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Ben Roethlisberger refusing to go down with a whimper

RON COOK
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) in action during the second half of an NFL football game against the Minnesota Vikings, Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021 in Minneapolis. Minnesota won 36-28. (AP Photo/Stacy Bengs)

I grew up in Beaver Falls. I watched hometown hero Joe Namath lead the New York Jets to the greatest win in Super Bowl history. It was thrilling. I also watched Namath crawl to the end of his fabulous career with the Los Angeles Rams. He was a broken-down quarterback at 34, not even remotely resembling Broadway Joe. It was heartbreaking.

I hated the thought of watching the same thing happen to Ben Roethlisberger at 39 this season in what almost certainly will be his final NFL season.

It seemed inevitable early. Roethlisberger, a two-time Super Bowl winner and certain Hall of Famer like Namath, struggled with the Steelers’ new offense and new offensive line. He was mediocre in the team’s 1-3 start, prompting calls for his benching – even his retirement – from every corner of the football world.

The criticism continued after Roethlisberger played a poor game in a 41-10 loss in Cincinnati on Nov. 28. It didn’t matter that he had played mostly good football for seven weeks. This was former teammate/ESPN analyst Ryan Clark:

“I owe my Super Bowl ring to Ben Roethlisberger. With all that being said, time is up. It’s time to move on. It’s time to see what else you have in that locker room. Big Ben is hurting this team now. Big Ben is not allowing the other pieces around him to progress, to grow, to learn. Big Ben, he hurts Chase Claypool. He hurts Diontae Johnson. He hurts Najee Harris. He hurts the Pittsburgh offense as a whole. … It’s time for Big Ben to take a seat.”

It’s a good thing for the Steelers that Roethlisberger didn’t take Clark’s advice.

Strong recent efforts: Roethlisberger was spectacular in the fourth quarter of the 20-19 win against the Baltimore Ravens on Dec. 5. He completed 9 of 10 passes for 129 yards, two touchdowns and a two-point conversion. His passer rating for the quarter was a perfect 158.3.

Roethlisberger was nearly as good in the second half of the 36-28 loss at Minnesota on Thursday night. I thought he might retire at halftime on the Vikings logo at U.S. Bank Stadium after being sacked four times in the first half and taking a savage beating. But he picked himself up and nearly brought the Steelers back from a 29-0 deficit, completing 20 of 29 passes in the second half for 240 yards, three touchdowns and a two-point conversion. His final pass – an incompletion to Pat Freiermuth in the end zone on the final play of the game – might have been his best throw of the season. Freiermuth had the ball in his hands before hits from safeties Harrison Smith and Xavier Woods knocked it loose. It was a terrific throw.

You shouldn’t have been surprised if you have been watching Roethlisberger closely since the Steelers lost in Green Bay on Oct. 3 to fall to 1-3. Toss out that fiasco in Cincinnati when he threw a couple of interceptions. In his other seven games, including the Minnesota game, he threw for 14 touchdowns with one interception. His passer rating in those games was 102.25. He missed the 16-16 tie against Detroit on Nov. 14 because of COVID-19.

Playoffs still a longshot: No matter what Roethlisberger does in the final four games, it might not be enough to get the 6-6-1 Steelers into the playoffs. The offensive line still is bad and the defense might be worse. Both were embarrassing in Minnesota. It’s hard to imagine the Steelers winning three of their final four games against Tennessee, Kansas City, Cleveland and Baltimore. Three of those opponents are in first place in their division.

It’s a lot easier to imagine the Steelers losing three of those four games. That would mean a 7-9-1 finish and the first losing season of Roethlisberger’s career. His 17 seasons without a losing season is an NFL record.

I have no idea how the season will play out, but I do know this:

Roethlisberger need not feel ashamed about coming back for one final season.

He is hardly crawling to the finish line.