“It’s almost like he wants you to beat your man and go after him,” an unnamed Ravens’ defender, many years ago.
“It’s like they just hang onto him, hoping to bring him down,” my mom, many years ago.
“Throw it away, Ben! He holds onto the football too damn long!” just about every Steelers fan, many years ago.
All three quotes aptly describe the essence of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, a legend who presumably played his last game—both as a professional and for the team that drafted him—on Sunday night in a 42-21 loss to the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium on Wild Card Weekend.
Unfortunately for Roethlisberger and his fans—and fortunately for that unnamed Ravens’ defender—No. 7’s essence, the thing that made him truly special, hadn’t been seen in at least a few years.
We could clearly see that in 2020 after Roethlisberger made his return following a long absence due to a major elbow injury early in the 2019 campaign that required reconstructive surgery. But we were hoping that Roethlisberger’s limitations in 2020—those frustratingly short passes, the 6.6 yards per passing attempt, his unwillingness to hold onto the football for more than a second, his lack of mobility—were just a byproduct of his long absence and recovery from major surgery.
Heck, maybe it was simply the result of a deteriorating offensive line. You could blame the 2020 offensive line to an extent, but those same problems persisted in 2021. And, yes, again, you could blame an underperforming offensive line—this time, one that was young and either inexperienced or untalented—but you couldn’t deny what your eyes were telling you: the essence of Big Ben was gone and it was never coming back.
It was easy to see that Roethlisberger no longer relished those moments when overzealous pass-rushers beat their blocks and foolishly thought they would be able to chase him down before he made a throw downfield.
And when those defenders actually got ahold of Roethlisberger, they weren’t hanging onto him for dear life, just hoping to wrangle him to the turf before he could flip a pass to someone a few feet away. No, instead, the wrangling became so much easier, as the big guy offered little resistance while being taken down.
As for holding onto the ball too long, the absence of that was really depressing. You see, we once may have complained about Roethlisberger “holding onto the ball too damn long!” but that was what made his prime years truly special. That’s what made him a legend. That’s what he could bring to the table that few other quarterbacks ever could. Yes, that trait often led to some disheartening sacks or even fumbles, but more often than not, it led to magical moments.
Therefore, to watch that man, that once special talent, spend his last two seasons looking to get rid of the football the second he took the snap from center, well, that was like paying money to go see Elvis during his jumpsuit days. It was sad. It was disheartening. You wanted to admit that he was washed up, but you just didn’t have the heart to say it out loud.
While it was sad watching Roethlisberger regress the way he did over his final few seasons, it wasn’t uncommon.
If any professional athlete sticks around long enough, he’ll ultimately be reminded that Father Time has always been undefeated in sports. Not everyone has the will to go out like Jim Brown or Barry Sanders. In fact, most great ones stick around well past their expiration dates.
Johnny Unitas retired as a backup with the lowly Chargers. Joe Namath went out as a non-descript Ram.
Jerry Rice caught a combined 30 passes with the Raiders and Seahawks during his final season. Hines Ward had to be spoon-fed his 1000th catch during his final regular-season game.
It happens to the best of them.
And Ben Roethlisberger was among the best to have ever done it at the quarterback position.
Fortunately for Roethlisberger, his “jumpsuit” years were right at the very end. Unlike Elvis, those years won’t be what we remember, they won’t define him. His essence will define him.
Where’s that picture of Terrell Suggs hanging onto Roethlisberger’s back right before he chucks the ball away just to avoid a sack?
I think that should be No. 7’s statue.