Dan Rooney wrote in his 2007 autobiography that the memory of passing on Dan Marino in 1983, the quarterback who grew up down the street and starred collegiately across town, stuck with him for two decades. And it was that memory that motivated him to push his football people to draft Ben Roethlisberger in 2004, even as some of them leaned toward selecting Arkansas tackle Shawn Andrews.
On draft day, Rooney recounted, "I couldn't bear the thought of passing on another great quarterback prospect the way we passed on Dan Marino in 1983, so I steered conversation to Roethlisberger."
The pick itself, might have seemed a little unconventional. The Steelers' 6-10 season in 2003 was an aberration, coming off consecutive division titles, and the roster was stocked in a win-now kind of way, making it an awkward place for a stud rookie quarterback to traverse. But the owner has pull, and Big Ben's talent was too much to overlook.
So the Steelers pulled the trigger, and even if by accident, proved an oft-overlooked point about the development of young signal-callers: There is no more important factor than environment.
This set of conference championship games features four former first-round quarterbacks, something that hasn't happened since the strike year of 1987. Roethlisberger, Mark Sanchez, and Aaron Rodgers were taken in the first round by the Steelers, Jets and Packers, respectively, while Jay Cutler went 11th overall to Denver in 2006, then was shipped to Chicago for a package featuring two first-round picks in 2009.
But that's not the only thing each guy has in common. None of the four was drafted first overall, and by the time each guy became a starter, the team he was playing on had playoff experience. In each case, that dynamic created another one: It wasn't all about the quarterback, as it often is with guys going atop the draft from Day 1.
"We looked at the development of a lot of young quarterbacks before drafting Mark, and the ones that had success," Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum said, driving home Wednesday night. "And we have (Jets offensive coordinator) Brian Schottenheimer, who had first-hand information having worked with Drew Brees and Philip Rivers.
"I felt really good about Mark. In a perfect world, we were going to have a young quarterback to go with Rex, and grow and develop with him. We'd invested in the offensive line, we had a good line coach in Bill Callahan, and Schotty had the track record. We knew there'd be bumps in the road. But we also knew the guy wouldn't get killed, and a lot of them get beat up, because the combination of Rex wanting a ball control offense and the offensive line we had."
Part of Tannenbaum's thinking went back to the season before he became GM, 2005, and a sequence in which he lost two quarterbacks in seven snaps because his offensive line couldn't block Jason Taylor. The next year, Cutler and Matt Leinart were available when the Jets were on the clock, but Tannenbaum told his folks, "Look, it doesn't matter if John Elway's in the draft, we're not taking him." They took future Pro Bowl linemen D'Brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold in the first round instead.
As a result of that philosophy, to wait on drafting the quarterback, Sanchez managed a team with the league's No. 1 running game and top-ranked defense to a conference title game. Just like when Roethlisberger was a rookie, the Steelers led the league in total defense, had the NFL's second-ranked running game, and went to the AFC title game.
Sanchez is back for a second straight year, as Roethlisberger was in 2005. That year, Big Ben played well in wins over Cincinnati, Indy and Denver in the playoffs, and was able to survive a shaky Super Bowl performance because, you got it, the talent around him made for a team that could win different ways.
"When you have a good defense, and I had a great running game, they don't talk about you -- good or bad," Roethlisberger told me Wednesday. "You can fly under the radar. It's probably harder for (Sanchez) to do it in New York, but if that's what you can do, that's great."
Roethlisberger says, in that environment, where the team kept winning, it was easier to ride out the mistakes and learn from them.
Similarly, in Green Bay, Aaron Rodgers could make his mistakes quietly early on, because he wasn't playing, serving as Brett Favre's backup for three years. And when Cutler entered the league, the Broncos were coming off an AFC title game appearance and he was working with one of the league's preeminent quarterback gurus, Mike Shanahan, within an established program. He got to sit, too, for most of his rookie year.
It's interesting that in a league that's so often characterized as being "all about the quarterback," the ones who are most successful oftentimes are those who shoulder less responsibility early on. The flip side is that a player has to have the moxie, walking into a situation like Sanchez or Roethlisberger did, to lead vets. If they do, these types of situations are far more ideal than those where a quarterback is tossed to fend for himself with a rebuilding team.
