Big Ben's Groundhog Day
by Scott Kacsmar
Some say the new Tom Cruise movie Edge of Tomorrow borrows from the Bill Murray classic Groundhog Day, in which a man relives the same day over and over. The NFL has its own version of this time loop: Ben Roethlisberger's annual expectations for the Pittsburgh Steelers to use more no-huddle offense.
While we are in the dead zone of the NFL year before training camps open, this is one story that never fails to appear. Roethlisberger has often been the source of the claim to offensive changes, but every year he winds up looking like the kid on Christmas who never gets the toy he wanted most. Roethlisberger's fondness for the no-huddle began during his college career, but as you are about to see, he's had a difficult time getting the Steelers to implement it on any consistent basis.
Is there any reason to expect an actual change this season, or is this just the case of offseason puffery being at its puffiest as stories have to be written? Having experienced this each season in Pittsburgh, I have collected a timeline of these stories that might actually give Roethlisberger and Steelers fans some hope this season that there will be a change.
All quoted material appears in italics, and here's a thank you to the local Pittsburgh media for indulging the no-huddle story every offseason.
2006: Easy Rider
The saga started in the 2006 offseason when a young, Super Bowl-winning Roethlisberger wanted to have more control over Ken Whisenhunt's offense, which featured a lot of runs while playing with the lead (Bill Cowher's specialty).
"Hopefully ... having enough confidence in myself, and coach (Bill Cowher) having it also, to go no-huddle, to be able to call no-huddle plays," he said. "If we can get to that point, where we're able to do the stuff that Cincinnati does, then we can be pretty effective."
Yes, for a brief moment in time offenses envied what Carson Palmer and the Bengals had going on in 2005. But Roethlisberger's motorcycle accident and emergency appendectomy put a lot of the Steelers' 2006 plans on hold and he struggled with interceptions, often playing from behind during a tough season, which became Cowher's last. It was also the last for Whisenhunt, who became the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals after the Steelers declined to promote him. Whisenhunt would later go on to say that the motorcycle accident contributed to Roethlisberger's down year, to which the quarterback took offense.
"I don't agree with Whis. There were a lot of things I didn't agree with Whis about, and that's another one," Roethlisberger said at the time. "I had a bad year. I'm sure Whis had a bad year once in his career."
2007: New Coach, New Offensive Coordinator
In 2007 Mike Tomlin succeeded Cowher and Bruce Arians was promoted to offensive coordinator. Roethlisberger, having felt restrained by Whisenhunt during his first three years, immediately bonded with Arians. Naturally, the promise of more passing and the precious no-huddle offense interested Roethlisberger.
"I like the way he wants to run the no-huddle," Roethlisberger said. "Last year, we talked and talked and talked about doing it and never did it. We did it in the preseason against coach [Mike] Tomlin and Minnesota -- we marched down the field and I was done for the rest of the game. It was great. And then we never saw it."
We didn't see the no-huddle offense much in 2007 either, but it was a great season for Roethlisberger, and Arians was excited for year two together.
2008: From Super Ugly to Super Bowl
Another summer, another mention of the no-huddle.
There is an apparent willingness on Arians' part to use a bit more of the no-huddle offense, much to Roethlisberger's delight. "It's just always been that when things go faster and get crazy and I'm calling my own plays, things seem to work better for me," Roethlisberger said.
-- Ron Cook reporting on Roethlisberger in July 2008 (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
As beat writer Ed Bouchette (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) pointed out during an offensive slump, the Steelers rarely used the no-huddle outside of obvious catch-up situations.
Coach Mike Tomlin said Roethlisberger lobbied for the no-huddle. The Steelers have talked a good game about their no-huddle, but it's not an offense they use often.
-- Ed Bouchette in October 2008 (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
Already we can see Roethlisberger has always been the one talking about the no-huddle offense. The commitment from Tomlin or his coordinators was not there. During the 2008 season, Pittsburgh's offense often looked incapable of scoring, but once the no-huddle was brought out in the second half, comebacks and game-winning drives started happening. The season ended in Super Bowl XLIII with one of the most classic two-minute drills in NFL history, led by Roethlisberger and Santonio Holmes.
