Ask the men he coaches what makes Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner tick, and you get a variation of the same response.
He’s a dude. A good dude. But just a dude.
“There’s nothing special or outrageous or eccentric,” guard David DeCastro said.
And that might be exactly what the Steelers need after six highly productive if occasionally volatile seasons with Todd Haley calling the plays.
On the surface, Fichtner and his predecessor could not be more different. The sometimes combustible Haley wasn’t one to hide his emotions and followed a personal mandate to wear shorts at every practice regardless of the weather.
Fichtner, promoted from quarterbacks coach to coordinator in January after the team allowed Haley’s contract to expire, takes a decidedly more even-keel approach.
The most recent time he remembers truly losing it on the field came during the 2010 season opener against Atlanta.
When Rashard Mendenhall crossed the goal line for a walk-off win, Fichtner leapt into the air and jokes he may have pulled his hamstring in the process.
To be fair, the 54-year-old Fichtner can still move a little bit. He finished practice on Thursday by playfully dropping into coverage as a safety while the first-team offense went through a quick walkthrough after the defense left the field.
Unlike Haley, Fichtner makes more conservative choices, at least sartorially.
While Haley showed off his calves, Fichtner is usually in sweats, a long-sleeved undershirt and a pullover as he was on Wednesday even as temperatures soared into the 90s.
The thing is, Fichtner didn’t really look uncomfortable. Probably a good thing considering the stakes of his new gig.
He takes over one of the league’s most star-laden offenses, even with All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell out while waiting ... and waiting ... to sign his one-year franchise tender. All Fichtner has to do is design an attack that will produce a fifth consecutive playoff berth and — the team hopes — its first trip to the Super Bowl in eight years.
Asked if he’s ready to be second-guessed every Monday and Fichtner smiled.
“Sure, absolutely, comes with it,” Fichtner said. “I get it.”
He’s been there before, just not for a while. He’s a football lifer. His father Ross was a quarterback at Purdue then spent eight seasons as a cornerback for the Cleveland Browns in the 1960s. Randy didn’t wander far afield.
He played briefly at Purdue then went immediately into coaching after graduation. His nomadic climb up the ladder included four years at Arkansas State from 1997-2000, where he crossed paths with a young defensive backs coach whose energy and edge Fichtner couldn’t help but be drawn to.
So when that young defensive backs coach called in 2006 and offered Fichtner a job in the NFL, Fichtner figured there was no way he could tell Mike Tomlin no.
More than a decade later, the partnership is still going and is one of the main reasons Fichtner stayed in Pittsburgh rather than chase other opportunities.
“That’s just, my relationship with Mike,” Fichtner said. “I told him when I came, I told him ‘I’m coming for you’ and since I’ve been here, I’m all-in for the [owners] and the organization also. Makes it a couple of reasons. I’ve always felt I’ve been content with jobs that I’ve had and I’m content and just do the best I can.”
Having some of the most talented players at his disposal doesn’t hurt either. Fichtner has developed a strong bond with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who figures to given plenty of leeway to run the no-huddle as he pleases when the Steelers open the season in Cleveland on Sunday.
“I’m sure he’s quite capable of making the right decisions at the right time,” Fichtner said. “He’s done it in the past and I don’t see it being any different in the future.”
Still, even Roethlisberger is a bit curious how different things will be with Fichtner’s voice coming through his helmet instead of Haley’s.
“I don’t know,” Roethlisberger said. “We’ll see. That’s the question everyone wants to find out. What’s Randy’s personality? What are his tendencies? We’ll all find out on Sunday I guess.”
Josh Dobbs, who credited Fichtner’s tutelage for helping him supplant Landry Jones as Roethlisberger’s primary backup coming out of training camp, is curious to see how willing Fichtner will be to let the creativity he shows during meetings come to life on the field.
Yet for all of Fichtner’s “just one of the guys” persona, Dobbs allows there’s a fire underneath even if it’s imperceptible on the practice field. Just start watching film with Fichtner. The joking stops, at least briefly, replaced by Fichtner’s inner perfectionist.
“When you get in the meeting room, he flips and he’s the most passionate guy every single play,” Dobbs said. “It’s ‘Do this and it’s a touchdown. This is what we can do.”’
The self-described “old dude” understands he’s an unknown quantity outside the locker room. He’s not inside the locker room. His role has changed. His approach has not.
“He’s probably wanted to be an OC for a long time,” Dobbs said. “So to get to that position where he’s the guy calling plays and game-planning and to see him not change is really good. He’s the same guy, bringing energy. ... I think that shows in how he attacks the field.”
Tomlin said he does not plan to outline the team’s plan for Bell with Bell’s representative. Bell’s agent Adisa Bakari said Wednesday they wanted to discuss Bell’s usage before Bell reports. “I don’t communicate with agents regarding how I utilize players,” Tomlin said. “I communicate with players regarding how I utilize players.”
TE Vance McDonald (foot) did not practice on Thursday and is unlikely to play against the Browns.