"Ben went the pick before us (in 2004), and you could see the great size, the athleticism, so his success is no surprise," said Tannenbaum. "And part of that is because he was going to a great organization that was historically successful, and a team that was very good on defense. All the pressure wasn't on Ben, so he could win and grow at the same time. That's what we're trying to do with Mark.
"He's very important to our franchise. So his development is critical."
The goal for the Jets is to eventually become as game-plan specific on offense as they are on defense, and that's where Sanchez's growth would come in. And then, a team that can win a lot of different ways will have one more tool in the shed.
The case of Tom Brady, too, is interesting here. Brady preceded Roethlisberger as the first quarterback to win a Super Bowl in his second year, and added second and third championships in years Nos. 4 and 5. To that point, he was 9-0 in the postseason, a time of year when his defense would typically dominate.
He's 5-5 since, as the team has become more about the quarterback, with a prolific passing game and defense geared to play from ahead. Now Brady is out of the playoffs as 20-somethings Rodgers, Cutler, Sanchez and Roethlisberger remain alive.
And those four aren't alive because they're better than Brady. They aren't. But the teams around them don't need them to be lights-out to get by. It used to be like that for the Patriots' quarterback, but now he's in a situation like the one Peyton Manning's played in for the balance of his career: If he doesn't deliver, the team goes home.
That brings you back to Rooney's book. On that draft day, he wanted a quarterback, but he didn't necessarily have to draft one. The Steelers could've taken Andrews and been just fine.
Either way, the club, grounded in a decades-fostered identity, wasn't going to change what it was. And as it turns out, for a quarterback, that's as good a situation as could possibly be hoped for.
Maybe it was a sign that Chris Harris, after spending three years in that NFL outpost of Charlotte, was meant to be a Chicago Bear. Maybe it was a coincidence.
No matter what, Harris is happy his house didn't sell. The veteran safety put his place on the market after being traded to Carolina in 2007, and couldn't sell it, so he rented it to an ex-teammate, then a Bears coach.
Finally, last spring, Harris had an offer he was happy about. Then, the buyer asked for an extension to close. And another one. And just as they were, at last, going to close, his agent Albert Elias called. Harris was going back to the Bears, traded from the cost-cutting Panthers. His house was coming off the market.
"It's crazy how things work," Harris says.
The real interesting thing is that weeks before the above unfolded, Harris was counseling his Carolina teammate Julius Peppers on the virtues of playing in Chicago. Peppers wound up picking the Bears, but Harris wound up selling himself. So when he got the call, he was "ecstatic."
And that's for a variety of reasons. He was familiar with the system, and the coaches, and that helped him have a five-interception, 70-tackle season.
"It's a very aggressive system, and I know how to play the coverages -- (defensive coordinator) Rod Marinelli calls it 'bone-on-bone' football," he said.
Second, he knew what he was walking away from. Everyone in Carolina could see the writing on the wall last offseason, with the slashing-and-burning evident, and a coach going into a contract year. Harris is ecstatic he got out, escaping with Peppers, whom the safety said has "meant the world to (the Bears)."
"We've had conversations about it, being in Carolina, in the situations we were in, how fortunate we are to have gotten out," Harris said. "I wanted to see them do well, and I was rooting for them, because I have friends on that team, but when we talked about it, we knew we got out at the right time. I felt real bad for coach (John) Fox. I'm a huge Fox fan, I loved playing for the guy, and hate to see him go out the way he did. He's better than a 2-14 coach."
But all that also has given Harris an appreciation for where he stands now, back in his first house, with the team that brought him into the league. He's got a year left on his contract, but he's hoping that, after the dust clears on this season, he can secure his future with the Bears.
"I definitely want to finish my career playing for Chicago," Harris said. "It's one of the best cities to be, and they love the Bears here. I love playing here. â¦ Great town, great tradition, I'd love to finish my career as a Bear."
Harris pointed out that this will be the first Bear-Packer playoff game since 1941, and calls Sunday a "very special event," with the winner taking the Halas Trophy and getting a shot at the Lombardi Trophy, spoils that underscore the history between the teams. And history, Harris now knows well, you can't get just anywhere.
I know this truth ...
We're all going to have to re-evaluate how this era of the Steelers is viewed if they win a third Super Bowl on Feb. 3, since that group of players will pull even with the 1990s Cowboys and 2000s Patriots in championships won.