2009: It's a Ben Thing
Roethlisberger was mostly quiet in the 2009 offseason due to off-field allegations. The no-huddle offense did become a topic again during the season. In the season opener against the Titans, the Steelers were stagnant on offense until the no-huddle was unleashed in the fourth quarter, leading to a comeback win in overtime. The no-huddle was still being treated as something Roethlisberger wanted and not the coaches, which makes sense because its success means the offensive coordinator wasn't getting his job done.
"It limits you way too much," Arians said. "It limits what you can do offensively. You take away a lot of your play-action game and things you can do with a game plan. You basically don't have a game plan. If you go no-huddle [all the time], shoot, I can take every night off. It's a tool you use to change the tempo of the game, but you're limited in your personnel. It's not something we want to do wholesale every game."
-- Bruce Arians in November 2009 (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
According to Arians, Roethlisberger lobbied for the no-huddle every week, but rarely did it happen until the end of games in situations where every team uses it.
Even though it has a high success rate, the no-huddle will remain what it has always been for the Steelers: A tactic to change the tempo of the game and give the offense, when needed, an emotional and strategic lift.
-- Gerry Dulac telling it like it is in November 2009 (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
2010: All Quiet on the No-Huddle Front
After being suspended for the first four games of the 2010 season, Roethlisberger had to get his priorities straight before dropping any quotes on the team's no-huddle offense. The Steelers rarely used the no-huddle in 2010 due to Roethlisberger's absence and a young receiving corps. When another two-minute drive was needed at the end of Super Bowl XLV, the execution was poor and Pittsburgh lost.
After the season, Roethlisberger said he and Arians both wanted to throw the ball more, but implied outside forces such as the team's run-heavy tradition have impacted the calls.
“But we both think the same in the no-huddle, that we call a lot more runs because we know that’s what we’re supposed to do,” Roethlisberger said. “And I don’t know if that’s ‘supposed to’ from the fans, the media, the owner, who knows? But it’s just a feeling that you have that we better run the ball some. So we do think alike in a lot of those ways.”
2011: More No-Huddle or More Cowbell?
Roethlisberger only lasted one game of the 2011 season before telling Bouchette to expect more of the no-huddle offense. For examples of similar obsessions, Rain Man loved boxer shorts from K-Mart and Christopher Walken just wanted some more cowbell.
"Yeah, I'll make sure of that. We need to. We didn't do it at all the last game. We kind of throw a lot of things out the window when you're getting killed like that. I know people are probably making a big deal that we didn't run the ball enough. I think we'll see [the no-huddle] this week."
That next game was against Seattle. The Steelers huddled on every single drive. Oh well, at least the Steelers won 24-0 against the pre-Legion of Boom Seahawks. A few weeks later, Arians was questioned by the media about using more no-huddle.
"That doesn’t surprise me, because he likes it a lot and I like it a lot. So, hopefully, we’ll get to it one of these days. He comes to me 2-3 times a game, and I tell him “maybe next series.” (But) we usually have a plan for it, and it’s usually the third or fourth series in the game. But it wasn’t really necessary this past game. In the second half, we talked about it. He wanted to go, and I didn’t. I didn’t believe it was time to speed the game up. We just needed to make more first downs in that second half."
-- Bruce Arians in October 2011 (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)
At the end of the season, Arians was basically forced to retire from the team after the Steelers declined to offer him a new contract.
2012: #FireToddHaley Is Born
Would replacing Arians, Roethlisberger's BFF, with Todd Haley do anything to the offense? Haley's had the reputation as being hard to work with, but surely some no-huddle promises would have smoothed things over initially. Sure enough, as early as May there were quotes from Roethlisberger about Haley's offense being all about the no-huddle.
“I get a little confused at times because I know so much has been made about us quote-unquote throwing the ball too much, or we’re going back to Steeler football and running the ball more,” Roethlisberger said. “But in these meetings I’ve had with coach Haley he’s all about the no-huddle, and using our wide receiver weapons, and throwing the ball, and stuff like that, so I’m still confused. I’m not sure what’s going to happen yet.”
