The Steelers rattled off 11 straight wins to start the 2020 NFL regular season, and all seemed well in Pittsburgh. The offense was humming with Ben Roethlisberger back in action after a right elbow injury kept him off the field for nearly the entirety of the 2019 campaign.
And then the losing streak began. The Steelers dropped three consecutive contests from Week 13-15, falling to the Washington Football Team, Bills and lowly Bengals. The offense became predictable, and defenses pushed down toward the line of scrimmage, essentially daring Roethlisberger to prove he could beat them deep. Pittsburgh won the AFC North title, but the finish was not exactly inspiring.
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After the Steelers’ season ended with a loss to the Browns in the 2021 playoffs, it’s now clear they need to prepare for the end of the “Big Ben” era. Roethlisberger, 38, was the fourth-oldest quarterback to participate in this postseason behind Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Philip Rivers. There are only so many throws left in that arm.
Will Roethlisberger choose to hang on for at least one more season? Or will Pittsburgh have to launch a new quarterback search soon?
Will Ben Roethlisberger retire after 2021 NFL playoffs?
Roethlisberger hasn’t publicly stated how he will approach his decision, but ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported in late December that “barring a change of heart, [Roethlisberger] intends to fulfill the terms of a contract that has one season remaining on it after this one.” (Unless the Steelers restructure Roethlisberger’s contract, the cap hit for next season will be $41.25 million. If Pittsburgh cuts or trades him, it would be stuck with $22.25 million in dead cap.)
Following the loss to the Browns in the wild-card round, Roethlisberger told reporters he still enjoys playing football but didn’t go into much detail about his future.
“I still have a year left on my contract. I hope the Steelers want me back if that’s the way we go,” Roethlisberger said. “There’ll be a lot of discussions, but now’s not the time for that.”
While a return appears to be the most likely outcome for the six-time Pro Bowler based on the available information, it should be noted that Roethlisberger has seriously considered retirement before. His wife, Ashley, told Roethlisberger last offseason that she would understand if he wanted to walk away from football instead of undergoing elbow surgery and working his way back to the field.
“I told him that I was only going to say this one time,” Ashley said in the “Bigger than Ben” docuseries. “I wanted him to hear me and then mark my words, not gonna bring it up again, but if he felt content where he was with the career that he’s had and it was on his heart to just be done, I would support him 100 percent in that. He doesn’t have to worry about my feelings in all that. I want what he wants.
“So I was basically just handing him permission to retire if that’s where his heart was, and I was gonna support him in that. And he listened, and you could tell he really took it to heart and thought. And he said, ‘Thank you, but I don’t feel done. I’m not done.'”
Steelers’ quarterback options if Ben Roethlisberger retires
Let’s say Roethlisberger does have a change of heart and tells the Steelers he is done, or the Steelers decide they are ready to move on. How would Pittsburgh fill the void?
Mason Rudolph is under contract for one more year, and he put together a nice performance in the regular season finale (315 yards passing, two touchdowns, one interception against the Browns). However, Rudolph is better known for getting whacked in the head by Myles Garrett than anything else he has done in nine career starts. Pittsburgh may not trust Rudolph as the guy to succeed Roethlisberger and keep the Steelers contending in the near future.
Pittsburgh could select a quarterback with its first-round pick at the 2021 NFL Draft. Sporting News’ Vinnie Iyer has the Steelers taking Florida’s Kyle Trask in his latest mock draft:
Trask was up to the task leading a sizzling Gators passing game confidently with his arm, accuracy and athleticism, which got him into the first-round conversation. The Steelers may prefer [North Dakota State’s Trey] Lance or [Alabama’s Mac] Jones and can go after either in a trade up, but regardless they need to consider using this pick to somehow replace Ben Roethlisberger, retirement or not. With his raised efficiency and smart use of diverse weapons, Trask would be a great fit with their offensive coaching.
If the front office wants to address other areas early in the draft, there are options on the trade and free agency markets. Sam Darnold, Matthew Stafford or Carson Wentz may be available if the Steelers are willing to give up the necessary assets. They could also call free agent Dak Prescott just to gauge his interest level. (Obviously they would have to check his medical info, and financial limitations could make this a nonstarter.)
The only thing we know for certain: It’s going to be a very offseason for Roethlisberger and the Steelers.