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Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 season marks a turning point for Ben Roethlisberger

As pro football changes rapidly around him, Big Ben sticks to his guns.

NFL: AFC Divisional-Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

After a hard-fought 2016 season and a disappointing defeat in the AFC Championship Game at Foxborough, Ben Roethlisberger sent shock waves through Steelers Nation when he divulged that he was pondering retirement. While Ben subsequently reconsidered and committed to return to action, not many Steelers fans would be willing to bet the ranch today that the opening game in Cleveland on September 10th won’t represent the first verse of No. 7’s NFL swan song.

The sport of professional football has changed dramatically within the 13-year span of Roethlisberger’s career. During this period, training camp and preseason games have become less and less consequential, as players seek to avoid the untimely injuries that can derail a season or shorten an NFL career. In addition to the ever-rising financial stakes, revelations from medical research about the dangers of concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) have changed the ways that a majority of pro football players defines their career goals.

On the shiny side of the coin, though, there’s the timeless lust to compete and win that always has driven Roethlisberger and other successful NFL quarterbacks to their most superlative efforts on the gridiron. Reduced to its simplest terms, pro football remains a game and a sport, regardless of our tendency to emphasize its dual role as a bottom-line enterprise. And the future survival of this sport continues to hinge squarely on the level of entertainment and sheer fun that it provides for fans.

No NFL player better typifies this “fun factor” than Ben Roethlisberger, a disciple of the mobile gunslinger John Elway and a master of the backyard football genre. Ben remains the same Mad Bomber he was on his arrival in Pittsburgh as a rookie in 2004. No amount of coaching has ever succeeded in turning Ben into anything remotely resembling a “finesse quarterback.” And in their heart of hearts, few Steelers fans would want any other Ben besides precisely the one that we’ve got.

As the Pittsburgh Steelers prepare to kick off a new season which—if they can progress only one step further than they did in 2016—will land them in another Super Bowl, it’s worthwhile to consider what’s truly at stake for No. 7 and how he might respond in two opposite scenarios.

Given the even-higher expectations of the Steelers organization and fan base for this season, if the team’s performance somehow fails to measure up, or should ill-timed injuries rise up to thwart their principal objective, this would translate to being yet another not-so-fun season for Big Ben. Under this scenario, Ben’s desire to spend more time with the family (and less time in the Jacuzzi) might very well be cemented by season’s end.

But in early September, we prefer instead to ponder a win-win scenario. If the pieces that Mike Tomlin and the Steelers’ front office have put in place (both recently and during the past few years) come to fruition this season, there’s little doubt this team has the capabilities to take the next step to claim a seventh league title. If the planets align and this Steel City dream comes to pass, it’s tough to imagine the fiercely competitive Roethlisberger walking away from an opportunity to match or possibly exceed the four Super Bowl titles of Terry Bradshaw’s 1970s Steelers.

Given his monumental body of work, of course, Big Ben hasn’t got a single thing to prove to anyone at this stage of his career. But with the expected boost from a better receiving corps, a stouter defense and apparently a better overall team this season, Ben might have a golden opportunity to once again ply his trademark brand of football—the style at which he most excels and clearly prefers.

Those old enough to have vivid memories of the Steelers’ 1970s championships understand only too well how fleeting these glorious sports epochs can be. Because time marches relentlessly onward, you’ve got to fully appreciate each minute of every championship quest and the outstanding players that make them a reality.

There’s never been a better time than right now for the Steelers to place their faith in the capable hands of Ben Roethlisberger. Just as the team did originally with the 20-something Roethlisberger more than a decade ago, the Steelers are poised to unleash the unfiltered, 30-something Ben on their opponents in his 14th NFL season.

When Ben is out there truly having fun playing the game, that’s when he’s at his very best. At this point in his career, Roethlisberger richly deserves an offense carefully tailored to his unique strengths. Based on all evidence so far during the off-season and preseason, it appears that’s exactly the kind of offensive talent No. 7 will have on the field when the 2017 season kicks off. That’s why Steelers Nation is looking forward to possibly one of the most exciting seasons in the storied history of this franchise and a likely turning point for one of the game’s greatest quarterbacks.