Just about every NFL analyst is predicting gloom and doom for the Steelers next season. The team has lost seven starters from an 8-8 team in 2012. It's hard for the pundits to find a reason for optimism. But they all offer the same caveat.
"Pittsburgh still has a franchise quarterback. You can't ever count 'em out because of that."
That is a lot of pressure on one guy.
I asked Ben Roethlisberger about it Thursday when he stopped by to do an hour of our radio show, "Vinnie and Cook," on 93.7 The Fan.
"I've been working out for a long time," Roethlisberger said. "I only took seven days off after the last game. That's the earliest I ever started back. I'm in great shape ...
"We just started our voluntary offseason workouts. This is the earliest I've come to those. I want to be there so those guys can see me. I want them to know that I want to be the guy this year that's ready to go and lead them. I want to get us back to a Super Bowl."
Sounded like the man isn't losing much sleep because of the pressure.
"I'm fine with people saying we're going to be terrible. 'Let's overlook them,' " Roethlisberger said. "I like that. I like being the hunter. It's kind of a fun place to be."
Roethlisberger is in a much better spot than he was after last season when the Steelers missed the playoffs for just the third time in his nine seasons as quarterback. He still takes the blame because he threw hurtful interceptions late in losses to the Dallas Cowboys and Cincinnati Bengals late in the season. The Cincinnati game still troubles him. At least he played well in Dallas. He was bad in the home game against the Bengals, start to finish. A win in that game and the Steelers would have been in the postseason.
"It killed me, to let your team down, the fans down, your coaches. To feel like it's all your fault," Roethlisberger said. "But what you have to do as a quarterback and as a professional is you have to let that burn at you and eat at you and bother you, but you also have to put that past you and move on. You have to have the shortest memory at quarterback. I think it's going to make me stronger and better.
"The thing that keeps me going is knowing that it doesn't happen to me too often. I just kind of felt like it was one of those years. My goal, my mindset, my mentality is not to let it happen again and to turn those fourth-quarter interceptions into touchdowns that win games."
Like the rest of us, Roethlisberger is eager to see what the Steelers get in the NFL draft, which starts Thursday night. He said the organized team activities that follow will feel "like high school where you put white tape on your helmet with your last name on it ... it's going to be different to look around. It's going to be a different locker room."
Roethlisberger lamented the loss of wide receiver Mike Wallace to the Miami Dolphins and is keeping his fingers crossed that linebacker James Harrison doesn't wind up in the AFC North Division. "James is nasty," he said. As for Wallace? "We had great chemistry," Roethlisberger said. "I'm going to miss him as a person. As a teammate, he was a great locker-room guy. On the field, he was really something special. People don't realize how important it is to have a guy with his ability. It opens it up for other receivers. It's going to be tough for all of us."
Roethlisberger acknowledged putting in "my two cents" to coach Mike Tomlin and suggesting the Steelers match the New England Patriots' offer sheet to wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. "They don't listen to me very often," Roethlisberger said, grinning. This time, they did. At least they matched the offer to Sanders.
"I think he's a great player for us," Roethlisberger said. "From my perspective, he's valuable to this football team. He's a good leader. You can see him developing into that guy."
The Steelers definitely didn't listen to Roethlisberger when they fired offensive coordinator Bruce Arians after the 2011 season. The two remain close. Arians has referred to Roethlisberger as "my other son."
Roethlisberger's relationship with new offensive coordinator Todd Haley was scrutinized closely last season. There were no sideline blowups, although Roethlisberger mentioned one "little incident" during the opening game in Denver. At one point, Roethlisberger called Haley's offense "dink-and-dunk." After the loss in Dallas, he criticized Haley's play-calling. He still stands by the dink-and-dunk comment -- "That was in no way disrespectful" -- but he apologized to Haley right after the Dallas game.
"We get along just fine," Roethlisberger said. "There are, obviously, times when we disagree on something, but I think that's healthy. There's no issue with us. A lot was made out of nothing. We are completely fine."
One reason Haley was hired was to run an offense that requires Roethlisberger to get rid of the ball quickly so he doesn't take a pounding from defenses. Roethlisberger was having a great season through eight games last year -- the Steelers were 5-3 -- but still ended up hurt with chest and rib injuries when Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Tamba Hali landed on him awkwardly in the ninth game. Roethlisberger missed three games and wasn't the same player when he came back.
It's no secret Roethlisberger loves the deep ball, the home run.
"I like to throw it down the field when you have that potential. I like to utilize the weapons we have. I don't just want to chuck it down the field to whomever. But if we have home-run threats, let's utilize them. That's always been my big thing. Let's not have Mike Wallace or Antonio Brown to block. They're not blockers. Let's use them to do things that they're best at.
"We're already starting to make some changes, which are changes I think are for the better."
There are questions about tight end Heath Miller, the Steelers' MVP last season. He's coming off major knee surgery. "If anyone can come back, it's Heath Miller," Roethlisberger said. "He works so hard on his body. His focus. His determination. This is just going to push him even more."
There are questions about the offensive line, which no longer has Roethlisberger pals Willie Colon and Max Starks. He is not deterred. "That could be our best group. They're young. They're athletic. They're talented ... Steeler Nation wants to pound the ball and see some exciting in-the-trenches play? Well, you're going to get that."
There are questions about the running backs with Rashard Mendenhall gone and only Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer and Baron Batch left. "I think those guys are taking it personal that everybody is talking about them," Roethlisberger said. " 'What's going to happen? We don't have a running back. We need to get one in the draft.' Those guys are taking it a little personal. I want to see what that turns into."
Roethlisberger also is feeling a little dissed after his poor finish last season. The analysts might say he's the Steelers' best chance for a successful season, but they seldom mention him anymore in the same sentence with other top NFL quarterbacks Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Peyton and Eli Manning and Drew Brees. Some even have suggested he's no longer the best quarterback in the AFC North now that Baltimore's Joe Flacco has won a Super Bowl. The Steelers have won two Super Bowls with Roethlisberger and went to a third. He, Brady (three titles) and Eli Manning (two) are the only active quarterbacks with multiple championships.
"It drives me," Roethlisberger said. "They're going to talk about those quarterbacks -- and deservedly so. They're great quarterbacks. My only hope is that, one day when I'm done, they look back and say, 'He was pretty good. Maybe we didn't give him the credit that he deserved.' "
That day isn't close, Roethlisberger said, even though he turned 31 March 2. The 2013 season will be his 10th in the NFL. He isn't backing off his goal of matching or even exceeding former Steelers Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw, who led his teams to four Super Bowl championships.
"It's not going to be easy," Roethlisberger said. "But getting one wasn't easy. Getting two wasn't easy. Getting to three wasn't easy. But if it was easy, a lot more guys would be doing it.
"I'm not getting any younger, but I feel young. I feel great. That's still the goal and it has to start this year."
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Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.