There are a lot of ways the Steelers can beat the Atlanta Falcons Sunday. Dennis Dixon could play lights out. Rashard Mendenhall could run for 150 yards and three touchdowns. The defense could pitch a shutout. Troy Polamalu could return an interception for a score. But there's only one way the Steelers can lose. Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians screws things up by calling a rotten game.
That's the perception of many around town, isn't it?
"I've heard that," Arians said after practice Thursday.
You should have seen the man laugh. I'd like to say it was a belly laugh, but Arians doesn't have nearly the belly he did last season. He lost 35 pounds over the summer on a diet. His critics -- and they are many -- have a lot less of him to kick around.
That won't stop 'em, of course. Not that Arians cares. He learned a long time ago that scrutiny and criticism go with his job because everyone truly believes they can call the plays better than the offensive coordinator. He pays no attention to it. Certainly, he has paid no attention to it since the spring of 2007 when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer and had a prostatectomy.
It's amazing how being a cancer survivor changes a person's perspective about what's really important in life.
No doubt it helped Arians get through a tough season in '09. The Steelers' offense was prolific at times. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw for 4,328 yards. Wide receivers Santonio Holmes and Hines Ward had 1,000-yard years. Tight end Heath Miller had 76 catches. Mendenhall ran for 1,108 yards. But, too often, the offense had a hard time running the ball in short-yardage situations, especially near the goal line. It didn't do enough to help the defense protect five fourth-quarter leads.
There was widespread speculation Arians would pay the price with his job after the Steelers finished 9-7 and missed the playoffs.
"You don't like hearing it," Arians said of an ESPN1250 radio report Jan. 5 that he was going to be fired, "especially when you feel like you did a pretty good job. I felt fine about [his job status], but you don't know for sure. Sometimes when there's smoke, there's fire ... "
Asked about the report in March, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ed Bouchette, "I don't know where it came from." For his part, Steelers president Art Rooney II told Bouchette that he didn't go to Tomlin to ask for Arians' job only to be talked out of the firing by Tomlin. "I never went to Mike and said we have to fire Bruce." All were vehement that any lobbying for Arians that Roethlisberger might have done had nothing to do with Arians being back. "It's really a joke," Tomlin said. Added Arians, "If they're going to fire you, they're going to fire you."
This much I know for sure:
I'm glad the Steelers didn't fire Arians. That wouldn't have been just an injustice, it would have been flat-out wrong. The team won the Super Bowl after the '08 season with him as coordinator. Roethlisberger loves playing for him. I sense that all of his guys do.
Now, it's a new season. You know what that means. Starting Sunday, all eyes will be on the Steelers' offense. All eyes will be on Arians' play-calling.
Bring on the scrutiny, the man said.
"I can't wait to get started. I'm really eager to see what we can do. This is a really good football team here."
Even with Dixon, who has gone from third-team quarterback to starter because of Roethlisberger's four-game NFL-mandated suspension and Byron Leftwich's knee injury?
"Dennis is going to be fine," Arians said. "It's a night-and-day difference where he is now as opposed to the Baltimore game" last season when Dixon made his first and only NFL start.
The circumstances are different as well.
"We didn't have a reliable backup at that point last season," Arians said. "It was like, 'Dennis, don't run. Throw the ball away if you have to. You can't get hurt.' Now we have Charlie Batch backing him up. We don't have to be afraid to let Dennis play."
Arians is expected to try to ease the pressure on Dixon by calling Mendenhall's number often. One change Rooney II did ask Tomlin to make after last season was to run the ball better. Not more, necessarily. Just better.
In other words, convert those third-and-1s and fourth-and-1s.
"There's no better feeling than handing the ball off and kicking [butt]," Arians said, clearly on board with that plan. "It's a bad feeling when you have to be tricky on third-and-1 ...
"I love to run the ball. That sets up what I love to do the most. Throw it deep."
Arians won't care what the Steelers' run-pass ratio is Sunday as long as they win. Nor will Rooney II or Tomlin.
Now Arians' critics ...
I think back to something Arians said during Super Bowl week after that '08 season.
"I could have stayed a quarterbacks coach or a wide receivers coach. I could have stayed out of the limelight. But that's not me. I love the pressure. I love that bull's-eye on my back. I love having the responsibility in my hands."
Really, bring it on.
The man can handle it.
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.