Imagine going into the playoffs on the cusp of your 39th birthday. You’re feeling pretty darn optimistic about your team’s chances as you prepare for your 11th postseason tournament.
It’s been a long time since you’ve gotten close to the Super Bowl, and even in that most-recent opportunity—a matchup against the juggernaut New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game four Januarys ago—your team felt like it was still miles away from getting back to the Promised Land.
But this year was going to be different. The time was ripe to capture that third ring, but more importantly, the seventh Lombardi trophy for your legendary organization.
This described the situation for Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and what was at stake for him and his team this past Sunday evening against the Browns in a wildcard matchup at Heinz Field.
Things obviously didn’t go as planned for Roethlisberger and the Steelers. In fact, they went very wrong and very quickly in a 48-37 loss. You only get so many chances in the NFL, and the older a player gets, the less likely it will be for him to reach back up and grab that brass ring.
Some players spend years in the NFL and never come close to reaching the championship heights Roethlisberger experienced over his first seven seasons with the Steelers—four AFC Championship Game appearances, three trips to the Super Bowl and two parades.
When it comes that quickly and that many times, a player probably begins to take it for granted a little bit. He might not say it. He might not even think it, but it’s almost impossible not to.
Roethlisberger came into the league an excitable pup and was the missing ingredient for a veteran team that painfully came up short often when it was within arm’s reach of that championship ring.
By the time Pittsburgh reached its third Super Bowl following the 2010 season, most of the players that made up those glory years were old, slow and it was over. It was time for transition, an era of rebuilding. However, it’s hard to rebuild when you have a quarterback the caliber of a Roethlisberger. Those guys are usually too good to let their teams fall off a cliff totally. What happened for the Steelers in the decade of the 2010s was they rebuilt their team on the fly, knowing they had the most important piece already under their roof. But the team was never quite complete. Sure, there were All-Pros on offense—Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro. But not really any on the defensive side of the football.
The Steelers did finally rebuild their defense in 2019, but Roethlisberger missed most of that season with an elbow injury.
As for those offensive All-Pros, they’re mostly gone—some physically; some in terms of their current level of play—and there is now a transition taking place on that side of the ball. The offensive line is old and no longer an asset. The receivers are young and promising, but none of them have reached a level of consistent dominance even approaching what Brown did in his heyday. As for the ground game...that’s going to need some work.
People have been talking about the window for another championship with the two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback closing for about a decade or so.
The fact that the Steelers have kept that window from totally closing post-2010 is rather remarkable, and it’s a testament to the talents of Mike Tomlin, the front office and Roethlisberger.
Roethlisberger is now a veteran and the only player left from those Super Bowl years. You can say what you want about that guy, but you can’t say he’s not all about winning. It would have been easy for him to walk away after having major elbow surgery, but he came back to fight for another title.
It’s hard to win another title. It’s hard to repeat history. Just ask Tom Brady. It took his Patriots an entire decade to climb back up the Super Bowl mountain. Peyton Manning needed neck surgery, a new team and a dominant defense. Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees may never do it again.
Roethlisberger may finally be at the point of his career where he figures that maybe it’s just too hard to keep fighting the fight. His time may have already passed a long, long time ago. The NFL is a young man’s game. This is why Patrick Mahomes appears to be head and shoulders above every other quarterback in the NFL, right now, while the likes of Roethlisberger, Brady and Brees seem to be holding on to past glory.
Those tears Roethlisberger shed at the end of Sunday’s game were real. You could empathize with his plight. He’s no dummy. He knows his time is quickly running out.
In many ways, Roethlisberger seems to be following the same career path as the legendary John Elway. Ever see Elway’s reaction of disbelief on the sidelines when he knew his Broncos were about to get bounced from the divisional round of the playoffs by the upstart Jaguars following the 1996 season? That was a darn good Broncos team, and many wondered if that was the last hurrah for the veteran Elway, who, unlike Roethlisberger, had yet to get over the championship hump despite a few trips to the Super Bowl earlier in his career.
Fortunately for Elway, it was just the start for his revamped Broncos, and they helped to carry him to a couple of titles to close out his career.
Maybe that’s what Roethlisberger needs at this stage. If he’s going to keep playing, maybe he can’t be the man, the straw, the guy who carries the load.
Will that image of Roethlisberger crying at the end of the Browns’ game be the last we see of him in black and gold, or is there another parade or two?