Adam Lindner | Sports Editor
Following a flooring 45-42 defeat at the hands of the Jacksonville Jaguars on Jan. 14 in the A.F.C. Divisional Round at Heinz Field, mercurial offensive coordinator Todd Haley was informed on Jan. 17 that his expiring contract would not be renewed. Hours later, multiple insiders reported that the Steelers will promote quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner to fill the vacancy left by Haley.
According to CBS Sports NFL analyst Jason La Canfora, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who has recently reconfirmed his desire to play for the foreseeable future, lobbied hard for Fichtner’s promotion to coordinator.
Reportedly, Fichtner’s relationship with Roethlisberger strengthened as Ben’s bond with Haley deteriorated.
In fact, about a month ago, La Canfora reported that Roethlisberger asked head coach Mike Tomlin to allow Fichtner to coach from the sidelines instead of from the coaching booth in order to serve as a buffer between him and the coordinator.
“Sources said Roethlisberger approached head coach Mike Tomlin about a month ago and requested to have a buffer between him and Haley on the sidelines, another set of eyes and a sounding board he could turn to,” Fichtner wrote on Dec. 24, 2017. “Specifically, he asked that quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner, who he is close with, no longer stay in the coaching booth in the press box during games but instead join other offensive coaches down to the sidelines. Tomlin quickly obliged, and the Steelers have been operating in that fashion since last month, sources said.”
Fichtner, who played defensive back at Purdue in the early-1980s, started with the Steelers as the wide receivers coach in 2007. Fichtner has been the quarterbacks coach in Pittsburgh for the past eight years.
The good news for the Steelers in all of this is that Haley, who has been involved in several off-the-field dilemmas throughout his stint with the Steelers, is gone, in favor of a low key, long-tenured coach that has a strong relationship with the franchise’s star quarterback and most important player.
If anything, less is more for this Steelers team: For a team that has dealt with more drama over the past few seasons than much of the rest of the league has combined, Pittsburgh might prefer a coordinator that’s less of an off-field attraction once they return to training camp in August.
For a team as talented as the Steelers, the focus needs to be on the task at hand, week-in and week-out.
Not Ben Roethlisberger retirement rumors, Le’Veon Bell contract discussions, Antonio Brown character critiques or coaches rumored to be involved in altercations at Pittsburgh-area bars.
Besides, from a football perspective, an offensive coordinator inheriting a cast as supreme as the one that the Steelers currently boast will face high expectations — but might only need to manage games for Pittsburgh to be successful.
With Brown, Bell, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Martavis Bryant and others catching passes from Roethlisberger, there may be times when a coordinator’s tallest task is getting out of the way.
With Roethlisberger returning in late summer with a new coordinator waiting to welcome him, it’s likely that the Steelers’ quarterback will have a renewed motivation to win.
A loss to Jacksonville in the A.F.C. Divisional Round following a 13-3 season should fuel the rest of the team, as well as Ryan Shazier’s continued recovery from a spinal injury suffered on Dec. 4 against Cincinnati.
But, for the time being, the loss to the Jaguars still stings.
At least solace can be taken in the fact that there will undoubtedly be more quarterback sneaks for the Steelers under Fichtner than Haley ever facilitated.