If this indeed is the end: An ode to the Ben Roethlisberger era

Ben Roethlisberger celebrating a Super Bowl win
(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

With all signs pointing towards this being the end for Ben Roethlisberger, I breakdown the highlights of this era of Steeler’s football and what it has meant to Steelers fans.

Strangely enough despite being a Pittsburgh Steelers fan in my early 20’s, my first football memory has nothing to do with Ben Roethlisberger or the team he has guided for over 15 seasons. It was the (then) Oakland Raiders Vs Tampa Bay Buccaneers match-up in Super Bowl XXXVII, where I watched my mother cry as the Raiders were dismantled by the Bucs.

She was really a fan of Jerry Rice more than anything, but to this day she still asks occasionally how the Raiders are doing. Where my Steelers fandom stems from is my father, who once coming into my life at age six, quickly pushed any Raiders talk out the door and replaced it with Steelers history.

Ever since, despite my love of the game as a whole, the Steelers have and always will be my favorite sports franchise. The fact that my fandom has coincided with Ben Roethlisberger’s time as the team’s franchise QB allows me to reflect on the entirety of his career, and what a career it’s been. With over 63,000 yards, 400 TD’s and a winning % north of 67, he has undoubtedly been one of the most successful QB’s of all time.

His numbers definitely do a good job of illustrating his impact, but they don’t tell the whole story. The way he played the game, especially in the first decade of his career, set the tone of offense and helped create the identity that would define the Steelers of the 21st century. More on that later, for now let’s start with how it all began.

The Ben Roethlisberger-Cowher era: Short but Super

Ben started his career in a way that likely no rookie QB ever will again: by winning 14 consecutive starts, including his first career playoff game. Despite falling short of the Super Bowl, Ben proved to be the clear franchise QB for a team in desperate need of one. He would follow up his stellar rookie campaign by leading Pittsburgh to their 1st Super Bowl title in a 21-10 defeat of the Seattle Seahawks.

Despite not playing very well on Super Bowl Sunday, Ben’s performance in the previous three playoff games (including one of his most iconic plays) allowed the team to become the first 6th-seed in NFL history to win a championship. It also cemented head coach Bill Cowher as a hall of fame coach after over a decade in Pittsburgh.

The Steeler’s attempt at a title defense in 2006 was nearly ended before the season even began, with Roethlisberger crashing his motorcycle that June. Ben recovered in time for the season, but the team struggled. An 8-8 season and no playoffs spelled the end of Bill Cowher’s time as coach. Ben also had his worst full season as a starter with 18 TD’s to 23 INT’s.

Who the team chose to replace Cowher with would determine which direction Ben’s career would go, and boy did they nail it.

The Ben Roethlisberger-Tomlin era: The beginning

The hiring of Mike Tomlin was eerily similar to that of Cowher. They were defensive coaches in their early 30’s and were interested in keeping the Steeler’s physical brand of football as a focal point. The team immediately rebounded in 2007 with a 10-6 record, including the #1 defense in football.

Roethlisberger had his best season as a pro to that point, and the team seemed poised for a playoff run. A disappointing loss to the Jaguars in the wild-card game put an end to their Super Bowl hopes, but it was just the beginning.

The Steelers came into the 2008 season with one goal: return to the Super Bowl on the backs of an elite defense and the now-veteran Ben Roethlisberger. The defense certainly held up their end of things with another #1 finish. Ben however wasn’t nearly as effective, but still managed to guide the team to a 12-4 finish.

After defeating the Chargers 35-24 in the divisional round, they would need to defeat the Ravens for a third time that season. On the back of big plays from Troy Polamalu, Santonio Holmes and Ben Roethlisberger, they would go on to win 23-14 and return to the Super Bowl.

Super Bowl XLIII: The greatest win of all

This game is what I will remember most when looking back on the Roethlisberger era of Steelers football, and for my money is the greatest Super Bowl ever played. The Steeler’s opponent in this game was the upstart Arizona Cardinals, coached by former offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt. They were riding the career resurgence of Kurt Warner and a blossoming all-time great receiver in Larry Fitzgerald.

It was a classic battle of a top offense against the league’s best defense. The game started well for the Steelers, scoring on each of their first two drives and taking a 10-0 lead on a Gary Russell TD run and a Jeff Reed field goal. Ben had completed three 20+ yard passes on these drives, already showing improvement from his last Super Bowl appearance. Warner would lead the Cardinals to a touchdown on their second possession on a 1-yard pass to Ben Patrick.