Here's one place to start: Perhaps their defense should get more credit than it does. And it gets plenty now. But you rarely hear the 2008 Steelers group mentioned with the 2000 Ravens or the 2002 Buccaneers, which, as I found out this week, is something that makes the players feel a little slighted. I got an earful from safety Ryan Clark, when I asked if the '08 defense is the standard this group is chasing.
"I think the '08 defense is the standard for modern defensive football," Clark said. "I mean, what team was better? In recent memory, who's been No. 1 in all the stats that we were? Who's been No. 1 by such a large margin, as we were in 2008? We're not the '08 'D', that defense you felt like we could just walk out there, and it was gonna get done.
"We know we have to work harder this year, and we've had rough spots. I don't think we really had rough spots that year."
OK, so in retrospect: That 2008 defense ranked first in the NFL in total defense, yards allowed per play, yards per rush, pass defense, yards per pass play, and third-down percentage; second in run defense, sacks per pass, and first downs allowed; and fifth in interception percentage. Their total yardage figure (237.2) bested the 2000 Ravens (247.9) and the 2002 Bucs (252.8), though both those defenses allowed fewer points.
This year's group allowed 232 points and 276.8 yards per game, but Clark doesn't think these Steelers are what the 2008 group was. But it's been something for 2010 guys to shoot for.
"We're not even close," Clark said. "That was a special year. This year's defense is good, though. This is a defense that's made some plays, but we had some spots where we weren't on our cues. I think the thing that happened also that year, no one got hurt. You had Aaron Smith every game. You had Troy Polamalu 100 percent, every game. Those things make a big difference."
So here's the thing: That 2008 group might never get the full credit it deserves as a singular group, but this era of Steelers defenses, with another championship, could be remembered in this time as, say, the Giants were to the 1980s. And the players know what it's going to take to get there.
"That's like when people have called us the second Steel Curtain. In order to be compared to the Steel Curtain, we have to win Super Bowls," linebacker LaMarr Woodley said. "That's how I look at this season. It's all about how you finish it. Right now, we're doing good, but it's all about how you end the season. If you're the No. 1 defense now, you have to show why you're the No. 1 defense. No. 1 defenses finish in the Super Bowl."
Funny thing, Clark thinks that might be why the 2008 group gets short shrift; because its Super Bowl effort, against Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald, wasn't great. The hope for those guys is in a couple weeks, they'll have the chance to atone.
I don't know a thing ...
About whether Wes Welker will be able to get back to everything he was from 2007-09 for the Patriots, which was one of the best slot receivers I'd ever seen. But I do know that if he doesn't make it, it won't be for lack of trying.
Fact is, his return wasn't unlikely, but the odds have been stacked against him making it all the way back to the form that made him one of the NFL's most dangerous offensive weapons. A detailed 2006 study run by the American Journal of Sports Medicine showed that running backs and receivers coming back off ACL surgery performed at just 66 percent of their previous level, statistically, following the injury.
Welker got himself, from a physical standpoint, healthy for training camp, but needed to go through the process of "finding his knee." The above affects did hit. While Welker was never a 15-yard-per-catch guy, he did consistently average over 10 yards per catch in his three years as a Patriot. Through the first eight games this season, however, his 44 catches added up to just 355 yards, or 8.07 yards per, and after catching three touchdown passes, he hauled in none from Weeks 3-9.
The Steelers game was his turning point. In his final seven games (he sat out a meaningless Week 17 tilt) of the regular season, Welker ratcheted up his average to a healthy 11.7 yards per, with 42 grabs for 493 yards and four touchdowns.
My understanding is that Welker had "no issues" this season, and he finished it "in a good place," from a health standpoint. Word is that late in the year, close examinations showed Welker looked comfortable putting all his weight on the surgically repaired leg, something that even shocked him a little, and was more explosive after the catch. And he hit his two milestones: Play Week 1, and make it through the season healthy.
The interesting thing is Welker is just now reaching the point where he should be (here comes that phrase again) "finding his knee." But he didn't make it through the season completely unscathed.
Welker was benched last Sunday for the Patriots' first series after his "Foot Loose" press conference, with veiled shots at Rex Ryan, during the week. Seemed a little ridiculous, since Welker was out there for the opening punt, as if to say, "This play is too important, but we'll make you miss these."
Despite all that, and all things considered, Welker can look back on 2010 pretty proudly.
We have three football games left in this season, and it stills feels like this Super Bowl race is wide open, so enjoy it.
