For years, going back to even before Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger led a last-minute drive to beat his Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII, Todd Haley said he watched Roethlisberger from afar with one thought always.
"Man, how nice would it be to have that dude."
Wishes do come true.
Haley has Roethlisberger with the Steelers.
"I'm so excited to be here," Haley said the other day at the team's South Side headquarters. "It's been all that I expected and more."
Haley was talking about his first season as Steelers offensive coordinator. He was talking about working with coach Mike Tomlin and the offensive assistants. He was talking about stepping into the lab each day with his offensive players. But mostly, it seemed, he was talking about Roethlisberger.
"This guy has it all and more," Haley said. "There isn't a lot he can't do."
The Roethlisberger-Haley relationship has grown despite constant scrutiny from a Steelers-mad city. It got off to a rough start after Roethlisberger made it clear he didn't like seeing former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians replaced. It didn't help that Haley came in with the reputation of being a coaching monster, who frequently screamed at his quarterback on the sideline, as the head coach with the Kansas City Chiefs and as the offensive coordinator with the Cardinals. He didn't know the other Steelers coaches or the players. Most certainly, he didn't know Roethlisberger, the franchise's $100 million man.
"It was tough because I was kind of like the new kid in school," Haley said.
Slowly but surely, Haley has grown on Roethlisberger, who is having maybe his best season and still is healthy going into the game today against the New York Giants. Just as impressively, Haley has won over -- at least for now -- most fans in a town that is notorious for being hard on the offensive coordinator, where just about everybody thinks they can call the plays. Arians was widely criticized despite being a superb play-caller for the Steelers team that won Super Bowl XLIII and lost to the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLV.
Most of the credit goes to Roethlisberger. He has completed nearly 67 percent of his passes for 14 touchdowns and just three interceptions. His passer rating is 101.4, more than 9 points higher than his career average coming into the season. He has been the best third-down passer in the NFL.
But Haley deserves props as well. Maybe he was a little heavy-handed initially. Roethlisberger has said as much. But Haley was smart enough to quickly put his ego aside and start working with those around him rather than bossing them around. He welcomed input from the offensive staff and from the players, especially the veteran quarterbacks Roethlisberger, Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch.
"I've always been that way with my players," Haley said. "Going back to my day as wide receivers coach with the Jets, Keyshawn [Johnson] would come to me with plays he thought would work. I'd tell him, 'If you do the film work and see something, bring it to me and I'll try to get it in the game plan.' When I had Kurt [Warner] in Arizona, he would shoot me 100 sheets of paper a day with plays on it ...
"I tried to make it clear from the start here that this isn't about Todd Haley's offense. It's never been my offense. It's our offense. It's especially Ben's offense."
Along the way, Haley has been incredibly patient with Roethlisberger. He never acted shunned when Roethlisberger proclaimed his preference for Arians. He didn't flinch when Roethlisberger spoke of a "little incident" the two had on the sideline in Denver during the opening game. "I'm not sure I know what he's talking about," Haley said. He didn't overreact when Roethlisberger called the offense "dink-and-dunk" before the Washington game last Sunday. "I didn't mean it as a negative. It just kind of is what we are," Roethlisberger said later. Certainly, Haley didn't take it as a negative.
"I think Ben has done a terrific job of taking what the defense has given him," Haley said. "He's done a great job of getting the ball off fast and finding the open man. That's served us well and it's served him well. He's still been Ben when he's had to be and made a play for us. But he knows when it's time to be a hero and when it's not. Most times, there's another down to play."
The Steelers offense is improving. The run game has been better, although Jonathan Dwyer, who ran for more than 100 yards in each of the past two games, likely will miss the game today with a quadriceps injury. The offensive line has gotten better each week but will be challenged today by the Giants' strong front seven. There still are more shots to be taken downfield -- especially to wide receiver Mike Wallace -- which could happen against a Giants defense that has been susceptible to the deep pass.
What has been a constant is the offense's ability to keep the ball. The Steelers' edge in possession time over their opponents is more than nine minutes per game. Another constant has been that Roethlisberger is taking less of a beating. He has been sacked just 13 times in seven games and isn't taking the hits he once did.
"I've heard I need to let Ben be Ben," Haley said. "It would be easy to do. I would love that. I could keep in five [blockers] and send everyone out and let Ben make a play. But that would be selfish. You do that long enough and, sooner or later, he's going to make a bad play or he's going to get hurt."
As it is, Roethlisberger is having a Pro Bowl season. Some have suggested, albeit prematurely, that he is an NFL MVP candidate. Warner, who works for the NFL Network and studies the Steelers' game tapes, is among those who are impressed.
" 'I thought Ben was just a run-around, break-tackles, make-a-play quarterback,' " Haley recalled Warner saying during one of their many conversations. " 'But he's a good drop-back passer.' "
Roethlisberger is a great quarterback, period.
It's been fun watching the Roethlisberger-Haley relationship grow.
It's been fun watching the results.