They would trade punts before Ben was intercepted by Karlos Dansby on a batted pass, giving the Cardinals a chance to tie or take the lead going into half. It certainly looked like they would do just that, until the unthinkable happened. James Harrison, the heart and soul of the Steelers defense and that year’s Defensive Player of the Year, made the play of the game.

Opposed to rushing the passer as Warner would have expected, he dropped into a short zone and intercepted the pass, taking it 100 yards the other way for a Steelers score. I remember yelling at the screen like an idiot for him to keep running, knowing if he was caught there would be no time left for the offense to get points. Barely, and I mean just barely, he managed to cross the goal-line to give Pittsburgh a 17-7 lead at half.

Super Bowl XLIII: 4th quarter magic

That score by Harrison would be the difference, as the Cardinals offense came to life in the 4th quarter thanks to Larry Fitzgerald’s two scores and a safety by the Steeler’s offense. Ben Roethlisberger was given the opportunity every QB dreams of: just over two minutes left, score a TD and the Super Bowl trophy is all but in your hands. Big plays to Santonio Holmes got the Steelers down to the 6-yard line, but his biggest play was yet to come.

Thanks to great protection and an unbelievable throw from Ben, Holmes just barely kept his feet in bounds on the go ahead score. The Cardinals tried to get in position for a hail mary, but Lamarr Woodley forced a Warner fumble to end the game. Ben Roethlisberger had all but secured his legacy and proved definitively that he was a true Super Bowl caliber QB.

Fans will never forget this game. Not just because it was a Super Bowl victory, but because it represents the peak of this era of Steelers football. The defense was ferocious, Ben and his weapons made timely plays to score points, and Tomlin was at his best as a head coach. 20 years from now, fans my age will be telling their kids about this team more than any other. The years ahead would bring plenty of great moments, but none were able to top this game.

The Ben Roethlisberger-Tomlin Era: The Super Bowl drought

Ben Roethlisberger is an impressive 13-9 in the playoffs as the Steelers starting QB, but that number is a bit misleading. 8 of those 13 wins came in the first five seasons of his career, including his two Super Bowl titles. Just 5 wins in the next 12+ seasons has created a discourse among fans, with many wondering if they should have had more success since their last championship. Expectations were certainly high after Super Bowl XLIII, and they very nearly met them.

After a down season in 2009 where they missed the playoffs, the team rebounded in 2010 to reach their third Super Bowl under Roethlisberger. Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, they were facing a young QB who was about to take the league by storm: Aaron Rodgers. His Green Bay Packers defeated Pittsburgh 31-25, and Pittsburgh hasn’t been back to the big game since.

In the years following that Super Bowl loss, the team slowly began losing the players that defined their identity. James Farrior, Casey Hampton and recent Hall of Fame inductee Troy Polamalu, just to name a few. The defense that was the driving force behind their title runs was no longer the same, and Ben would need to step up his game if Pittsburgh wanted to stay competitive. For the most part, he did just that.

From 2014 until 2018, Pittsburgh never finished worse than 10th in points and 7th in yards on the offensive side of the ball. Ben had some of his best individual seasons, and it allowed the Steelers to stay near the top of the standings. The playoff success largely alluded him though, with multiple heart-breaking losses against teams they should have been able to beat.

The beginning of the end: The 2019 season

The Steelers 2019 season was memorable to say the least. The off-season was dominated by the Antonio Brown saga, which luckily came to an end before the season. Week 1 was an unmitigated disaster, losing to the Patriots 33-3. The next week was even worse despite only losing to Seattle 28-26, with Roethlisberger injuring his elbow early in the game. Ben has been no stranger when it comes to injury: he has missed 40 games for various reasons over the years.

This was different though. Not only would he miss the rest of the season, he had a chance of never fully recovering. Ben had to watch as the team struggled to move the ball, finishing bottom-five in both yards and points. As bad as the offense was, the defense was returning to form after years of inconsistent play.

The catalyst for the defenses resurgence was the big trade for safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, giving the Steelers a playmaker in the secondary they haven’t had since Polamalu. The defense managed to carry the team to an 8-8 record, but the offense just could not score when it mattered most. The combination of Mason Rudolph and Devlin “Duck” Hodges was simply not good enough, and Ben knew things would have been different if he was healthy.

Even with nothing left to prove and staring down a difficult path to recovery, Ben decided he would return in 2020. Seeing the way the defense was playing, he must have been excited to take another crack at a Super Bowl. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out that way.

