The road trip of a decade
Sunday, February 07, 2010

The summer of 2004 brought two immutable truths to the verdant hillsides of Latrobe, first that Tommy Maddox was the Steelers' quarterback, and second that Big Ben Roethlisberger was their quarterback "down the road."

The phrase "down the road" got invoked so often in conjunction with No. 7 in that camp that you half expected Roethlisberger to take all his snaps out on Route 30, or at least somewhere, you know, down the road.

But in the middle of the first decade of the new century, the road rose to meet the Steelers, as the Irish blessing goes, and ever since, with few exceptions, the wind's been at their backs as well.

The winds brought a Category 3 Hurricane to Miami for Ben's first NFL start that September, necessitated when Maddox was injured fatefully on the season's second weekend in Baltimore. The Steelers lost that game but would not lose again until the AFC title game.

When the history of the decade gets written, at least as it will get written in the next 700 words or so, the drafting of Ben Roethlisberger not only capped but eventually would encapsulate, culminate and illustrate the offensive philosophy of Steelers football not only in the past decade but in direct relation to the past 40 years.

Roethlisberger's abilities -- accuracy, innovation, determination, poise -- all of them evident from the moment he stepped into the overnight slop left by Hurricane Jeanne, enabled the Steelers to ascend to a position of leading-edge strategical status as the decade wore on.

Just as the Steelers of the '70s sculpted a defensive monument that ultimately had to be legislated out of the game, just as the Steelers' of the '80s suffered from a lack of offensive innovation (you remember why Latrobe was overrun with skunks one summer, right? Because Chuck Noll wouldn't allow the shotgun in camp), the evolution of offensive thought that arrived with Bill Cowher in 1992 achieved its full bloom about 15 years later thanks mainly to Big Ben.

Cowher brought a run-it, run-it, run-it philosophy retrofitted beautifully by offensive coordinator Ron Erhardt, but the failure to handle the underdog San Diego Chargers in the 1994 AFC title game curdled Cowher's resolve. His next five offensive coordinators, between Erhardt and incumbent Bruce Arians, were primarily passing architects, even as Cowher eventually warmed to the gospel of balance. It wasn't until after 2003, a season in which Maddox's Tommy Gun act produced oodles of yards but only six wins, the only losing season of the decade, that Cowher returned to his roots in the ground game.

It's worth noting that in Ben's first year, Jerome Bettis' 13 touchdowns were nearly three times that of any teammate, and that in his second, Cowher told his club some version of the Christopher Columbus odyssey, allowing the Steelers to win a Super Bowl in which their quarterback had a shabby passer rating of 22.6.

Cowher's final curtain, the Good-bye Columbus autumn of 2006 (8-8), left Mike Tomlin an offense for which the new head coach seemed to be reading the instructions aloud at an early presser: "Run Willie Parker until the wheels fall off."

But by the time that happened, Roethlisberger fully owned the offense, throwing a team-record 32 touchdown passes in 2007 and another aerial assault that led to a second Super Bowl title in four years in '08.

Wideout Nate Washington, whose final game in a Steelers uniform was Super Bowl 43, explained the quick evolution of offensive football in Pittsburgh in his four years with almost jarring simplicity exactly one year ago last week.

"That's the biggest difference between coach Arians and coach [Ken] Whisenhunt [Arians' precedessor under Cowher] is that coach Whisenhunt has his way, his ideas, his method of what he wanted to do," Washington said before leaving for Tennessee via free agency, "but with coach Arians, he wants to put the ball in Ben's hands because he feels with the ball in Ben's hands, we're going to be all right. His trust in Ben is totally different than coach Whisenhunt's."

And so the In Ben We Trust offense is now the bridge to a new decade, and though a series of exhaustively chronicled defensive collapses last season produced a limp 9-7 record for 2009 that bookended the 9-7 autumn of 2000 for fans of trivial decade symmetry, the most compelling fact about the Steelers today is that Roethlisberger isn't even 28 yet.

His continuing education, the recognition of viable offensive trends and structures by Bruce Arians, and the continual innovations annually implemented by defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau leave Tomlin and Art Rooney II well positioned to deliver within the next decade glories similar to the one that just expired.

Of course, that's all down the road.

Gene Collier:
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First published on February 7, 2010 at 12:00 am