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When does “past their prime” reach “thank you for your service” in one’s NFL career?

Simply because a player has gone past their career peak doesn’t mean it’s time to hang it up.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at New York Giants Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Age eventually catches up with everybody.

I was reminded of this over the weekend as I celebrated another trip around the sun. Unfortunately, we can’t turn back time. And in most cases, if given enough time, people reach a point where they simply can’t do the things they used to.

While for many occupations and activities, what would be considered a person’s prime is much later. In professional football one is generally considered beyond their best years after reaching the age of 30. Just think about how depressing this would be for doctors, teachers, lawyers, or almost every other occupation. While retirement in one’s mid 30s sounds fantastic, it’s usually the financial means to keep this from being achieved.

Getting back to the NFL, it is often a delicate situation when a player is still trying to continue their NFL career while their level of play has dropped off. While not all situations are the same, some players have trouble facing the music as to when it is time to hang it up.

But when is the time to hang it up?

What I find interesting is that sometimes fans, both Steelers fans and non-Steelers fans, believe that Pittsburgh is a franchise who holds onto their players too long for sentimental reasons. While evidence could be given in support of the statement, there’s also plenty of evidence to the contrary of players who some felt may have had more left in the tank but the Steelers decided it was time to move on.

From what I’ve seen, particularly in this offseason, there is a growing number of fans who are quick to pull the trigger on letting a player go because they “aren’t what they used to be.” Is this really the gauge in which we are going to judge a player’s ability to continue to contribute? Can a player on the downside of their career still give value?

The real answer to this question is quite obvious in my opinion. As long as a player, even on the decline, is better than the alternative, it’s not time to move on.

For this reason, this is why players are sometimes going a few more years after their long-tenured team has sent them packing. While the team they are on may have a better option than them at the time, there still may be other teams who feel it is an upgrade for their services.

During the 2020 season, especially at the end when things were falling apart for the Steelers, a number of fans were ready to jump ship on a number of Steelers veterans. As the offseason continued, this grew even more. Be it Ben Roethlisberger, Alejandro Villanueva, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, and even Joe Haden, there are fans that feel like if this isn’t our answer for the next five years, we need to bring in that player now in order to get them ready.

Is this really the best line of thinking? Let’s break it down player by player:

Ben Roethlisberger

If you all are like me, you may be getting harassed by fans of other franchises saying, “Why are you going with Ben, he’s obviously washed up!” It’s not that Roethlisberger is washed up, but to say that he’s still on the rise at 39 years old would be crazy. But even with declining skill sets in some areas, Ben Roethlisberger is the quarterback of the Steelers going into the 2021 season because he is their best option. Even if he’s not what he used to be, he still better than anybody else on the roster. Comparing 2021 Roethlisberger to 2014 Roethlisberger doesn’t do any good. It’s comparing 2021 Ben Roethlisberger to anyone else they have or could have this season is all that matters.

Maurkice Pouncey

Retiring following the 2020 season, Pouncey is was not the player he once was. But given the option, would Pouncey be the best center on the Steelers roster at this time? Yes, he would be. So for those fans who thought it was time for him to move on, we’ll see how the Steelers do in 2021 without him.

Alejandro Villanueva

Currently an unrestricted free agent, Villanueva may be 32-years old but does not have the wear and tear on him of his NFL career as he got going late due to his military service. Although many Steelers fans were down on Villanueva, he was still the Steelers highest graded offensive lineman for the 2020 season according to Pro Football Focus, and the second highest graded offensive player behind Chase Claypool (excluding Mason Rudolph, who technically has a higher score than Villanueva but only played one full game). While it’s uncertain at this time if Villanueva would be significantly better than the tackles currently on the Steelers roster, it’s not obvious that he isn’t. So even though he’s not the player he was even two years ago, as long as he’s better than what the Steelers may be faced with in 2021, the return of Big Al would not be completely crazy.

David DeCastro

This one is hard to judge as DeCastro appeared to be dealing with an injury in 2020. The 2021 season will give both the Steelers and their fan base a better gauge on his career trajectory. Regardless, DeCastro is still showing enough to be in the Steelers starting lineup.

Joe Haden

I’m throwing this one in here because I was surprised at the number of Steelers fans who think Joe Haden shouldn’t have been in the plans for 2021. The only number showing any concern with Joe Haden is his age. Currently 32, Hayden continued to put up impressive numbers in some statistical categories in 2020, having fewer touchdowns surrendered, and a lower completion percentage given up than he did in his Pro-Bowl season of 2019. Fans concerned about Haden‘s future are more “living in their fears” as they predict a drop off to be coming which has yet to occur.

Yes, when a player is on the decline of their NFL career, you expect that decline to continue. Fearing the drop off is inevitable, moving on from a player when they are still your best option is merely building for the future and not for a team’s current success.

As long as these elder statesman are performing at a level better than their replacement, they should continue to see quality playing time. But when that moment passes and the “next man up” is showing more than what the aging veteran can give, then it’s time to make the switch.