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By August, the headlines read that the no-huddle was to be a "big part" of the Pittsburgh offense and the quarterback had his coordinator's' blessing to use it.
"[Roethlisberger] has shown a propensity to do that at a high level," Haley said. '"Ideally, if you have a quarterback like Ben and what he's done, when he's in full control, that's a good situation to be in because he's right in the middle of it and seeing what's going on."
-- Todd Haley in August 2012 (ESPN.com)
Just two games into the "Haleberger" era, Roethlisberger questioned the coaching staff's usage, or non-usage of the no-huddle:
"That's Coach (Todd) Haley's call," Roethlisberger said of the Jets game. "He's the one that calls all of the plays. There was no no-huddle. Our no-huddle is usually when we have three wide receivers on the field. (The coaches) saw something and wanted to run the ball with multiple tight ends and keep (the media) and the fans happy, I guess."
Following an overtime loss in Dallas that featured very little no-huddle offense, Roethlisberger was clearly frustrated with Haley.
"That's tough for me to answer right now," he said. "The second half we didn't do much of it, and that's disappointing."
2013: What We've Got Here Is Failure to Communicate
Moving into last year, the no-huddle became a big story again in Pittsburgh. Former backup quarterback Charlie Batch felt Haley was holding Roethlisberger back from using it, because a coach won't get credit if it's the quarterback's calls that are moving the offense. After the no-huddle was used often in a great offensive display against the Lions in a 37-27 win, Tomlin cautioned against the idea of using it as a base offense.
“You've got to be very cautious about employing it, how much you employ it, how you change your verbal communication,” said Tomlin, suggesting that TV cameras can pick up play call signals from the bench. “There are a lot of things that are capable of limiting your ability to run the no-huddle, besides your willingness.”
-- Mike Tomlin in November 2013 (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)
After years as the team's advocate for the no-huddle, notice how Roethlisberger's thoughts have matured:
“I think the game of football is a chess match between coordinators. We're just pawns playing it and trying to do what they tell us to do,” Roethlisberger said Tuesday afternoon. “That's why the no-huddle is effective in my opinion because I'm calling things as I see them out there where offensive coordinators have to call the play off of tendencies or what they think is going to happen. Same thing for a defense. Obviously audibles can happen and things. It's not easy being a coordinator and we as players just try to go out and execute to the best of our abilities.”
The Steelers finished 2013 on a 6-3 run and according to Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Mark Kaboly, Roethlisberger had 10 touchdown passes on 163 passes in the no-huddle offense, which was used a total of 239 plays last season. The Steelers used it on at least 15 plays in each of the final nine games prompting a narrative that they'll try to expand or continue the no-huddle success to start 2014.
2014: What's This? What's This?
After losing two of his main receivers, Roethlisberger had concerns about getting everyone on the same page for the no-huddle offense, but reportedly things have gone well in OTAs.
“I don't want to call it our base offense,” Roethlisberger said, “but I think you'll see more of it, so it was more important for us to get it in early and often.”
But doesn't that sound like everything Roethlisberger's said in the last eight years? What's actually going to spark change this time around? Well, this quote Roethlisberger recently gave to ESPN had an interesting choice of words.
"I think and I hope that we've all kind of come to the conclusion that maybe we need to do it more," Roethlisberger said. "I think we might go into [practices] using it a lot more so that it is more of a regular thing."
By "all" does he mean Tomlin and Haley are finally on board? I personally have not heard or found any support from them on the matter this month. Heath Miller and new addition Lance Moore have talked about the no-huddle, but they're not coaches and that's really where the green light has to come from.
Some of the past criticisms from Tomlin and Arians about the limitations of the no-huddle are legitimate, but not all of them. For starters, there's nothing stopping an offense from frequently running the ball in the no-huddle. The K-Gun Bills with Jim Kelly were the first NFL team to use the no-huddle as a base offense, but they ranked in the top 12 in run ratio for eight straight seasons (1989-96) and were in the top five six times (average rank: 5.6). In 2009, Arians was even quoted as saying Roethlisberger can use almost 80 percent of the playbook in the no-huddle.
