Is Todd Haley Actually Good for Ben Roethlisberger?

Bruce Arians may not have been as favorable as we thought for Ben Roethlisberger.

I usually didn’t mind my college professors, but this one – let’s call him Professor Bailey – was one of the most frustrating human beings I had ever interacted with.

He wasn’t rude by any means. He was just supremely frustrating. You’d go ask him a question about a project, and instead of giving you a direct answer, he’d always just give you options. I guess part of that was because it was college and he wanted us all to learn, but some of the questions were so basic.

“Hey, Professor Bailey, is this assignment due before or after our final?”

“It could be due after your final, but do you think you’ll perform well if you wait until then?”

He was a Smart Alec. He was one of those guys that would always tell you, “I don’t know, can you?”, hoping you’d replace your word choice of “can” with “may”. He never hurt anyone’s feelings or anything. He was just frustrating.

I did well in his class, though. He did his job, teaching me more about the finance world than I ever knew. We didn’t see eye to eye, but I ended up learning.

Thanks, Professor Bailey.

Part of me thinks that’s how Ben Roethlisberger felt last year. His professor, Todd Haley, aggravated him. The Steelers signal caller didn’t agree with him. Their conversations weren’t smooth, their philosophies not the same – it just didn’t feel comfortable.

But guess what? Roethlisberger learned. Roethlisberger, under the direction of his new, maddening professor ended up having one of his best seasons as an NFL quarterback.

Although his season hit some rough patches – near-aorta-bursting ones – Roethlisberger was solid. Very solid. And that’s good news for a healthy 2013.

A Rib Injury That Threatened His Aorta

Prior to Week 9, Roethlisberger was averaging over 275 yards passing per game and had thrown an impressive 16 touchdowns to just four interceptions. More importantly, the team was ranked 10th in adjusted net expected points up. In other words, Pittsburgh was adding points at a better rate than over two-thirds of the league through the air.

But during that Week 9 game – a primetime one against the Chiefs – the Steel City paused. Roethlisberger was sacked at the beginning of third quarter, albeit after a miserable first half, and was removed from the game. Reports soon surfaced that he had been taken to the hospital. Football fans later found out that Roethlisberger had sprained his throwing shoulder and dislocated a rib that could cut into his aorta.

Needless to say, the injury mattered.

Big Ben missed three games after the injury, and you could certainly argue that he never looked the same. His first game back against San Diego saw a 20-plus fantasy point performance, but most of the production came in garbage time. He threw three touchdowns against Cleveland in the final game of the season too, but at that point, the game was meaningless to both real and fake football.

It was his first season under offensive coordinator Todd Haley, and the general perception was that it wasn’t a good one. Sure, the Steelers 8-8 record knocked them out of playoff contention, but the genuine truth to the situation is that Todd Haley was just as good last season for Ben Roethlisberger as former coordinator Bruce Arians ever was. The numbers don’t lie.

The Todd Haley Effect

Roethlisberger’s performance pre-aorta fiasco should bring hope to 2013. Although he lost speedy wideout Mike Wallace to the market and could be without trusty tight end Heath Miller to start the season, another year with Todd Haley could mean favorable production for Roethlisberger.

To show why, I’ve taken a look at Roethlisberger’s efficiency over his career and how it ranked on a per attempt basis compared to other signal callers. I was curious to see exactly how Roethlisberger played under Haley. The value used here is “passing net expected points per play”, which – like the team metric mentioned above – measures how many points Roethlisberger added to the Steelers point output on a per play basis.

The reason this number matters is because it looks past the usual yardage, completion percentage and touchdown passing statistics. Instead, PNEP/Attempt looks at every toss and shows how it benefited a passer’s team.

Let’s take a look at how Roethlisberger has performed throughout his career in terms of PNEP/Attempt, including last season with Haley:

YearPass NEP/AttemptRankAttemptsAttempts/Game

I’ve included pass attempts in the chart because low attempts could help equate to better PNEP/Attempt numbers. After all, it can be easy to be efficient on a per pass basis when your team isn’t asking you to win ball games for them.

As you can see, Roethlisberger’s PNEP/Attempt didn’t drop at all with Haley coordinating the offense. In fact, it was one of his best years under center. Many believe that former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians was the key reason for Roethlisberger’s career progression, which might be the case fundamentally, but in terms of actual production, Haley was just as successful with Number 7. The tension between the professor and his student, however, made it seem as though things weren’t going well.

Could the Running Game Have Been Much Worse?

But why does this matter? If Todd Haley has simply equaled Bruce Arians output with Big Ben production-wise, why in the world should we think Roethlisberger is in for a better season?

The ground game.

Do we really want to blame Todd Haley for the Steelers lack of success on the ground last season? I know it’s easy to, but it’s not like he was running with a stud behind the average-at-best offensive line. He had Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman, two plodders who have been career backups.

The fact is, Roethlisberger easily had his worst run support last season that he’s had over his entire career. Easily. And as we all know, a quarterback’s best friend is his offensive line and running game.

YearAdjust Rush NEP/Play Rank

Guys, the only teams that ran the ball worse than the Steelers last year were Oakland and Arizona. I’ve already explained why Oakland’s was so bad, and if you were to use one word to describe Arizona’s last year, you’d probably use something along the lines of “death”.

Let’s face it: The Steelers can’t be much worse on the ground than they were a season ago. Their young offensive line has an additional year of experience, and after drafting Le’Veon Bell in April, it appears the team is trying to turn things around. That’s only good news for Big Ben.

The Loss of Mike Wallace

Let’s not overstate the loss of Mike Wallace in Todd Haley’s system. He was a great player in Bruce Arians offense because it was much more vertical, but in Haley’s, Wallace wasn’t superb. On a per target basis, Wallace had the worst season of his career last year, adding .61 points to the Steelers score on each target. Of the 84 receivers with 50 or more targets last season, Wallace ranked 56th in terms of efficiency. That was the worst of any Steelers receiver, including probable new starter Emmanuel Sanders.

Wallace was definitely helpful and played a big role in Big Ben’s success under Arians, but he was average at best when compared to the highly targeted competition with Haley. Filling his deep threat void may appear difficult, but Haley’s offense is based on using personnel properly, not forcing personnel into a particular style of offense. The loss of Mike Wallace can certainly hurt, but it’s not as though the Steelers lost Calvin Johnson or Roddy White.

Predicting Big Ben’s 2013 Season

At numberFire, we take a lot of things into consideration when making projections. The NEP data plays a big role, as it shows how efficient and valuable a player was to his team.

Usage is obviously important as well, though. Just because a player has a poor NEP doesn’t mean he’s worthless in terms of end-of-season stat lines. A high projected expected points value with high usage, however, could mean big things.

Given the Steelers offense, Big Ben’s efficiency ratings and past performances under similar circumstances by other passers, we currently believe Roethlisberger’s in store for a 4,363-yard, 30-touchdown season. We see him having a solid 2:1 touchdown to interception ratio, and if he stays healthy, potentially finishing as a QB1 in 12-team fantasy leagues. That’s pretty good value for an 11th rounder.

And it makes sense. Considering Big Ben still ranked in the top 10 in efficiency while throwing nearly 37 times per game with such a bad running game last year leads us to optimism. Sure, the loss of Mike Wallace hurts and Heath Miller’s health needs to improve, but don’t discount what Ben Roethlisberger can do. He’s seen turnover at receiver before, and he’s proven to be one of the best passers in the game.

Even if his professor is completely aggravating.