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Ben Roethlisberger's unwritten chapter of his storied career

When reason suggested Ben should ride off into the sunset, he chose to return for a curtain call in 2021. The weeks ahead will reveal whether his gamble succeeds.

NFL: Chicago Bears at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Near the end of the fourth quarter on Monday night, after executing another game-winning drive like those that have thrilled Steelers fans many times over the years, Ben Roethlisberger tucked the football on third down and lumbered ahead in an unsuccessful effort to move the chains. The offense was well within the range of Chris Boswell's clinching field goal, but Ben's third-down attempt was a bittersweet reminder. It signified his still-burning desire to win while reminding everyone of the obvious decline in mobility that once made No. 7 a game-planning nightmare for NFL coaches and the league's most feared edge rushers.

A burning question persists for those who welcomed Ben back this season, as well as for those who wished him gone, believing his expiration date has passed. That question is why Roethlisberger would choose to return to a team in transition, taking snaps behind a young, inexperienced OL. Why too would he decide to come back after enduring one of the most disappointing seasons of his entire career?

Some say it's all about the money, but if there's one thing that probably isn't a primary concern for Big Ben at this point, it's cash. Just as easily, he could have hung up his cleats last winter and perhaps earned even more money this year doing commercials or working as an analyst for a TV sports network. He certainly didn't need to continue making himself a weekly target for 250-pound linebackers and 300-pound defensive linemen.

A more compelling explanation is that, regardless of his physical limitations, Ben believes one more chapter remains to be written in his NFL story. And considering that his overall performance through eight games has been less than impressive, this accentuates the gravity of the nine games remaining before playoff time. Ben knows better than anyone that his days in the NFL are dwindling down to a precious few.

As he's often done on the gridiron over the years, Ben is taking a big gamble, perhaps the biggest of his career. While no one can deny his Hall of Fame credentials, it's hard to escape the feeling that Roethlisberger came back this year because he didn't want a blowout, playoff loss to the Browns last January to stand as the final act of his remarkable career. Additionally, as one of the most accomplished quarterbacks in NFL history, Ben probably hopes to reach some statistical goals.

But the chance this season will wind up any more successfully than 2020 is probably no better than 50/50. Ben is gambling that he's still capable of finishing the season in a manner which will enable him to leave the game on a high note, the outcome he'd obviously prefer. It's a bet that Roethlisberger has placed squarely upon himself.

Pitfalls abound on the road to January football, but if Ben confounds his detractors by pulling off a series of winning efforts -- possibly even leading the Steelers deeper into the playoffs -- that's a storyline that resembles much more closely the way Ben would prefer to be remembered.

Plenty of Steelers fans already have judged this "Comeback Kid" scenario as nothing more than a pipedream. And given the shortcomings seen on this team during the first half of the season, the doubters very well might be proven correct.

On the other hand, pulling off the unexpected has been a hallmark of Ben's entire NFL career. His personal conviction that enough gas is left in the tank to reach that lofty goal appears to be the only logical reason why Ben is still suiting up each week. And whether or not everyone believes No. 7 can write his final chapter on the wings of victory, surely Steelers Nation ought to revere the grit it's taken for Roethlisberger to come back against all odds to shoulder this challenge. After all, isn't this precisely the kind of steel toughness which Pittsburgh sports fans have always admired most about Big Ben?