PITTSBURGH — Ben Roethlisberger didn’t consider Ken Whisenhunt to be a whiz when the two worked together on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offense.
They won a Super Bowl together three years ago, Roethlisberger as the still-inexperienced quarterback and Whisenhunt as the offensive coordinator who mentored him. But their relationship was about as smooth as Heinz Field’s bumpy playing field.
That became evident after Whisenhunt left in January 2007 to become the Arizona Cardinals’ coach, not waiting to see if he would succeed Bill Cowher as Pittsburgh’s coach.
What is uncertain as their paths cross again in the Super Bowl, this time on opposing sides, is whether Roethlisberger’s feelings influenced the Steelers not to hire Whisenhunt as Cowher’s replacement. Or if Whisenhunt preferred going to a less-successful team to prove himself as a head coach, escaping the better-win-now mentality of Pittsburgh and a quarterback who wanted to work with another.
So far, Roethlisberger isn’t saying anything that might stir up the Steelers’ Super Bowl opponent, or its boss.
“It just makes it fun to play them and see them across the field,” Roethlisberger said of Whisenhunt, assistant coach Russ Grimm and the other former Steelers coaches on Arizona’s staff. “Coach Whis is a great coach.”
Roethlisberger wasn’t that complimentary two years ago, when Whisenhunt said the quarterback’s June 2006 motorcycle crash may have contributed to his down season that year. Partly because of Roethlisberger’s struggles, the Steelers started 2-6 after winning the Super Bowl and missed the playoffs despite winning six of their final eight.
Whisenhunt’s comments seemed innocuous — it was evident Roethlisberger wasn’t the player in 2006 he was during the Super Bowl year — but they apparently touched a nerve with a player known for his competitiveness.
“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.”
Before the Steelers and Cardinals played early in the 2007 season, Roethlisberger said he felt restrained in a Whisenhunt-coached offense that he felt limited his passing attempts, especially his downfield throwing.
If Roethlisberger wants to get back at a former coach he believes held him back, here’s his chance.
Roethlisberger didn’t have nearly the season statistically as he did in 2007 — 32 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions then, compared to 17 TDs and 15 interceptions now — yet he could join Tom Brady as one of only two quarterbacks to win two Super Bowls by the age of 26.
The 26-year-old Roethlisberger doesn’t win with big passing numbers or 60-yard throws as much as he does with his improvisational skills and confidence. He has led 18 game-winning scoring drives in the fourth quarter or overtime during his career, an impressive resume for one so young.
“That’s what I tell people all the time — he’s a good quarterback, but he’s one heck of a football player,” wide receiver Nate Washington said. “Ben, he prides himself on making plays.”
Much of what Roethlisberger does looks to be off a dusty playground — throwing off his back foot, scrambling to elude pressure, adjusting to a receiver’s broken pattern. The 65-yard Roethlisberger-to-Santonio Holmes touchdown pass play in the AFC Championship game against Baltimore on Sunday was exactly such a play.
“He’s very calm, he knows he wants to get the ball to his playmakers,” Holmes said. “When he has to scramble and make plays with his feet, he does that also.”
Roethlisberger wasn’t all that good when the Steelers beat Seattle 21-10 in the Super Bowl three years ago, going 9-of-21 for 123 yards and two interceptions. Wide receiver Antwaan Randle El, not Roethlisberger, threw the key touchdown pass to Hines Ward in the fourth quarter.
Roethlisberger doesn’t expect to play so poorly in this game and, with Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald on the other sideline ready to make plays, he almost certainly can’t if the Steelers are to win a record sixth Super Bowl.
“I hope my nerves won’t be as crazy as they were the last time,” Roethlisberger said. “Just being calmer, older, more mature in the process will make the whole thing easier.”
Usually, he said, the pregame tension melts once a game starts. It never did in his first Super Bowl.
“You get the butterflies and feel weak. It’s hard to explain,” he said. “It never went away.”
Maybe the familiar faces standing on the Arizona sideline will help motivate him to play better, too.
“That was my second year and everything was still kind of a whirlwind,” he said. “Hopefully being five years in and more of a veteran will help.”
SUPER BOWL XLIII
Cardinals vs. Steelers
6 p.m. Feb. 1
Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla.