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Sam Farmer / ON THE NFL

New Steelers coordinator won't coddle Ben Roethlisberger

Todd Haley has a temper and a history of getting in faces of star players. That might be the reason Pittsburgh hired him.

August 17, 2012|Sam Farmer
  • Ben Roethlisberger throws a pass during training camp.
Ben Roethlisberger throws a pass during training camp. (Keith Srakocic / Associated…)

LATROBE, Pa. — There's usually an obvious reason for an NFL team firing a coach, and it relates directly to production on the field.

That's not the case with the Pittsburgh Steelers' dumping offensive coordinator Bruce Arians after last season.

Yes, the Steelers could have fared better in a number of categories. They could have scored more points. They could have been more effective in the red zone. They could have run more efficiently.

But this is also a franchise that went to two Super Bowls — and won one — with Arians as coordinator, and won another when he coached the receivers.

And there was no personality clash between Arians and Ben Roethlisberger. On the contrary, the two are golfing buddies, have vacation homes in the same development, and will surely greet each other warmly when Indianapolis — where Arians is now offensive coordinator — plays at Pittsburgh in an exhibition game Sunday night.

"Football is about change," Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin said. "He served us well, and he's a really good football coach. I thought it was time for a change."

An unspoken reason the Steelers made the switch to Todd Haley is that they needed a tough and talented coach who was going to come in and lean on Roethlisberger … get in his face every so often. Haley will expect his quarterback to get the ball out quickly, and throw it away instead of taking a sack.

Haley has the credentials for the job. He's from the Bill Parcells coaching tree (New York Jets and Dallas assistant) and had success in Arizona as the offensive coordinator, helping the Cardinals shock the NFL world with their Super Bowl run before losing to Pittsburgh in the final seconds.

His Chiefs won the AFC West in his second season as head coach in Kansas City, but he didn't make it through his third year because the Chiefs never recovered from several pivotal early-season injuries.

Now, Haley is back in Pittsburgh, where he was a ball boy in the 1970s and '80s and his father, Dick, was the personnel mastermind behind those championship teams.

It's so far, so good with Roethlisberger, although many observers are holding their breath to see what happens the first time Haley flashes that volcanic temper and screams at the quarterback on national TV. For several years, Roethlisberger has had the luxury of doing his job his way, using his strength and never-say-quit persistence to shake off tacklers and keep plays alive.

"You rely on that in emergency situations," Haley said. "When you make a bad call, or there's a breakdown up front or with the back, or something doesn't go the way it's supposed to, you have a guy that can get you out of trouble better than anybody else.

"You don't just drop him back and say, 'Hey, work the field.' If you do that, you're going to be watching him dive and keep plays alive all the time. But those are also situations where he's put in harm's way."

With their quarterback entering his 30s and already dealing with shoulder and ankle issues this summer, the Steelers don't want to live that way. They want him to be smarter about protecting his body and living to fight another play. Roethlisberger is the quarterback, not the offensive coordinator, and sometimes under Arians it seemed as if Ben was both.

The Steelers surely noticed last December when New England offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien tore into Tom Brady on the sideline after the Patriots quarterback was picked off by Washington in the end zone.

The Steelers must have wondered if they had anyone who could handle Roethlisberger that way, if need be. They now have that in Haley, and the quarterback knows it.

"When you sit there and think he's the only guy who's ever made Kurt Warner curse, that's kind of a shocker right there," Roethlisberger said.

Roethlisberger also knows that Haley has commanded the respect of many of the offensive stars he has coached, players such as Larry Fitzgerald with the Cardinals, and Keyshawn Johnson with the Jets and Cowboys. And those guys didn't escape their share of scathing criticism from Haley from time to time.

"If Larry had a bad game, the next day before we'd watch the tape he'd be flashing money at me, saying, 'Please, just take it easy on me,'" Haley said. "Not that I was calling Larry out, but we were correcting mistakes. Keyshawn was the same way. When you have prideful guys, they don't want to be embarrassed. They don't want to do it wrong, they want to do it right.

"Clearly, Ben's capable of being great on a full-time basis. I don't have any hesitation with how this is going to go."

Hurdles await. The Steelers don't know if their young additions will shore up the holes on the offensive line. Their No. 1 running back, Rashard Mendenhall, is coming off a season-ending knee injury and there is no timetable for his return. Their most dangerous receiver, Mike Wallace, is in a contract dispute and has yet to report to camp. And gone is Hines Ward, who was more on-field coach than major contributor last year, yet remained a fixture.

Even with those changes, Haley sees reason to be encouraged.

"Ben is a highly competitive, prideful guy that's very skilled, and he's getting more and more excited about some of the things we're capable of doing offensively," he said. "We're going to go head-first in and try to be special."

The Steelers have a new spark. They're banking on that igniting the offense ... not a powder keg.

sam.farmer@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATimesfarmer

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