While the amount of substituting is limited, who exactly should the Steelers have been substituting in the last seven seasons? Miller's been the only tight end worth a damn on the roster and there usually hasn't been a good running back committee. The best personnel has been "11" with Miller, the primary back and three wide receivers including the likes of Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes, Nate Washington, Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery.
However, when one starts talking about 11 personnel and more no-huddle, the obvious comparison to Peyton Manning's offense comes up, and that's a taboo notion in Pittsburgh. Just ask former linebacker Joey Porter about playing Manning's Colts in their heyday.
"They don't want to just sit there, line up and play football," Porter told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "They want to try to catch you off guard. They don't want to play smash-mouth football, they want to trick you. ... They want to catch you substituting. Know what I mean? They don't want to just call a play, get up there and run a play. They want to make you think. They want it to be a thinking game instead of a football game."
Thinking is bad, kids. Why would the Steelers let Roethlisberger, who ranks 10th all-time in passing yards per attempt (7.85) throw the ball more when their smash-mouth running game averages 4.02 yards per carry -- ranked 25th in the NFL since 2006. Three years ago, James Harrison criticized Roethlisberger's performance in Super Bowl XLV.
“Hey, at least throw a pick on their side of the field instead of asking the D to bail you out again,” Harrison said. “Or hand the ball off and stop trying to act like Peyton Manning. You ain’t that and you know it, man; you just get paid like he does.”
Roethlisberger's never seemed interested in the no-huddle becoming the base offense or taking a Manning-level of responsibility for calling plays, but he wants it to be something that the Steelers can use to start games or go to in more than just obvious situations.
Late in the 2013 season, there was no-huddle in abnormal situations in Pittsburgh, but for any team, this is actually hard to quantify. Relying on the play-by-play from official NFL game books to note the usage of no huddle is not a reliable research method. Official scorers are allowed to mark plays as no-huddle, but they are not required to, so some scorers will do it and some won't and some will do it sort of part of the time depending on what their own personal definitions of "no-huddle" are. The tabulation is not consistent enough to use in any kind of analysis. Watching the televised broadcast of the game and doing your own charting of no-huddle plays is also difficult, because the networks love to cut away to highlights or the booth and we do not always see the field. All-22 film on NFL Game Rewind cuts out the action between plays and starts shortly before the snap, so we can't use that to mark no-huddle either.
To accurately chart no-huddle stats, you basically have to be at every game, willing to keep track of it yourself, hence why this data is hard to come by. Kaboly's numbers from the Tribune-Review say the Steelers used the no-huddle on 239 plays last season. Steelers Depot wrote two years ago that the Steelers used the no-huddle on 269 plays in the 2004-2011 seasons combined. Again, we're very skeptical of that data's accuracy, but if we assume they're probably close to the true numbers, then that does show a huge increase in Pittsburgh's no-huddle in 2013.
But will that continue this year? Having two good options at running back (Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount) and young receivers like Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant getting tons of snaps probably makes the no-huddle less attractive to the Steelers coaches, but they seem to be working hard on it during OTAs.
September is likely the only test we'll need. If Roethlisberger doesn't see his no-huddle shadow that much in the season's first month, then 2014 will be another year like the last eight. Remember, the 2013 Steelers didn't lean on the no-huddle until they were 2-5 and trailed the Patriots in Week 9.
Now 32, Roethlisberger cannot afford wasted seasons if he wants to win another Super Bowl. At this point, the drive he engineered in the no-huddle offense to win Super Bowl XLIII will be remembered as the highlight of his career. Tomlin saw it. Arians saw it. Whisenhunt saw it. Even Haley, Arizona's offensive coordinator that night, saw it. Yet these four coaches have spent the last eight years limiting that type of talent from taking over games. A coach shouldn't care if his team's success was driven by conventional offense or a no-huddle offense. A good coach puts his best player in a position to be great. In Pittsburgh, that hasn't been the case and that's why every year we have this story.