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Starkey: Big Ben's evolution

| Monday, June 1, 2015, 10:48 p.m.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on Sunday, Dec. 21, 2014, at Heinz Field.
Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on Sunday, Dec. 21, 2014, at Heinz Field.

Ben Roethlisberger has said he wants Sinatra's “My Way” to accompany his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. That would be an appropriate choice for one of the unique quarterbacks in NFL history.

A conformist, Ben is not.

But it seems clear, based on simple observation and some striking numbers, that Roethlisberger has conformed to the Steelers' wishes. He has become precisely the kind of quarterback they envisioned when they switched offensive coordinators three years ago.

Now 33, Big Ben is a different player. Just don't try to get him to admit it.

I used the c-word — conform — on the first day of OTAs when I asked Roethlisberger about his evolution from a quarterback who held the ball longer than anyone in the NFL to one who gets rid of it faster than all but a few.

That's a fairly significant change, no? “I haven't changed my game at all,” he said.

The numbers scream otherwise. Statistics often lie, but in Roethlisberger's case, they tell the amazing true story of a quarterback who has morphed from freelance gunslinger to pocket marksman. His old style, though effective and highly entertaining, wasn't going to lend itself to a long career. He'd literally suffered injuries from head to toe (“Ben does not have broken toes, OK?”)

Now look. The numbers from Pro Football Focus couldn't be more eye-opening:

• Last season, Roethlisberger got rid of the ball in 2.5 seconds, on average, a figure topped by only five others. Compare that to, say, 2007, when he was the only quarterback in the league who held it for more than 3 seconds per attempt.

• In a related development, Roethlisberger faced less pressure than all but three quarterbacks (Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Andy Dalton) last season. The man used to want six people hanging on his back when he threw.

I asked him about the quicker release time.

“It's a direct reflection on Randy Fichtner, our quarterbacks coach, and how awesome he is,” Roethlisberger said. “He just knows how to get the ball out of my hands faster and coaches me every day on that.”

Fair enough, but there has to be more. Roethlisberger credited his line, his teammates and his coaches.

The truth is that all of them, plus GM Kevin Colbert and team president Art Rooney II, deserve credit. The Steelers have managed their No. 1 asset brilliantly. They knew Roethlisberger would have to change if he was going to be worth one more huge contract. They invested in the line, surrounded him with weapons, and, perhaps counterintuitively, put the ball in his hands more often than ever.

You see the result: Roethlisberger at his all-time best. He finally is putting up the kinds of dazzling stats his elite counterparts have always produced.

And here's the kicker. Contrary to popular belief — perhaps fueled by Roethlisberger himself — he still throws deep more often than most. The offense's design was part of our discussion of why he gets rid of the ball quicker.

“You know, (Bruce Arians) was known to go down the field and take shots, and so you're going to have to hold onto the ball,” Roethlisberger said. “(Now) we call a lot of plays to get the ball out quick. … Todd's offense is a lot about catching the ball and running, so I think that's what it is, more than me changing.”

Actually, few offenses attack deep more often than Haley's. The idea that he has somehow shackled Roethlisberger is ludicrous.

The Envelope of Inconvenient Facts, please:

• No team attempted more “bombs” — passes that traveled at least 40 yards in the air — than the Steelers' 19 last season (credit Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders for that). The other two with 19 were Arians' Arizona Cardinals and the Philadelphia Eagles.

• Only one team had more completions of 40-plus yards.

• Only Andrew Luck attempted more passes that traveled at least 20 yards in the air (Pro Football Focus).

• Roethlisberger was third in yards per attempt (8.3).

Any of that sound like dink-and-dunk?

I finally won a concession from Roethlisberger when I mentioned it's patently obvious that he's freelancing less these days.

“Well, I'm getting older,” he said. “Guys are getting younger and faster, and I'm not getting any faster. If I don't have to run around, I don't, but there are still times I feel I can make a play. I've always said there's no plan to do it or not do it. Just let it happen.”

It's happening, all right.

Just the way the Steelers envisioned.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

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