Ben Roethlisberger and Todd Haley went to dinner last week at The Capital Grille along with the other Steelers quarterbacks. The meal was much-praised, the atmosphere relaxed and cordial. Coach Mike Tomlin anted up for a bottle of wine.
Afterward, player and coach talked about how enjoyable the evening was. So much for the theory NFL Network floated that Roethlisberger is so disgusted with Haley and the offense that he might ask to be traded during the offseason.
As his party left the Downtown restaurant, Haley found himself wondering, “Why can’t we have paparazzi that follows us, so they could actually find out the truth?”
Truth is, as Haley winds down his second season as offensive coordinator in his hometown, the offense finally is growing into what he envisioned. Even if the Steelers (6-8) aren’t winning as much as he expected.
Roethlisberger is breaking many of his single-season franchise passing records and is poised to play a full 16-game season for only the second time in his 10-season career. He hasn’t had a better season statistically, and he’s doing it under Haley — not his longtime boss and close friend Bruce Arians.
“Everybody talks that they don’t get along, but when you sit and visit with them, they do seem like they’re OK,” said former Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick, a Fox and NFL Network analyst.
Roethlisberger said they’re more than OK. There was the customary adjustment period last season as coach got to know player and vice versa, but the quarterback said they are developing excellent chemistry.
“We’re more than fine,” he said. “We have a great relationship.”
Just like the one Roethlisberger has with Antonio Brown, who is third in the NFL with 95 catches and could break a 16-year-old club single-season receiving yardage record as early as Sunday in Green Bay. Brown likes how the Haley offense is designed to get him the ball in the open field, often in single coverage.
Rookie Le’Veon Bell is developing into the best dual-purpose running back the Steelers have had in years. Offensive line coach Jack Bicknell is patching together an injury-thinned unit every week, yet Roethlisberger has been sacked only five times in five games.
And an offense that couldn’t seem to get out of its way while making a sea of mistakes during an 0-4 start has only three turnovers in five games and is averaging 28 points since midseason.
“The offense is good right now,” said Brian Baldinger, a former NFL lineman and an NFL Network analyst.
“The points have gone up. I think production has gone up,” Roethlisberger said. “I think the mistakes have really come down. I think guys enjoy doing it.”
It’s a big change since September, when Haley was dealing not only with a balky offense but also two consumer-related lawsuits filed against him and wife Christine.
About then, the former Kansas City Chiefs coach might have found himself wondering what he got into by returning home to work. But he never did.
“I love it. I love it. I love it,” Haley said of Pittsburgh. “Everybody (in the family) loves it. It’s a great place to live, a great place to raise kids.”
Haley is raising five of them of varying ages in Upper St. Clair, and it seems as if no matter how late he gets home from his South Side office, there is at least one child waiting to greet him and discuss the day’s affairs.
Unlike in September, there is much good to discuss. Except for those lawsuits — one over a house the Haleys were renting, another over a dog-care service. Because the cases are being resolved, Haley could not comment specifically about them. But it’s obvious he believes he and his wife were represented badly when a home builder accused them of yanking appliances from the home.
“I’d like to see how many people are in legal situations that are no fault of their own,” he said.
He prefers to talk about how the offense is progressing on an almost weekly basis.
“We’ve been playing at a pretty high level,” Haley said.
Including the quarterback, around whom all things revolve. Roethlisberger is enjoying frequent chances to the run no-huddle offense he prefers, mostly because he gets to call his own plays. He also is getting rid of the ball more quickly than he did under Arians, which is translating into fewer sacks. Yet he still gets to throw downfield more.
“Before with Ben, it was run around and make plays outside the structure of the offense, and everything’s good. But it’s hard to do it that way,” Billick said. “There is more orchestration with this. … As he gets into the later part of his career, I take him at his word that this is something he applauds.”
It seems to be everything team president Art Rooney II and Tomlin supposedly wanted when they brought in Haley, the son of former Steelers player personnel chief Dick Haley. Namely, they wanted to keep Roethlisberger upright and healthy and build a better-balanced offense with more emphasis on the running game.
But, according to Haley, there wasn’t such a mandate.
“Mike and I never had that discussion,” Haley said. “We never had that specific conversation. But Coach has a clear picture of what he wants. … He’s a great head coach, a great boss, and he just wants to score enough points to win.
“We all know to do that, you’ve got to have a quarterback who can play like Ben. And we’re better with him on the field than not on the field. So that clearly was something that Ben had to evolve to. He’s doing a terrific job.”
Haley never gave any sign of being bothered by the early season fan unrest over the play-calling, turnovers and lack of scoring.
“(My father) always said that if you listen to outside forces, you’re liable to do something you wouldn’t normally have done out of your own hard work,” Haley said. “And I’ve never coached worrying about being fired.”
Given the offense’s progress, there appears to be little chance Haley will be fired and a third offensive coordinator in four years is brought in. Especially given how Roethlisberger appears to be buying in.
“That’s the last thing I want,” Roethlisberger said.
It’s the last thing Haley wants, too. Finally, to him, he has found home — and he went back home to do it.
“I’d like to stay here for as long as I can,” Haley said. “As long as they’ll have me.”
Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.