Kevin Gorman: Big Ben takes big step toward becoming better leader for Steelers
The Pittsburgh Steelers endured an offseason notable for its negativity, with much of the criticism directed at the lack of leadership by franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
That Roethlisberger took it to heart could prove to be a positive, especially if he becomes a better leader.
It’s what they need from Big Ben, now more than ever.
“When it comes to leadership and things like that, we didn’t make the playoffs last year. We didn’t win our division, so I lacked in leadership because that’s my job as the leader of this team to get us to the playoffs,” Roethlisberger said. “I’m going to need to focus and refocus my energy and time on how can I be a better leader to get us back to the playoffs.”
It’s misguided to equate leadership only with winning. Leadership starts long before game day — whether in the locker and film rooms or on the practice field — with communication in preparation. It starts by setting the example for other players, not simply by telling them to follow your lead.
No one doubts whether Roethlisberger can deliver with a game on the line in the fourth quarter, not when he’s done it so many times. But, at 37 years old and entering his 16th NFL season, he should understand the responsibility that comes with having a Hall of Fame-caliber career is even greater after signing a two-year, $68-million contract extension through the 2021 season.
Roethlisberger proved last season that even a career year in which he led the NFL in passing attempts, completions and yards and set a team record for touchdowns wasn’t good enough for a Steelers team so talent rich on offense.
What you hope he learned was he had a hand in causing some of the distractions, especially for believing he earned the right to take teammates to task on his weekly radio show without considering the potential backlash.
Roethlisberger was noncommittal about his weekly appearance on 93.7 FM but promised to make it better if he does. That makes me wonder if he will take a different tact, with constructive criticism instead of subtle shots at his coaches and teammates.
Perhaps getting publicly called out by former teammates Antonio Brown to Rashard Mendenhall, as well as ex-NFL players who are television analysts, sent shockwaves through Big Ben’s system. That he admitted to being hurt showed how much being on the receiving end can sting.
“As professional athletes, we always talk about thick skin. Naturally, we have to have it to do what we do and deal with all of the things we have to deal with, from media to fans to opposing stadiums,” Roethlisberger said. “But I’d be lying if we didn’t say it doesn’t bother us at times.”
That Roethlisberger didn’t ignore their cheap shots is a good sign for the Steelers, who showed a circle-the-wagons approach on the opening day of organized team activities. For a team that finished last season with so many fissures and fractures, starting next season with a sense of cohesion was imperative.
“I think that’s kind of the mentality we all have taken,” Roethlisberger said. “We’ve been attacked from different angles this offseason, so we need to stick together and have each other’s backs.”
That was evident when two of the Steelers’ most outspoken veterans, Ramon Foster and Cameron Heyward, had Roethlisberger’s back in interviews Tuesday at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
Foster is not only the second-longest tenured Steelers player but one who has protected Roethlisberger as the starting left guard for the past decade. He was one of the first to speak up on social media, urging former players to address complaints personally instead of airing grievances in a public forum.
But Foster believes Big Ben being so conscious of the criticism forced some self-evaluation and went so far as to predict the public catcalls would cause growth in Roethlisberger — even if it isn’t always noticeable.
“Ben is Ben. He’s going to come in here and do his job. He’s going to be the guy,” Foster said. “I’m not going to say there’s been a dramatic change because then it seems like a terrible problem. Just watch him. You’ll be able to tell.”
This was the first step forward for Roethlisberger. A year ago, he was critical of the Steelers for using a third-round pick to draft Mason Rudolph, then scheduled a family vacation during the voluntary OTAs. That set a bad precedent, as Le’Veon Bell never showed and Brown followed by leaving town. A season of selfishness ensued, and it encompassed the Steelers.
If Roethlisberger needed to rebuild his reputation, he’s starting by strengthening his relationship with the skill players. He emphasized the importance of communicating with and learning the tendencies of not only newcomers such as receivers Donte Moncrief and Diontae Johnson but also finding a rhythm with his new No. 1 target, JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Heyward already can see a difference, as he and Roethlisberger “have a lot more leadership talks.” That’s a sign the Steelers captains are taking their responsibility more seriously, attempting to be proactive instead of reactive.
And proof positive Big Ben is taking the criticism to heart.
“How could you not?” Heyward said. “Communication is always beneficial. When guys are honest and constructive of each other, take criticism and move forward, that’s only a positive thing. I like that we’re not shying away from it.
”We’re trying to improve the team. We’re trying to make sure everybody’s on the same page because when you can do that, everybody can move gracefully and stride together.”
If the Steelers are going to hit their stride this season, it will start with Roethlisberger taking talk of his leadership to heart and becoming a better leader, now more than ever.
How could he not?
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .