For the past couple of weeks, every time a Steelers player opened his mouth, the team looked more and more splintered.
Safety Ryan Clark said there was a "fracture" in the locker room. Wide receiver Antonio Brown talked about a divided locker room. Even former Steelers receiver Hines Ward chimed in, calling it a locker room in "total disarray" last season.
The only player so far to shoot down this perception is quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, which is the first promising sign of the offseason. Roethlisberger insists the demise of the Steelers' locker room has been greatly exaggerated. More importantly, he sent a message through The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: Move forward, guys.
"I'm hoping by doing this to put a stop to it, to say, listen, everybody, as a leader in this locker room, as a guy who has been around here for a long time, I'm hoping that by saying there is no issue and this is fine, that this could be our exclamation point," Roethlisberger told the paper. "Let's move on with this offseason, to training, to getting ready. I don't think there's a reason to look back anymore. That's what I'm hoping to just say: Done."
Whether you believe him or not about the locker room, you have to admire the way Roethlisberger stepped forward and took control of the situation. The Steelers need Roethlisberger to be the leader, and he certainly played that role perfectly in this instance. The Steelers have been their own worst enemy in February, and Roethlisberger essentially told teammates to shut up and stop rehashing the past. This sure seemed like the matured Roethlisberger, who became a husband in 2011 and a father last year.
Though Roethlisberger became the starting quarterback in 2004, he didn't have to take charge until last season. There was always Jerome Bettis or Hines Ward on offense. With both gone, Roethlisberger was far from the model leader last season. There was speculation of friction throughout the season between him and offensive coordinator Todd Haley, and there was also the time that Roethlisberger openly questioned the play calling in an overtime loss at Dallas.
There have been fewer questions about Roethlisberger's leadership on the field. He's won 87 regular-season games in nine seasons in Pittsburgh and guided the Steelers to two Super Bowl titles. He's orchestrated 22 fourth-quarter comebacks (although he showed some late-game lapses after coming back from injury last season). Now, it's apparent that Roethlisberger has to assert himself off the field. And he said all the right things in addressing the strong comments made by Clark and Brown.
"For anybody to say there are locker-room issues or leadership issues are completely off base," Roethlisberger told The Post-Gazette. "I believe that's the frustration. I believe that it's frustration of last year, I honestly do."
Roethlisberger can say there wasn't a problem in the locker room. But there was obviously something wrong with the Steelers last season. Pittsburgh finished 8-8 and half of those losses came against teams with losing records.
There are painful memories like the eight turnovers in Cleveland and Roethlisberger's interception in overtime in Dallas. Maybe the losses were more the result of a lack of focus than a fracture in the locker room. Either way, the only way the Steelers can turn it around is with Roethlisberger leading the way.
"I want it to be known there is no locker-room issue, there is no leadership issue," he said. "Even if guys say it out of frustration, they're trying to find something to say. I think it's important to know we all have each other's back."