After turning 39 on Tuesday, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger inked a new deal to return with a much better salary cap hit for the 2021 season. With the contract including only void years beyond this coming season, it appears it may be just one last hurrah for Roethlisberger in the black and gold. With the Steelers having their all-time longest tenured player returning for 2021, a lot of the commentary has turned to how the Steelers should do things differently in the upcoming season to avoid a repeat of falling off at the end of the year.
I would like to see a “less is more” approach to Ben Roethlisberger next season. Of course, this means Roethlisberger having to throw the ball less because the Steelers are able to effectively run the ball more often. This appears to be obvious and everyone should realize it would be a desirable outcome.
But I’m going to take this in a different direction.
This might sound a little bit crazy, but make sure you hear me out to the end. Should Ben Roethlisberger play less games in 2021?
First off, it’s not going to help that it’s almost certain the NFL will have teams playing 17 regular-season games in 2021 rather than the 16 they have done for over 40 years. Adding an extra game to a team who saw their play fall off at the very end of the season is not going to instill a lot of confidence in moving forward. But this will be the new normal in the NFL, so teams will need to be ready to play the extra game.
Just to be clear, I’m not saying that the Steelers should simply just give Ben weeks off selectively through the season in order to have him operating more efficiently come January. If the Steelers were to decide to do this I could understand, but I think that’s taking it a little bit too far.
Instead, what is the Steelers took an approach to not push Roethlisberger to rush back to be ready should he find himself dealing with a nagging injury?
Let’s look at an example from the 2020 season. Ben Roethlisberger missed the final drive of the first half against the Cowboys in Week 9 due to a knee injury. It was rumored that Roethlisberger even had problems with his knees the remainder of the year. The week following this game also happened to be when Ben Roethlisberger ended up on the Reserve/COVID-19 List because of being a close contact with Vance McDonald. Without any practice all week, the Steelers ran an extended walk-through on Saturday when Roethlisberger came off the list and he had an impressive performance in a victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 10. Hopefully, Covid issues that arose in the 2020 season will not be around in 2021, but who knows. But in this sort of situation arises this coming year, would it be better for the Steelers to simply have Roethlisberger get fully recovered and miss the next week’s game?
While I think some of you may already think I’m too crazy and stopped reading, for those that have stuck with me let’s look at the data. Since were looking at an aged Ben Roethlisberger, the first 10 years of his career are not something which needs to fall under this category. But if looking at Ben Roethlisberger‘s playoff appearances since 2014, the result of the Steelers first game has an interesting correlation with the number of games Roethlisberger played throughout the season.
In 2014, the Steelers were one and done in the playoffs and it was a season where Roethlisberger started all 16 games. While the playoff loss was probably more attributed to the injury to Le’Veon Bell in Week 17, it still fits the given pattern which is about to occur.
In the 2015 season, the Steelers won their first round game of the playoffs before falling in Denver. This season, Roethlisberger started 11 games and appeared in 12. In case you don’t recall, Roethlisberger came off the bench for an injured Landry Jones in order to beat the Cleveland Browns.
In 2016 the Steelers had two playoff victories before coming up short in the AFC championship game. This year, Roethlisberger started 14 games. While one of the games he missed was due to resting in Week 17, the other was when Roethlisberger was injured for the Steelers Week 7 match up with the New England Patriots going into their bye.
In both 2017 and 2020, Roethlisberger started 15 games on the season, rested in Week 17, and the Steelers lost in the first round of the playoffs.
In other words, although it’s not a definite cause-and-effect relationship, the numbers do match up that when Roethlisberger plays fewer than 15 games in the season he’s more likely to win their first-round playoff game.
Like I said before, simply holding a perfectly healthy Roethlisberger out of the game doesn’t really make sense. But if Roethlisberger is dealing with a nagging issue, perhaps the Steelers should be much quicker to pull the trigger on holding him out injured at various points of the season.
The other added benefit of this line of thinking would be for the Steelers to see what they have in their back-up quarterback. Although things could change between now and Week 1, the current reserve quarterback would be Mason Rudolph. Having Rudolph start two or three games in 2021 could also help the Steelers get a better gauge on his future with the franchise while giving Roethlisberger extra recovery time.
This entire notion is not about specifically limiting Roethlisberger’s games. But if Steelers took a mentality that they’re not afraid to sit Roethlisberger for a minor injury that he would have likely played through earlier in his career, it wouldn’t be a bad philosophy. Making the postseason should be the first priority, but being in a situation to play your best football in the playoffs is also extremely important.
If Ben Roethlisberger ends dealing with a nuisance injury in 2021, the Steelers should handle it more with the long term in mind. While having Roethlisberger play through it might give them the best chance to win in a given week, having him more recovered for a possible post-season run should take priority.