STARKEY: Playing Big Ben in garbage time is insane

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)
  • Ben Roethlisberger had knee surgery this week and will not play Sunday.
  • He injured the knee during Sunday's 30-15 loss against the Miami Dolphins.
  • Despite the injury, the Steelers put Roethlisberger back in Sunday's game in the final minute.

Four days after the Miami meltdown, the question lingers: What in the world was Mike Tomlin thinking when he sent Ben Roethlisberger onto the field with 50 seconds left?

The cramping and vomiting Steelers were done. They’d just been gouged for a 62-yard touchdown run. They trailed 30-15. The Dolphins had beaten them to a pulp.

More to the point, Roethlisberger was limping badly on account of a bum left knee that would require surgery. There remained a minuscule chance of a miracle comeback, but the overriding concern should have been that the team’s only indispensible player could no longer protect himself in the face of a furious rush.

The fight was finished, yet Tomlin sent his fighter out for one more round.

For what?

To prove the Steelers don’t live in their fears?

Because every other NFL team does the same thing?

To show again that Tomlin is “slow to acknowledge defeat,” as he put it earlier this season after recklessly leaving Roethlisberger on the field for every bit of a 34-3 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles?

This is more than just questionable decision making. It’s insane, even if it hasn’t (yet) come back to bite the Steelers coach.

Steelers much better with Big Ben: Somebody should remind Tomlin of his record when Ben plays the majority of a game (89-47) compared to when he doesn’t (7-7).

We’re not talking about a 25-year-old Ben anymore. Or even the 29-year-old Ben who played on one good leg in San Francisco in 2011 and was permitted to stay on the field until the final gun, serving as raw meat for a great 49ers defense.

We’re talking about a quarterback who soon will be closer to 40 than 30. He turns 35 in March. If his career were a game, he’d be moving toward the fourth quarter. His latest setback should serve as a siren call to Tomlin and those above him.

They must acknowledge that Roethlisberger has entered a new phase of his career — the oft-injured phase — and act accordingly.

There is no need to curtail his style. That mission has already been accomplished. Roethlisberger gets rid of the ball much quicker than in his early days and takes far fewer hits. Yet he is getting injured more often.

What does that tell you?

Roethlisberger older and more injury prone: It tells me he’s getting old and that all the punishment has taken a toll. And that every reasonable precaution must be taken from here on out.

At the very least, let somebody else take the garbage-time hits.

It’s football. Injuries happen. Everybody understands as much. There is inherent risk. Roethlisberger is always going to try to make plays. He’s not going to start sacking himself at the first sign of physical contact, the way Peyton Manning did, although he really needs to stop throwing blocks and attempting tackles after interceptions.

What a shame it would be if Roethlisberger’s Hall-of-Fame career ended prematurely like Jim Kelly’s because his body breaks down. There is still reason to believe he can thrive deep into his 30s, a la Tom Brady, Manning and many others. His arm is in great shape. His command of the offense has never been better. He is the rare athlete who approaches mental mastery of his sport while still possessing immense physical skills.

But the injuries are mounting. Last year it was a sprained MCL in his right knee, a sprained foot, a concussion and a damaged shoulder. Roethlisberger started a career-low 11 games. This year it’s the meniscus tear in his left knee that will cause him to miss at least Sunday’s game against the New England Patriots.

Franchise trying to ensure QB's longevity: This franchise, with much foresight, went to great lengths to try to ensure Roethlisberger’s longevity. And it did so against his will. The vision began with team president Art Rooney II and the ouster of Bruce Arians as offensive coordinator. Todd Haley was brought in with the idea of tweaking Ben’s playing style. The Steelers spent big on their offensive line and surrounded Ben with elite weaponry.

It has worked, even if the injuries are piling up.

Tomlin, for his part, must be more capable of discretion. He must rethink the kind of rationale he expressed after the Philly game, when asked why Ben and other star players continued to take hits in a hopeless cause.

“We understand injuries are a part of football,” Tomlin said, “but we don’t let that fear be our guide in decision making.”

Actually, fear can be an excellent guide. Especially when one ponders the frightening prospect of Steelers football without Big Ben.