is choosing to get to the conclusion about Roethlisberger's impact on 2021 via the negative route, but the way the offseason has unfolded hints at the possibility of a happier ending.

Also a part of the conversation this summer is the change at offensive coordinator from Randy Fichtner to Matt Canada and the stated directive from the top of the organizational chart to develop a more competent running attack than the version that finished last in the NFL last season.

The offseason program ended yesterday, with the final on-field workout of the three-day minicamp the Steelers elected to stage at Heinz Field, which leaves the 90-man roster with some five weeks before the start of training camp, time that Coach Mike Tomlin undoubtedly warned them would best be spent getting into condition for what's to come when the pads go on.

Anyway, what we saw during the offseason could be spun into a series of positive signs for the upcoming season, but whenever traveling down that path it's wise to hear Tomlin's voice in the background reminding everyone that what happens during OTAs and minicamp "is football-like, but it's not football."

In that vein, Roethlisberger was doing a lot of quarterback-like things during the spring. A regular participant in the offseason's voluntary workouts, and since he was on site Roethlisberger maximized his time by finding something constructive to do each day, throughout each session.

Allow Minkah Fitzpatrick to explain:

"I'm happy Ben's out there," Fitzpatrick said in a Zoom call during OTAs. "For me, it's good to face a quarterback who does the things he does. On the very first play, he held me in the middle of the field a little bit and made the throw backside. Not too many guys are doing that across the league, so going against him and then going back to watch film, I can see what I can do better and remind myself of the fundamentals I need when I go against a guy like Ben. This year we're going against a lot of guys who are high caliber, so him coming out here early, I respect it, I appreciate it. We all do. It's a great look. Everybody's getting better when Ben's out there."

Another beneficiary of regular one-on-one interaction with Roethlisberger was Najee Harris, who should open training camp as the starting running back. During special teams periods during OTAs, though, Roethlisberger and Harris would go off to the side and play catch. But in this version of the game all of the balls thrown to Harris were purposefully off target. Low. High. Wrong shoulder. Up and in. Low and away. Suffice to say if Roethlisberger was a baseball pitcher during these sessions, he would've walked 10.

Then came offensive coordinator Matt Canada's one and only minicamp session with the media, and the yammering began anew. In response to a question about Roethlisberger, Canada said:

"I think in football, it is 11 men doing their jobs, but the quarterback is the focal point. It's the greatest position in all of sport, in my opinion, because of all the things you have to do. We are going to do what Ben [Roethlisberger] wants to do and how Ben wants to do it. Our job is putting every player in a position to make plays. There are changes with terminology and how we are calling things, which has been a challenge for Ben, and he has been great and learning it. Doing really well with it. I think he has adapted easily just like we all know he would … Matchups are how you win football games. It starts with the quarterback. What does he do well? What does he like? What does he see? What is good to his eye in the passing game and then you build off that, and that is what we are going to do. His voice and his vision, what he sees will be what we do."

The interpretation from outside was that the more the Steelers were talking about changing their offense, the more things were going to remain the same. It still was going to be shotgun formation more than 75 percent of the time; Roethlisberger opting to throw the ball every time the play is a run-pass option; Roethlisberger changing the running play sent in from the sideline to a pass once the offense broke the huddle and lined up; the game ending with the Steelers attempting close to 50 passes and maybe only running the football 10 times.

Was what Canada said a signal that he already was being usurped by the veteran quarterback, or is he simply doing the sensible thing? Yes, there has been a mandate from President Art Rooney II to General Manager Kevin Colbert to Coach Mike Tomlin to Canada that running the football is to be more than just lip service in 2021, but why would the Steelers jump through all those hoops to bring Roethlisberger back for another season if they wanted to clip his wings completely? What sense would it make to have a two-time Super Bowl winning, 17-year veteran quarterback at the helm of the offense if they weren't going to take advantage of his experience and play-making ability?

This never has been discussed specifically, but is it so difficult to comprehend that Roethlisberger opted for the pass option on all those RPOs last season because he knew the Steelers could not run the ball? The execution of the running game was so below the line that there could not have been any confidence in it being successful, so why go through the motions of what essentially turned out to be banging your head against a brick wall? Was Roethlisberger really being petulant, or simply pragmatic?

For the Steelers to fulfill Rooney's charge and compete for a championship in 2021, the Steelers – Colbert, Tomlin, Canada – have to believe it was the latter, and Rooney set the team on that path by negotiating and then agreeing to the terms that brought Roethlisberger back for an 18th season as the starting quarterback.

