Their first season together — Ken Whisenhunt, headstrong first-year offensive coordinator, and Ben Roethlisberger, headstrong first-year quarterback — literally was perfect.
The second year was even better: They won the Super Bowl.
But the coach and player parted ways after a more difficult third season, one in which the quarterback didn’t fully like the offense, and the coordinator didn’t fully like how that offense was run.
Now Roethlisberger and Whisenhunt will be on the same field Monday as coach and player, but they’re opposing each other. Kind of like they did at times when Roethlisberger went 13-0 as the Steelers rookie quarterback in 2004, and Whisenhunt showed him not only the offense but some tough love.
Roethlisberger said Wednesday that he and Whisenhunt, now the Titans coach, disagreed about play-calling while working together during the quarterback’s first three NFL seasons.
“(It’s) something every coordinator and quarterback do, they’d go through plays, and (if) I say I don’t like a play, usually the coordinators take it out,” Roethlisberger said. “He would try to convince me that was a good play. If you want to call that butting heads, I guess that’s what would you call it. “
The two hid their differences at the time, but after Whisenhunt was hired in 2007 as Arizona’s coach, he suggested Roethlisberger wasn’t the same quarterback after going through his serious motorcycle accident, an appendectomy and concussion in 2006.
“You could just sense he wasn’t as confident as he was the year before,” Whisenhunt said. “A lot of that, I think, was because of recovering from the injuries and having some doubts of whether he was 100 percent or not.”
Those comments upset Roethlisberger, who subsequently criticized Whisenhunt’s play-calling in advance of the Cardinals-Steelers Super Bowl in early 2009.
“We were so predictable. We’d run on first down, run on second down and throw on third-and-long, and that killed us,” Roethlisberger said. “If we took a shot downfield and it was incomplete — or heaven forbid, intercepted — we wouldn’t throw it long again for a long time.”
Roethlisberger didn’t have much input in the offense early in his career but said Whisenhunt wasn’t the only reason why.
“I think some of that with coach Whis, too, was because ‘The Chin’ (coach Bill Cowher), he (was) looking down on him,” Roethlisberger said. “He had to run it a certain way.”
Wide receiver Nate Washington, who played for Whisenhunt in Pittsburgh and is with him again in Tennessee, agreed that the offense Roethlisberger didn’t always like is challenging.
“It’s a process,” Washington said. “The offense can be a little difficult if you don’t take the time out (to get on the same page).”
On a conference call, Whisenhunt explained he and Roethlisberger were finding their way at the time, and that he now feels “lucky” to have worked with the quarterback.
“He was new at what he was doing in the NFL, and I was new at what I was doing,” Whisenhunt said.
Now in the ever-changing personnel carousel that is the NFL, Roethlisberger’s offensive coordinator is Todd Haley, who was Whisenhunt’s coordinator in Arizona. Whisenhunt was replaced as Arizona’s coach by Bruce Arians, who also succeeded him as the Steelers’ offensive coordinator. And Whisenhunt succeeded Mike Munchak, the Steelers’ offensive line coach, as Tennessee’s coach.
Whisenhunt again has a strong-armed rookie quarterback in Zach Mettenberger, but he was a sixth-round pick, not a first-rounder like Roethlisberger. The expectations aren’t as high.
“He (Whisenhunt) holds Zach accountable, just as he did Ben,” Washington said. “He teaches him relentlessly and harps on him and is making sure he is technically sound.”
That must sound familiar to Roethlisberger.
“He probably knew better (in 2004) because I was a young guy and didn’t know much about the NFL at the time,” he said.
Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.