Ben Roethlisberger is near end and Pittsburgh has no heir

The temptation will be to play the hits when we discuss what took place to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night. We’ll discuss Mike Tomlin’s training choices or lament the protective injuries. Possibly we’ll gripe about the absence of an assertive running video game or roll the movie on a wild shotgun snap simply seconds into Pittsburgh’s 48-37 loss to the Cleveland Browns, resulting in an instantaneous seven-point deficit the Steelers couldn’t manage.

If we’re being sincere, this loss was a Ben Roethlisberger story. It’s a tale about 3 first-half interceptions that dug a huge hole, and an offense that continues to be tailored towards an impractical quarterback work, instead of a power running mindset that squashed the souls of challengers in the very best of times. If we can see past a puffed up Sunday night stat sheet padded versus among the NFL’s worst secondaries, we can see what has actually been coming for a while. Either the Steelers are going to basically alter what their offense is to fit what has actually ended up being the sundown of Huge Ben’s profession, or they are going to grapple with what it will require to get this group back to what it utilized to be: An effective running group stabilized by a dominant defense and a quarterback with the capability to burst video games through piece plays instead of high-volume passing efforts.

There’s no embarassment in acknowledgment, by the method. Roethlisberger has actually had a fantastic profession and he’s still efficient in installing huge numbers when he’s enabled to toss 40-plus times a video game. However he’s not the exact same gamer he utilized to be, and stopping working to acknowledge that heading into this offseason would be pressing off the inescapable modification that will end up being just uglier the longer Pittsburgh waits.

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) sits on the bench next to center Maurkice Pouncey (53) following a 48-37 loss to the Cleveland Browns in an NFL wild-card playoff football game in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Jan. 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Don Wright)
Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger (7) sits on the bench next to center Maurkice Pouncey following a 48-37 loss to the Browns in an AFC wild-card playoff game in Pittsburgh on Sunday. (AP Photo/Don Wright)

It’s time to make the change. Not just because of Roethlisberger’s basically untenable $41.25 million salary-cap hit next season, but also because you don’t have to guess at what is coming where it concerns his game. The drop is steep. And it’s coming. If you need any more proof of that, consider Roethlisberger’s elbow surgery last season and then watch his accuracy as he attempts to power the ball outside of the hashmarks or deep down field.

As one league source watching the game texted Sunday night, “He looks like Philip Rivers out there.”

That’s not a flattering comparison in 2020. And for the Steelers to assume it will get better from here would be tantamount to roster malpractice, especially when this will be a lucrative offseason for a quarterback addition. A multitude of younger bridge veterans will be available who could keep the Steelers in contention next season and beyond. And not just a roll-of-the-dice reclamation on someone like the New York Jets’ Sam Darnold or the Philadelphia Eagles’ Carson Wentz. Realistically, the Steelers would need to look no further than Detroit’s Matthew Stafford, who is expected to be available on the trade market and would be an upgrade keeping Pittsburgh in Super Bowl contention for the next several years. Even if the Steelers prefer a shorter bridge commitment than Stafford, there’s also the Atlanta Falcons’ Matt Ryan, who appears to still have a few more prime years left in the tank.

Pittsburgh can’t sit on its hands and hope that Roethlisberger’s punchy stats in 2020 are a sign of a renaissance. This isn’t a Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees situation. All three of those quarterbacks spent the majority of their 30s constantly fine-tuning their diets and physiques in the offseason, constantly striving to push their prime into their 40s. Roethlisberger? He creates a big story when he shows up to camp with his weight down. It’s an aberration in his history, not the norm. Expecting that to suddenly change when he’s already coming off major elbow surgery and turning 39 in March is asking a lot. It’s risking even more given the pivot point facing the franchise.

None of this is to remove responsibility from Tomlin or the coaching staff for the end of this season. Tomlin has made his share of in-game mistakes, including the questionable punt call against the Browns. And it’s puzzling why he stood by and let offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner turn this from a power running team early in the season into a glorified West Coast offense that bloated Roethlisberger’s numbers down the stretch. A likely reason for that is the stress that Roesthlisberger’s arm could take — with the quicker, shorter passing game taking some of the torque off his elbow, while also preserving the number of hits he was going to be subjected to. If that’s the case, then it speaks to what is facing the Steelers. Does this become a higher volume, shorter passing team like the New Orleans Saints with Brees? Or does it look for a remedy that leans back into the violent, power running identity that has defined the franchise for the past decade?

Of course, it’s possible that nobody understands all of this more than Roethlisberger. Nobody knows better than he does where he’s at in terms of his throwing ability and overall health. That might be why he didn’t dive on that snap that went over his head on the first play from scrimmage, when it appeared he had a chance to get on top of the ball at the goal line. Or why he sat on the bench after the loss, lingering with tears in his eyes in a scene that suggested he had might have had something bigger on his mind than a disappointing first-round loss.

The scene was one that said “he’s done.” Maybe that’s what unfolds in the coming days. But there was a time when Brees also thought he was done after last season’s early playoff exit, and he ultimately returned for 2020. Maybe Roethlisberger makes that exact same last-gasp run, too, one that puts the team into a position of having to make a business decision about his money. Salary would indeed be an issue considering this isn’t the same situation that Brees returned to with the Saints. There is no Alvin Kamara in the backfield. No receiver on the roster is as talented as Michael Thomas. And Fichtner isn’t the offensive mind of a Sean Payton, who is constantly working and adjusting his team’s scheme to deal with the shortfalls that we have been able to spot in Brees’ game.

No, Pittsburgh is in a different situation. Either the team leans into this identity change on offense that appears to be necessary to keep Roethlisberger a viable option for another season, or it looks outward for an answer. The franchise has been avoiding this decision for a few years now, stopping working to find the natural replacement to take the baton. And now it will pay for it, having to either stretch one more year and rework Roethlisberger’s contract, or sift through an ample class of available veterans. No young option exists on the roster, so no clear choice is presenting itself.

If Roethlisberger doesn’t make the difficult decision for Pittsburgh, then the Steelers need to do the hard thing and make it for themselves. The time has actually come, and it doesn’t come from Huge Ben any longer.

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Jobber Wiki author Frank Long contributed to this report.