What you'll be hearing when all that's said and done, won't be as pleasant. Now, I know you folks aren't fired up for lockout talk, but I figured I'd give a primer on some of the key dates ahead.
The last time we were in this spot, back in 2006, talks really heated up at the combine, and I'd expect there to be a big push in negotiations there, with so many league power brokers in one place. That event takes place in Indianapolis from Feb. 23 through March 1.
The work stoppage would likely officially begin on March 4, to be the first day of the 2011 league year, and the final event under the current CBA would be the draft, slated for April 28-30. Offseason programs, which typically start in mid-to-late March, and OTAs, passing camps and minicamps, usually in May and June, are all on hold for now, and coaches haven't been able to give players schedules for the spring.
One important thing to remember: We're a long way from losing any games, even if it does get nasty in March and April.
... and 10
1. Titans lose special coach
Oftentimes, losses of position coaches fly under the radar on the newswire. The departure of Jim Washburn from Tennessee should not. Washburn's spent all 12 of his NFL seasons as the Titans' defensive line coach, and his departure is devastating for a franchise that's in as much turmoil as it has been since arriving from Houston in the late 1990s. "Huge loss," is how it was characterized to me by one person in the know. "Tough to get over it. He's good for 10 sacks a year and he doesn't play a down. Pretty special." Washburn has been known, of late, as the one coach who could get through to and motivate Albert Haynesworth, and he was a big reason why the Titans were able to sidestep so much of what's happened in Washington. Haynesworth, too, has a very good realization of the good Washburn did for him, so don't be surprised if the Eagles wind up as the big guy's landing spot, if and when he's given his release by the Redskins (and assuming Mike Shanahan can't find a place to trade him.)
2. Big shoes to fill in Baltimore
Another significant assistant coaching move this week took place in Baltimore, as Greg Mattison jumped back into the college ranks, returning to Ann Arbor to run new Michigan coach Brady Hoke's defense. His replacement, Chuck Pagano, has a serious legacy to uphold, following in the lineage of Marvin Lewis, Mike Nolan and Rex Ryan with the Ravens. But the buzz within the organization is that Pagano's more than up to the task, and actually could inject some energy into an awfully talented group. Expect the Ravens to be more aggressive up front, and with their blitz looks. The new DC's not quite Rex, but he's more in that direction and should create an "up-tempo" feel to all facets of his operation. And his players, from what I understand, positively love Pagano as a coach. Should be interesting to watch, with most of the core (Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata) remaining in place, but aging a little bit.
3. Rams might score big with McDaniels
It's hard not to love the Rams' hire of Josh McDaniels, and the impending hitching of McDaniels with quarterback Sam Bradford. You can start with the fact that, from the looks of it, Bradford was going to be plenty good regardless. And now adding McDaniels? His resume with the Patriots should tell you all you need to know. In 2006, with players like Reche Caldwell and Doug Gabriel playing receiver, and a broken-down Corey Dillon carrying the ball, New England was somehow (Tom Brady had something to do with it as well) the league's seventh-highest scoring team. In 2007, with the cupboard restocked, McDaniels coordinated the most prolific offense ever. And in 2008, Brady went down, Matt Cassel started games for the first time since high school, and the Patriots were fifth in total offense. So the Rams might need help at receiver (Julio Jones, anyone?), but something tells me McDaniels will find a way to make it all work. And Bradford will benefit from his presence.
4. What Miami saw in Daboll
Speaking of McDaniels, the Dolphins got an old colleague of his to replace Dan Henning as offensive coordinator. Brian Daboll and McDaniels were the two graduate assistants that Bill Belichick imported from Nick Saban's Michigan State staff early in his Patriots tenure, and you can expect a lot of McDaniels' tenets (game-plan specific, mentally demanding on receivers/quarterbacks) in Miami. And it makes sense too, if you consider this: The Dolphins did have internal discussion about pursuing McDaniels. Ultimately, it would've been a difficult fit, with Brandon Marshall and Mike Nolan there, but some of the commonalities between the two ex-Belichick/Saban go-fers sheds light on what Tony Sparano and Co. wanted. First, there's carryover from Henning's system, from a coaching tree standpoint, so it's not total upheaval. Second, both guys have backgrounds developing quarterbacks. And third, each favor a game-plan specific style of offense. That could tell you a little about what Miami was looking for.
