By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — Veteran wideout Jerricho Cotchery believed that Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and offensive coordinator Todd Haley could not only co-exist, but they could work together successfully as well.
Questions arose as their initial season together steadily went from productive to inconsistent with Roethlisberger missing three-plus games due to injury, his negative post-game comments at Dallas and the Steelers’ missing the playoffs for the fifth time since the 2000 season as low points.
“I think you’ve got young guys on the offense, and you’ve got a lot of guys that have been in the system for eight seasons,” Cotchery said. “I know Ben had been in one system for a period of time.
“Anytime you introduce something that is totally new, like this offense is totally new, and there wasn’t anything that was similar to the previous system, there is going to be some inconsistent play.
“There has to be a lot of growth, and I think this year guys did a good job of welcoming that change and just trying to get better,” Cotchery added. “I think it will be better moving forward.”
Cotchery signed with the Steelers in 2011, after seven with the New York Jets, and he re-signed with the club this past year for $3 million, $1 million as a bonus and $1 million each for the 2012-13 seasons.
However, Cotchery had to be feeling a little under-appreciated by the Steelers. After two seasons as a role player with the Jets during 2004-05, Cotchery went on a five-year run that proved he was a solid free-agent signing by the Steelers. Cotchery averaged nearly 67 receptions for more than 840 yards and 18 total touchdowns. Cotchery only caught 17 passes this past season and 16 in 2011 with two scores then and none this past year for the Steelers.
“Well, I wanted to help the offense out more than I did,” Cotchery said. “We were very inconsistent as an offense. We just made a lot of critical errors. I’m a part of the offense, and it’s just disappointing.
“I think every guy is going to put in the necessary work this offseason to make sure that inconsistent play doesn’t show up again next year.”
In Hines Ward’s absence this season, the nine-year veteran Cotchery was a mentor for young wideouts Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders. But that was his primary contribution, since the Steelers only dressed four wideouts for the most part and rarely played more than three at a time. This decision left Cotchery on the sideline and 6-foot-5 Plaxico Burress — by far the team’s tallest wideout — inactive more often than not.
“If they want me back here, I would definitely be happy to be back,” Cotchery said. “But right now, I’m not even thinking about it. I’m just trying to think about the season and the missed opportunities. Obviously, you don’t want to pack your bags this early, and we have to prevent it from happening going forward.
“You look at the Oakland game. You look at the Tennessee game, games that we pretty much had in control and for some reason they slipped away. You look at things like that and kill yourself the entire night or the entire offseason looking back at those games. Hopefully, they’ll be good learning moments.”
Cotchery added that those teaching moments should show that the Steelers need to take advantage of the opportunities presented to them in the future. But he also acknowledged that injuries were crucial to the team’s progress. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s rib and shoulder injuries that cost him three-plus games and slowed him for a couple more could not be overlooked.
“I remember in the Oakland game, we were on the sidelines, and we were looking at the pictures (offensive stills),” Cotchery said. “And it was like we got everything we wanted. We were moving the ball so well and things of that nature, so I felt like we were growing. Then, all of the sudden, Ben gets hurt and that slows the progression a little bit.
“That’s just the reality of it. Once Ben got back in (against San Diego), we were just trying to recapture what we had earlier in the year. But it just didn’t take place. I think the progression would have been a lot better if Ben wouldn’t have gotten hurt, but those things happen over the course of the season. And we just had to deal with it.”
For those free agents out there, including Wallace, Cotchery has a message.
“From me being in two places (New York and Pittsburgh), you just stress the fact that this is a great organization, and that’s just the reality of it,” Cotchery said. “This is a great place to play. You just let (Wallace) know things of that nature. I don’t try to twist his arm and make him stay. He’s going to have to make that decision for himself.”
The Steelers began conducting player exit interviews and physicals on New Year’s Day, and they will continue likely through Thursday.