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The Big Ben Problem in Pittsburgh, According to Two Ex-Steelers

Two generational talents have officially left the organization, and two other ex-Steelers point to the quarterback at the root of the franchise’s problems.

In the social media storm that comes with the first days of free agency, a lot can fly under the radar. So you might have missed this salvo from an ex-Steelers running back, who responded to a post describing quarterback Ben Roethlisberger as the Steelers’ “real locker room problem” in the wake of the Antonio Brown trade and Le’Veon Bell’s lost season.

Josh Harris, who went undrafted out of Wake Forest and played his only NFL season with the Steelers, in 2014, says during that season, Roethlisberger intentionally fumbled a ball at the end of a game to protest a play call. “At that moment I knew what kinda person he was,” Harris wrote. (You can read all about that play here.)

It’s an unsolvable riddle, knowing what was in the quarterback’s head at the time. I’m more interested in this larger idea—co-signed by Harris—that Roethlisberger is the real problem in Pittsburgh. He’s won two Super Bowls, after all. How bad can he be?

I reached out to Harris this week, as Brown and Bell officially joined other organizations. According to Harris, Roethlisberger just wasn’t interested in getting to know his teammates, and that has come back to bite the Steelers.

“Ben is a great player but he doesn’t try to connect with teammates,” Harris told me this week. “During my time there, I had conversations with vets like, Heath Miller, William Gay, Cam Heyward, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Will Allen, Ike Taylor, Troy Polamalu, Bruce Gradkowski, even James Harrison, but never Ben. Troy made an effort to talk guys. Not Ben though. And it was like that for others too.

“He is close with the O-Line and maybe a few guys here and there, but for the most part he stays to himself. During practice when the team would be warming up a lot of times he would be sitting on the water coolers reading the newspapers. So when Ben is critical of players publicly without having a relationship with them, it can rub them the wrong way because they don’t know if it is out of love or what. And when you call out All-Pro guys, that definitely doesn’t sit well with them.”

Roethlisberger, speaking on his radio show in December, was critical of Brown's route-running in the final sequence of a 24-17 loss to the Broncos, adding that he wished he’d gone to receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster instead. Roethlisberger later defended the comments. “Being around for a long time, being with a lot of different players, you have to know how to motivate guys in different ways,” Roethlisberger said. “That’s part of being a leader and a captain—just understanding players. Sometimes you just grab them off to the side; sometimes you have to be honest with them. And so, I think I’ve earned the right to be able to do that, as long as I’ve been here. And I’ll be just as critical on myself in front of you guys as well.”

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While Brown brushed off the comments at the time, he later needled the quarterback on Twitter. “No conflict just a matter of respect! Mutual respect!” Brown tweeted. “He has a owner mentality like he can call out anybody including coaches. Players know but they can’t say anything about it otherwise they meal ticket gone. It’s a dirty game within a game. #truth”

It’s rare to see quarterbacks critiquing routes publicly, but that alone would be no reason to blow up a relationship with a top-five NFL quarterback. The cracks we’re seeing in the Steelers organization at the moment run deeper, and speak to what Harris points out: Roethlisberger has not built up the requisite clout with teammates.

Isaac Redman, who played five seasons in Pittsburgh (2009-13), agreed with Harris.

“He does have a lot of power in that team, and some guys like AB may feel like they should be on a different level, that Ben shouldn’t be criticizing him publicly,” Redman says. “When you just only see the guy in the locker room and on the field and you get to a radio show and you say something bad, it’s going to rub guys the wrong way. Some stuff should be kept in house. You come to them, you don’t put it out in the public. When you do that, you open yourself up to criticism.”

Redman says during his time in Pittsburgh, Roethlisberger’s disconnect with teammates was in stark contrast with his veteran backup, Charlie Batch, who organized an annual spring bash for teammates, flew in a favorite masseuse from his time in Detroit and invited players to his home to utilize him for free, and consistently drew large numbers of Steelers at his charity events in and around the city. Roethlisberger, meanwhile, was once not voted team captain.

“I think everybody has different personalities,” Redman says. “Could he have done more to bring guys together? Yes, but he was never a problem in the locker room. I don’t think he shied away from guys, I just think he was really careful about who he surrounded himself with.”

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