5. Minnesota makes shrewd move getting Musgrave
Keeping with the developing of quarterbacks theme, here's thinking that it was important in Leslie Frazier's hire of Bill Musgrave as his first offensive coordinator in Minnesota. Chances are, an already talented offense will have a signal-caller coming in from the outside to meld in, and Musgrave will have to be instrumental. Good thing that he's equipped for that. Speaking to folks in Atlanta, where Musgrave was QBs coach the last three years (developing Matt Ryan), you find out one of the coach's strengths that he relates well to quarterbacks and, through his experience as a player, has the perspective to know the difference between what works conceptually and what holds up in reality with a signal-caller throwing the ball. Musgrave also had serious input in game-planning with offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey. He has been a coordinator before (Carolina in 2000, Jacksonville from 2003-04), but was in those places during coaching upheaval. Folks in Atlanta are sad to see him go, and have confidence he'll be the guy Frazier needs to run his offense.
6. Former Tar Heels under close watch
The North Carolina players tossed from school for taking improper benefits will be closely examined over the next few weeks, and right on through the draft process. Of the three, defensive end Robert Quinn, who would've likely contended to be the first overall pick if he'd played out his junior year, is the one that's probably going to remain a first-rounder. Both defensive tackle Marvin Austin and receiver Greg Little, though, are on shakier ground. Little already had character flags going into the process, while Austin is fighting feelings on his consistency as a player. Austin showed well at the East-West Shrine Game practices this week, as one of the more talented guys there, and wasn't as rusty as some expected. One positive for the guys: NFL teams generally don't go crazy over kids violating NCAA rules in that manner since, for obvious reasons, those won't be a problem in the pros. It's really only an issue for prospects if it's a part of a pattern of poor decision-making.
7. Parcells' recommendation of Ryan is standard operating procedure
News that Bill Parcells recommended Rex Ryan to the Jets caused a stir in South Florida. But it shouldn't have. It's not unusual at all that employees of one team will provide advice to another team, particularly when that employee used to work for the guy asking, and Parcells was there when the ownership transition to Woody Johnson was ongoing a decade ago. A good example of this? Back in 2008, Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti solicited the advice of Patriots coach Bill Belichick as he conducted a search to replace Brian Billick. Belichick put in a good word for then-Eagles secondary coach John Harbaugh. Harbaugh got the job. Should people in New England be upset? Of course not. That's silly. And so is anyone getting worked up over Parcells saying some nice things about another coach he respects.
8. A possibility at QB for 49ers
Job 1 for Jim Harbaugh in San Francisco is finding a quarterback and, while a long-term answer might not come right away, file away the name of Buccaneers backup Josh Johnson. A reader raised it to me in a chat the other day, and it makes sense, since Johnson played for Harbaugh at the University of San Diego. The year after Harbaugh bolted for Stanford, Johnson posted an absurd 43-1 TD-INT ratio, and he came into the league with rave reviews from the coach. Josh Freeman's presence in Tampa means Johnson's future there is as a backup, and maybe that's ultimately what he is in the NFL. But Johnson is 24 years old, and Harbaugh might figure it's worth taking a flier on a quarterback who can be like a coach in the meeting room, and be, at the very least, a nice insurance policy until the position is settled.
9. Asomugha could still go back to Raiders
I've been asked some about Nnamdi Asomugha, and having talked to him during the season, I'd say don't rule out a return to Oakland. And there a couple reasons why. First, I know he takes pride in having seen the team through, and he believes there's a bright future with the Raiders. I believe Asomugha would see meaning in helping get them all the way out of the woods. Second, he has a lot of confidence in Hue Jackson. When I asked what the biggest difference was from last year to this year, Asomugha said that the defense felt a lot better about its offensive counterpart. When I asked why, Asomugha responded that Jackson's arrival was the biggest reason. Not saying that Asomugha's staying; just that he might not be as eager to get out as he was two years ago, when the Raiders had to pay him 59 percent more than the next highest paid corner to entice him to stay.
10. Let the players speak their mind
Finally, a word on the trash-talking edict passed down from the league last week. Let's just say I disagree with it. Strongly. It's pretty rare that we really get the raw emotion from players that you'd see commonly on the field. And I'd hate to see players being scared to show it every now and then publicly. Maybe sometimes it's not the most profound stuff. But it's usually real, and that provides fans with a more accurate window into the game they're watching. That's the kind of thing the NFL should want, not try and prevent.
Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @albertbreer.