Cook: Let's not forget, Ben Roethlisberger is still a Steeler

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It's become popular to write off the Steelers in the 2012 season even before they report to training camp Wednesday in Latrobe. ESPN analysts have said the window is closing quickly for the current players. SI.com says this could be the year the team takes a big step back. Others are saying much worse.

Concerns are everywhere, according to the critics. A new offense and new offensive coordinator. A young offensive line that could start two rookies, a second-year man and a third-year pro. A new featured running back. An old defense. A serious void in leadership.

The Baltimore Ravens beat the Steelers twice last season. Why can't they do it again? The Cincinnati Bengals made the playoffs last season behind a rookie quarterback. They will be better.

On and on, it goes.

I just have one question.

Does Ben Roethlisberger still play for the Steelers?

No window is closing.

The Steelers do have a new offense with new offensive coordinator Todd Haley. They could have an exceptionally young offensive line with rookies David DeCastro and Mike Adams, second-year man Marcus Gilbert and third-year pro Maurkice Pouncey. They will have a new featured back, Ike Redman. The defense is old in spots. Team leaders Hines Ward, Aaron Smith, Chris Hoke and, especially, James Farrior are gone.

It's all true.

But none of the issues is insurmountable.

Really, how much different will Haley's offense be? As Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said after hiring Haley, "Much of football is universal." The young linemen are extremely talented and quickly could become the best line the team has had in years. Redman, when last seen in January, was running for 121 yards against the Denver Broncos. The defense still has plenty of fight left and just needs James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley to stay healthy. Brett Keisel and Casey Hampton, Larry Foote and Troy Polamalu, and Roethlisberger and Pouncey remain as strong locker-room leaders.

Beyond all of that, I can't get past the edge that Roethlisberger gives the Steelers.

"He's as good as there's ever been," former Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians was saying over the telephone the other day. "He doesn't get nearly the credit he deserves. You hear about [Peyton] Manning and [Tom] Brady and [Aaron] Rodgers ... Rodgers hasn't touched what Ben has done."

OK, so Arians is biased. He spent the past eight seasons working with Roethlisberger, the past five as his offensive coordinator. But that doesn't change the fact Roethlisberger is the best quarterback in the AFC North Division. He's better than the Ravens' Joe Flacco despite Flacco's silly assertion during the winter that he's the NFL's best. He's better than the Bengals' Andy Dalton, who had a fine rookie year last season.

No step back is going to happen as long as Roethlisberger stays healthy.

Many of us spent much of the offseason agonizing over a potential conflict between Roethlisberger and Haley. That's more a reflection of us than of those two. Agonizing over every little thing about the Steelers is how we spend our winter, spring and much of the summer. That's especially true when the team gets bounced early from the playoffs, as it did in January in Denver. Getting Tebowed still hurts, doesn't it?

In most cases, we waste our time.

We fret over nothing.

I suspect it will be that way with Roethlisberger and Haley.

Yes, Roethlisberger loved playing for Arians. Yes, Haley has the reputation of being a much tougher-love coach than Arians. Yes, Roethlisberger is troubled by the uncertainty that goes with change, just as many of us are. And yes, he has whined about the intricacies of Haley's offense, probably too much.

But Roethlisberger is no fool. Beyond that, he's an incredible competitor who will do anything to win. He has talked openly of adding Super Bowl rings to his collection. He would love to add three more, which would give him five, one more than Steelers Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw. I think, in the end, Roethlisberger will be remembered as the better quarterback, but five rings would leave no doubt.

"Ben is going to be good no matter who is calling the plays," Arians said when asked how he expects Roethlisberger to adjust to Haley. "He has that will to win, that passion. He's a Steeler. He's not going to let his teammates down."

I don't care if Arians is biased.

I couldn't agree with him more.

How can anyone count out the Steelers as long as Roethlisberger is the quarterback?

It's not as if the Ravens don't have flaws. They will play much -- if not most -- of the season without NFL Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs (torn Achilles tendon). It's not as if the Bengals can't be the team that takes the step back. They have had 13 winning seasons in their 44-year existence. They have not had consecutive winning seasons since 1981 and 1982.

I know, it's July 22, still three days before the start of training camp.

Much can happen between now and January.

But if other pundits can opine that the window is closing on these Steelers, I can say that they are the team to beat in the AFC North.

Just stay healthy, No. 7.

roncook

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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