Running the football, actually running the football efficiently, is going to be an emphasis and a necessity for the upcoming season to be a successful one for the team, but the Steelers also will have to rely on their franchise quarterback to make plays with his arm.

"We have to be able to run the ball when we have to run it," said Canada. "That doesn't mean we are going to have to run the ball for X-amount of yards in a game. All that matters here is winning. Our charge is to win the Super Bowl. That's it. How we do that on offense and the formula and the formations, as coaches every year you are trying to create a system to put your players in positions to make plays. To run the football, we certainly believe play-action is a part of that. But that is not the only focal point we have. We are going to run the football when we have to run it, and we are going to throw it when we have to throw it. And after that, we are going to do everything we can to get our best players – and we have a lot of really good ones – in position to make the plays that their talents allow them to do."

The most important of those really good players still is Ben Roethlisberger.

Twenty-two years ago today, on June 18, 1999, the Steelers held a groundbreaking ceremony for the $262 million facility that would come to be called Heinz Field. It was a glorious day, literally so because of the pleasant weather and the number of esteemed guests in attendance. And it was a glorious day figuratively for what it signified for the Steelers and the Western Pennsylvania community.

Fortunate enough to be in attendance that day, what I remember about the parade of speakers invited by Dan Rooney and his son, Art II, is two-fold: how many of them actually showed up and participated, and how none of them took advantage of the microphone to make the occasion about themselves.

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy, County Commissioner Bob Cranmer all spoke, as did NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, Coach Bill Cowher, and Franco Harris and Joe Greene. Time has swallowed up a lot of what those men said that day, but there are a couple of things that were sufficiently memorable to have survived the passage of 20-plus years.

The first was an exchange between Cowher and Tagliabue.

By mid-June the NFL's 1999 regular season schedule already had been announced, and it called for the Steelers to open in Cleveland against the Browns. The Browns had been out of the NFL since the end of the 1995 season because Art Modell had packed up and moved the franchise to Baltimore. The NFL forced Modell to leave behind the team colors, logo, and franchise records/history for the new Browns, and during the hiatus a brand new facility – called Cleveland Browns Stadium – had been built on the shores of Lake Erie in close proximity to where Municipal Stadium stood for 65 years.

The new Browns would return in 1999, and for the opening weekend of the that regular season, Tagliabue had given the Browns their wish, which was to rejoin the NFL and open their new building with a Sunday night game against their long-time rivals: the Pittsburgh Steelers.

And so when Cowher stepped behind the podium for his remarks that day outside of Three Rivers Stadium for the groundbreaking of what would become known as Heinz Field, he took a couple of minutes to put Tagliabue on the spot. After explaining to the audience how the Browns' request to open the season at home vs. the Steelers was granted by the league, he asked Tagliabue to promise publicly to return the favor and have the Browns be the opponent when the Steelers were scheduled to open their new facility for the 2001 regular season.

Tagliabue agreed, and even though 9-11 would intervene and force the NFL to postpone all games the weekend the Steelers were scheduled to open Heinz Field, the Browns in fact were the scheduled opponent that day.

The second highlight was Joe Greene.

Then an assistant coach in Arizona under Vince Tobin, Greene still was considered part of the Steelers organization, certainly by everyone in attendance that day on the North Shore. With his remarks, Greene chose to remember fondly what was being replaced and he did it with an anecdote that got his message across and delighted all in attendance in a consummate Mean Joe kind of way.

It began with Greene waxing about the beautiful view of Pittsburgh that greets people as they exit the Fort Pitt Tunnel and begin the final phase of the trip from the Greater Pittsburgh International Airport. Then Greene moved on to the time when he had out-of-town guests come to visit him in Pittsburgh, people who never had been to the city before.

According to Greene's telling of the story from the podium that day, as he drove his guests through the Fort Pitt Tunnel and the city presented itself to them for the first time, he began to identify the many landmarks. Moving across the horizon, Greene started naming the buildings, hotels, and other structures of significance.

"And there," recounted Greene, as he pointed out Three Rivers Stadium to the occupants of the backseat of his car, "is where we kick a lot of ass on Sundays."

June 18, 1999 always will be remembered as the day ground was broken to construct Heinz Field, but it also was the day the greatest player in franchise history tied an anecdotal bow around the building Heinz Field was going to replace.