Mark Whipple would mention greatness in passing, a subtle psychological evaluation that started in earnest when Ben Roethlisberger was entering his second NFL season.
Together on a local country club golf course, he would watch his young quarterback stew and sulk over missed shots. Perhaps that was proof that he hates to lose any ground, regardless of significance. Maybe it was nothing.
Inside meeting rooms, he would watch Roethlisberger's face contort at the mention of the others, a group of quarterbacks drafted ahead of him in 2004. Eli Manning went No. 1 overall to the Chargers, and Philip Rivers No. 4 to the Giants. This could be evidence that he wanted to secure his place in history and prove all his detractors wrong. Maybe Roethlisberger was just easily annoyed.
He hated that, too. Check.
"He's always used certain things to motivate him, and as a coach, I used certain things to motivate him," Whipple, Roethlisberger's first NFL quarterbacks coach, said in a phone conversation. "Tom Brady had the whole sixth-round draft choice thing and Ben had all the quarterbacks taken in front of him.
"I think all competitors use certain things to motivate themselves, and I think he uses that. But that's anything you do with him. It's ping pong, too."
Whipple, now the head coach at UMass, considers himself lucky because he knew early. Tommy Maddox, the quarterback Roethlisberger replaced, promised the coach he hadn't seen a makeup like that since John Elway. Whipple dug in for himself and came out with the same conclusion so long as the attitude meshed with the skills.
Maybe that's why he's not surprised that we're here, watching the division-winning Steelersprep for the Ravens on Saturday at Heinz Field. Depending on whom you talk to, Roethlisberger has reinvented himself. Either that, or he's evolving. Either that, or he's once again found the sweet spot between passer and dynamic wide receiver that some passers only find once in a decade.
At season's end, he was tied with Drew Brees for the league lead in passing yards with 4,952 (a career high). He avoided double-digit interceptions and, according to Pro Football Focus, had the league's best completion percentage -- 63.6 -- when under pressure.
"I just think that Ben matured," Whipple said. "He just handles things. He just knows what he can do."
That doesn't mean this season has escaped Whipple. He DVRs the games he can't catch and will likely catch Saturday night's matchup against Baltimore once he gets off the golf course in Arizona. There were games he used to help manage for Roethlisberger, after all.
Now, there's a chance he could watch Roethlisberger high-step past any of the quarterbacks in the 2004 NFL Draft class that once made him so uncomfortable.
"You never know what a Hall of Famer is, but that's why I put it in his ear early," Whipple said. "The cream will rise to the top."