Kevin Gorman: Steelers OC Randy Fichtner hopes debut follows familiar script
Randy Fichtner is ready to unveil his play-calling personality for the Pittsburgh Steelers, a mystery to most in the NFL. He is ready to be second-guessed by Monday morning quarterbacks.
Fichtner professes to even be ready to give the ball to James Conner instead of Le’Veon Bell, and appears unfazed the All-Pro running back won’t be the focal point of his game plan.
What Fichtner won’t have with him when the Steelers open the season Sunday against the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium is 79-year-old father, Ross, a McKeesport native whose health won’t allow him to attend his son’s debut as an NFL offensive coordinator.
That’s a significant subtraction for Fichtner, given the game is in his hometown and against the team for which Ross Fichtner played defensive back for eight seasons, including the 1964 championship team.
“It’s interesting, to say the least,” Fichtner said. “Unfortunately, my dad’s not going to make it to the game. Cleveland’s been really good to him. Obviously, I was born there. I was a Browns fan until 12 years ago.”
That’s when Fichtner joined Mike Tomlin’s staff with the Steelers — telling Tomlin, “Coach, I’m coming for you” — and spending his first three seasons as wide receivers coach and the past eight coaching the quarterbacks. As fate would have it, Fichtner’s predecessor, Todd Haley, will be calling plays on the opposite sideline for the Browns.
The immediate reaction to Haley’s dismissal and Fichtner’s promotion was that it had Ben Roethlisberger’s fingerprints all over it, thanks to his personality clashes and subversive comments about Coach Todd.
Whether Big Ben has more freedom with his position coach in charge is the million-dollar question, one he hinted could involve more no-huddle offense this season than in years past.
“Potentially,” Roethlisberger said. “I think a lot of it depends on how the game’s going, the flow of the game. We don’t want to force anything, but sometimes you have to try to mix it up and throw some different wrinkles at them. But we’ll play that all out as it goes.”
Tomlin took delight Tuesday when asked about the NFL not having a book to study on Fichtner’s play-calling, a perceived edge that brought a smile to the face of the Steelers coach and one he intends to exploit.
“I like that,” Tomlin said. “I think, sometimes, there’s challenges that come with transition. There’s also benefits or unintended consequences. Not being able to anticipate his rhythms, his nuances or the things that he holds near and dear is part of the advantage of the transition.”
What will be as interesting is Fichtner’s sideline demeanor, expected to be a departure from Haley’s spirited style that could be abrasive at times. The soft-spoken Fichtner recalled he nearly pulled a hamstring celebrating on the sideline years ago against the Baltimore Ravens, which is why his approach tends to be low key.
“Randy is just a different animal when it comes to that, showing emotion,” Roethlisberger said, noting Fichtner showed some on the sideline in the preseason finale against the Carolina Panthers on Aug. 30 at Heinz Field. “We were having fun because Randy gave us like a fist pump and we don’t really see much of that from Randy. He’s pretty even-keeled for the most part, so we are excited to see what he brings on Sunday when it’s kind of live action.”
For Fichtner, it’s a homecoming that has been a long time coming. His first NFL regular-season game with the Steelers also was at Cleveland, a 34-7 victory in the 2007 opener.
Afterward, Ross Fichtner came to the Steelers locker room to congratulate Randy. It was an uncomfortable scene for the father, as the Browns had beaten the Steelers in six of eight meetings in Cleveland in his NFL career, only to see the roles reversed. The Steelers are 8-3 at Cleveland under Tomlin and haven’t lost to the Browns since a 31-10 defeat on Oct. 12, 2014.
“I know my dad’s a Steelers fan right now,” Fichtner said, “but he was part of some great years that they had there and they have done a great job giving back to the legends and the ex-players that they’ve had there.
“It was funny. … The Rooneys were there, Mr. (Dan) Rooney and Art II, and he came in and just made a quick comment that he wasn’t used to that. Back when he was playing, that wasn’t the outcomes, especially in the home stadium. But he said, ‘I’m sure glad it happened.’ ”
Randy Fichtner hopes Sunday follows a similar script, so long as the Steelers follow the one he devises for them to beat the Browns.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at [email protected] or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.