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Starkey: Revisiting Rooney’s vision for Ben

Remember when the Bruce Arians era ended, ever so awkwardly, and Steelers president Art Rooney II made headlines by saying the running game needed an upgrade and Ben Roethlisberger needed to “tweak” his playing style?

Remember the flak Rooney caught, even as the masses cheered Arians’ departure?

By the time his words were pressed through the fan and media grinders (I am as guilty as anyone), they looked like this: “Rooney: Steelers Must Return to 1973.”

So much emphasis was placed on Rooney’s role in the Arians ouster, his alleged running-game obsession and his Ben-meddling that many of us missed the money quote.

We missed the actual plan.

In an interview with Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola, shortly after Arians “retired,” Rooney revealed his true vision. It did not involve 3 yards or a cloud of dust. Labriola pointed out that the two Super Bowl quarterbacks that season (Tom Brady and Eli Manning) had combined for 10,000-plus yards and 68 touchdown passes. He wondered: “Has the recipe for winning championships changed?”

Rooney’s response, in part: “The rules have changed to allow for more prolific passers, and so I think that’s what we’re looking for, for our quarterback to be up there with the elite quarterbacks and to have that kind of production.”

Wait. The vision was for Ben’s numbers to become more Brady-like?

Who knew?

Forty-one games later, Rooney is looking like a prophet. Roethlisberger has attempted the second most passes in the league — he never has finished above ninth — and is completing a higher percentage than ever. Many for touchdowns.

At long last, Big Ben is producing the big numbers normally reserved for guys named Brady, Manning and Brees. He has attempted 86 passes in the past two games — the vast majority with the Steelers ahead.

In other words, this historic, 12-touchdown, zero-interception explosion was borne not of desperation but design. It isn’t just a two-game story, either. Roethlisberger has produced the best numbers of his career under coordinator Todd Haley — 76 touchdowns, 25 interceptions, 98.2 passer rating.

So it’s all beginning to make sense, even if it makes no sense at all.

Three weeks ago, the Steelers offense was a joke. It ranked 31st in red-zone efficiency, fresh off three games in which it totaled 44 points against the Buccaneers, Jaguars and Browns. That came a few weeks after a no-touchdown effort in Baltimore.

There were, rightfully, questions about Haley’s future. All the momentum generated in the second half of last season had disappeared. That outburst seemed like a mirage.

Now when you consider the past three games combined with the final eight of last season, it’s the Bucs-Jags-Browns stretch that seems like the anomaly.

The paradox of last season was that as the Steelers conferred more freedom onto Roethlisberger in the form of increased play-calling duties, he played less of his signature playground style.

The paradox of this season is that when Haley and coach Mike Tomlin reduced Roethlisberger’s play-calling duties, the Steelers went positively pass-crazy.

The overriding paradox is that only in Arians’ absence has Ben finally been unleashed.

Sure, all of this might have happened with Arians. We’ll never know. But as we sit here today, Roethlisberger might be the hottest quarterback in NFL history. His offense is shooting for a franchise-record three straight 40-point games in the same season.

Somehow, against all logic, the Steelers and their quarterback have arrived at a place where they both are getting what they want.

For Roethlisberger, it is the kind of freedom and weaponry — including a revamped running game and healthy offensive line — that allows him to wing it all over the yard. For the Steelers, it’s the comfort of seeing their quarterback “tweak” his style and release the ball faster, which gives him the best chance of remaining effective well into his 30s.

Roethlisberger is getting rid of the ball in just 2.49 seconds on average this season, according to Pro Football Focus. Only four quarterbacks (including Brady and Peyton Manning) unleash faster.

Compare that to, say, 2007, when every starter in the league had a faster release time than Roethlisberger’s 3.16 seconds.

That wasn’t an issue then. Ben was young, and his ad-lib game produced results. But it wasn’t going to last. We can see now that he needed some tough love. He needed to settle down, on and off the field. He needed to learn to rely more on his brain than his bravado.

Ben Roethlisberger, 32, is evolving in ways that could not be imagined.

Except, perhaps, by the man who runs the team.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at [email protected].


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