There’s a chance that Ben Roethlisberger has played his last game for the Steelers — just like there’s a chance that Tom Brady replaces him, or that Donald Trump replaces him, or that that you replace him.
Beyond that, though — the acknowledgement that every player needs to cover his bases, and that most events have at least a non-zero chance of taking place — there’s no real reason for Steelers fans to worry about what Roethlisberger said on Tuesday morning.
The main reason for that: the timing of what he said, and the stuff he said directly beforehand.
Speaking on 93.7 The Fan, Roethlisberger said he’d take the offseason to evaluate his options and decide with his family what to do about next season — “if there’s gonna be a next season,” of course.
“I think at (this) point in my career, at my age, that’s the prudent and smart thing to do every year,” Roethlisberger said.
He was then asked directly if he’d return.
“Like I said, I’m gonna take some time to evaluate with my family and really do a lot of praying about it and make sure it’s the right thing for me and my family.”
He should. Roethlisberger will be 35 in March. Whatever you think about the way he approaches his injuries, he’s dealt with a bunch of them. Football is a brutal sport that destroys bodies and brains; every player should consistently reassess whether they should continue, and no player should be blamed for opting out of the risk.
Context crucial: Still, context for this particular answer is important. The Steelers didn’t just lose to the Patriots; they got clowned. When Roethlisberger and the offense failed to score from the inch-line, they may as well have started walking to the bus. It was a vivisection.
The aftermath hasn’t been clean, either. Roethlisberger criticized the team’s young receivers immediately afterward. On Monday, linebacker Bud Dupree said the defense was “surprised” and “caught off guard” by the Patriots’ tempo on their first drive, as if it were something new. Le’Veon Bell said his groin was injured before the AFC championship. NFL Network reported that Antonio Brown was “pouting” after DeAngelo Williams’ first-quarter touchdown, and that the Steelers continue to be concerned that Brown is more concerned with stats than wins.
Roethlisberger spoke to all of that on Tuesday.
“They outcoached us, they outplayed us, they out-executed us, and the better team won the football game. … That’s why I made the comments that I made after the game and even today, that guys have to understand the game can’t be too big. I think it was for some guys. And that’s OK; they’re gonna have to learn. Obviously, we didn’t get to where we wanted to go, but hopefully we’ll learn from it and see what next year holds.”
That doesn’t sound like someone thinking about retirement, does it?
Bell and Brown: As for Bell, Roethlisberger said, flatly, that he knew that Bell was dealing with a groin injury. “What he’s been doing is just taking the first couple days of the week off and then going out and practicing on Thursday or Friday, and we prepare to go. And then during the game, all of a sudden when DeAngelo came on I was thrown off a little bit, because usually he comes in for a specific reason. … And then when he just stayed in, we kind of figured what was going on.”
That’s a lot to say about a player who was never so much as listed as probable and was held out of practice for “non-injury related reasons, right?”
Then, Roethlisberger was asked if he had to have that talk with Brown. He opened with a joke.
“I don’t remember. … Usually (my memory is pretty good), maybe I got hit or something.”
Then he got serious.
“The plays that he makes and has made over his career are so special. And you’re right, we wouldn’t be in the places we are without him and some of those plays he makes. I think that sometimes that overshadows some of the extra stuff — the hands up, the arms up, the frustration, the pouting, things like that. But you know what, he’s a great football player, and he will continue to grow, as we all need to. We all need to grow. We all have things we need to grow on. I’m happy he’s on our team. I’m excited about the future with AB, so we’ll look forward to the future.”
That’s some specific, strategic, professional criticism, isn’t it? Certainly a little more than you’d expect. Plus, it’s peppered with references to the future — again, not the words of a guy who sounds prepped to quit.
So, maybe Roethlisberger was being honest. Maybe he realized that he said a little too much elsewhere, and lobbed a bomb guaranteed to overshadow it. Maybe he was trying to deflect attention from the entirety of the last few days. Either way, it made for an interesting morning. No complaints here.
Tomlin responds: A half hour later, coach Mike Tomlin said that he was “hopeful” Roethlisberger would return, and that his quarterback was making “a fair assessment of where he is in his career.”
“He said it, so you do take it seriously,” Tomlin said, later adding that this wasn’t the first time Roethlisberger floated the possibility. Those two have yet to enjoy their postseason meeting.
“(His decision) will weigh heavily in our planning, but I’m not alarmed or surprised by that thought process,” Tomlin said. “That’s life. He’s the most significant component of what it is, and we’ll plan and react accordingly.”
Maybe that means committing to Landry Jones as a real potential replacement. Maybe that means using one of those seven draft picks on a better option. That process is overdue.
What it still means though, in an overwhelming likelihood, is that whoever the backup may be is just that for the next few years. At some point, the Steelers are going to face life without Ben Roethlisberger.
Don’t bet on it coming in September.