Ben Roethlisberger all but confirmed the inevitable.
When the Pittsburgh Steelers host the Cleveland Browns on Monday night, it will almost certainly be the last home game for the 39-year-old quarterback at Heinz Field.
Speculation has persisted since training camp that this would be Roethlisberger’s last season, especially after he took a significant pay cut to come back for his 18th season with the Steelers.
“I don’t ever speak in definites or guarantees,” Roethlisberger said Thursday. “That’s just not what I’ve ever done or who I am. But looking at the bigger picture, I would say that all signs are pointing that this could be it.
“I’ll address the definite answer at some point down the road. My focus is on winning this game. If it is indeed my last regular-season game (at Heinz Field), it’s going to be one of the most important games of my career.”
At 7-7-1, the Steelers need to beat the Browns to keep alive their small playoff hopes. However, this game will have much more significance attached.
No player has played more seasons with the Steelers than Roethlisberger. He has led them to two Super Bowl titles while setting every major franchise passing record since Pittsburgh selected him in the first round of the 2004 NFL Draft.
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Whether Roethlisberger tries to keep playing with another franchise – which seems unlikely – or retires, the Steelers will be faced with finding a new starting quarterback for the first time in nearly two decades in 2022.
The Steelers got a taste of life without Roethlisberger in 2019 when he sustained a season-ending elbow injury in Week 2.
Thanks to a strong defense, Pittsburgh finished 8-8 while using backups Mason Rudolph and Devlin “Duck” Hodges at QB. However, Roethlisberger’s absence was felt late in the season when the Steelers lost their last three games and missed the playoffs.
So, who is most likely to be the Steelers’ starting quarterback in next year’s opener? It’s hard to say.
Rudolph is still No. 2 on the depth chart but has showed little reason to think he can be a winning QB in the NFL through his four seasons.
The Steelers are 5-4-1 in his 10 career starts. And they managed just a 16-16 tie at home with the lowly Detroit Lions in Week 10 with Rudolph running the offense while Roethlisberger was on the COVID-19/reserve list.
That tie is a large reason why the Steelers are currently outside the seven-team playoff field in the AFC.
Dwayne Haskins is also on the roster after being signed as a free agent following a turbulent two-season stint with the Washington Football Team in 2019-20. The first-round draft pick flamed out with the WFT after compiling a 3-10 record as a starter and having issues both on the field and off.
Haskins has yet to see action in his first year in Pittsburgh, though there is some thought coach Mike Tomlin believes he can salvage the former Ohio State star’s career.
The Steelers could try to find a QB1 in the draft, though this year’s class is not considered strong. While Pitt’s Kenny Pickett, Ole Miss’ Matt Corral, Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder and Liberty’s Malik Willis are among those considered first-round talents, none are surefire franchise players.
The Steelers know Pickett well as Pitt also plays its home games at Heinz Field. Furthermore, the Steelers and Pitt share a practice facility.
Pickett is coming off a sensational season in which he finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting. The fifth-year senior completed 67.2% of his passes for 4,319 yards with 42 touchdowns and seven interceptions while helping Pitt win the ACC title.
The downside of giving the job to a rookie is the Steelers might have to go into at least a bit of a rebuilding phase. It would be interesting to see if general manager Kevin Colbert and Tomlin would be on board with that idea.
Colbert has hinted at retirement in recent years. Tomlin has not had a losing season since taking over in 2007 and doesn’t seem to possess the patience to loss through a potential season or two with double-digit losses.
Then again, the Steelers could go in a totally opposite direction and make a win-now move by trading for the Green Bay Packers’ Aaron Rodgers or Seattle Seahawks’ Russell Wilson. Though Rodgers could well win his fourth NFL MVP award this season and Wilson has been selected to seven Pro Bowls, their futures with their current franchises are uncertain.
However, making that kind of splash move would be very much unlike the Steelers. They have traded their first-round draft pick just once in the last half-century and that was in 2019 when they acquired safety Minkah Fitzpatrick from the Miami Dolphins.
Fitzpatrick was one game into his second NFL season. Conversely, Rodgers is 38 years old, and Wilson is 33.
The Steelers aren’t tipping their hand at all about life without Big Ben, but it will be interesting to see what they do with such a big decision.