The 11-0 mirage: The 2020 season

The Steelers hopes were high as the 2020 season approached, and they had plenty of reasons why. Not only was Ben ready to make his comeback, but the young and talented defense was primed to show they were for real after an excellent 2019 season. As high as the expectations were internally, many media outlets doubted the Steelers could be legit contenders.

Much of that pessimism was due to questions about Roethlisberger and his ability to return from his elbow injury. While those concerns were valid, it quickly became clear that Ben was healthy enough to return.

The Steelers didn’t just start off strong in Ben’s return to action: they had the best start to a season they have ever had record-wise at 11-0. Ben was sporting a 25-6 TD-INT ratio and team was averaging nearly 29 points a game during that streak, all of which were huge improvements from last season. The defense was continuing their rise the top as well, giving up just 17 a game and forcing 23 turnovers.

Despite all the positives, watching this team every week made it very clear that they were not as dominant as their record suggested. That became even more obvious as they lost four of their last five games to finish 12-4. It was still a great season, but a disappointing finish generated concern about their chances in the playoffs.

The ultimate embarrassment: 2020 Wild Card round

Despite the rough stretch to end the season, I was fairly confident that Pittsburgh could at least make it past Cleveland in the Wild Card round. They took them to the wire in week 17 despite resting several starters, one of them being Ben Roethlisberger. This was also the Browns first playoff game since 2002, and despite a strong season seemed to be a year or two away from true contention.

Then the first snap of the game goes over Ben’s head and is recovered for a TD by Cleveland. The next drive ends with an interception that leads to another Browns score, making it 14-0 early in the first. This trend would continue with two more interceptions in the first half, leading to a 35-10 Browns lead at halftime. By that point, I was hardly even paying attention to the game anymore.

The Steelers were being thoroughly outclassed, and Ben was a turnover machine. Pittsburgh was able to get it to a two score game several times in the 2nd half, but they never got within 10 points as they fell 48-37. Ben finished with 501 yards and 4 TD’s, but his 4 INT’s were too much to overcome.

The loss couldn’t be put entirely on him, but his age had really begun to show down the stretch. After such a devastating loss to a team he had always dominated, many wondered if this was the end for Big Ben. Between his massive cap hit and the team clearly in need of an over-haul, it would make sense to start over at QB. Ben wasn’t ready to hang it up however.

Running it back: The 2021 off-season

When Roethlisberger made it clear he was returning for the 2021 season, I remember feeling very conflicted. On one hand, Ben was still the best QB available for the team this year with their cap constraints. On the other, he was clearly not the same player anymore and I didn’t want to see him regress even further. I ultimately talked myself into being excited to have him back, mostly due to him restructuring his deal to save the team money.

Even so, several key players including Mike Hilton, Bud Dupree and Steven Nelson left in free agency. Long-time interior linemen Maurkice Pouncey and David Decastro also left the team due to retirement and injury respectively. Losing that much talent obviously isn’t ideal, especially when trying to go on one more run with your aging QB.

The team did add players in the draft at positions of need like Najee Harris, Pat Freiermuth and Kendrick Green, but the pick of Harris was a contentious topic among fans. Taking a running back in the first is almost never a smart idea in the modern NFL, but a team with the amount of holes the Steelers had to fill especially shouldn’t be doing it.

Regardless, the team knew it had to fix a league-worst running game if they had any chance of being successful on offense. The promotion of Matt Canada to offensive coordinator was also done primarily to try and jump-start the run game. It was all wishful thinking though, as we all would quickly find out.

The end is near: The 2021 season (so far)

All the optimism about an improved rushing offense and another strong season by the defense has mostly evaporated. There are many things I could say about this team to explain why things haven’t worked out, but it really boils down to two things: youth and injuries.

On the injury front, just some of the players out for the year or who have missed multiple games include Tyson Alualu, Juju Smith-Schuster, Stephon Tuitt, Joe Haden, and T.J. Watt. That isn’t even all of the injuries they have dealt with, but all teams deal with injuries every season. Where the team has really seen issues is the lack of veteran players, especially on the offense.

Roethlisberger is the only healthy player on the offense who has more than three years of consistent success as a starter, so it’s no surprise that they have been struggling. The re-built offensive line has really held the offense back at times, with rookies Kendrick Green and Dan Moore Jr struggling and veteran Trai Turner failing to replace David Decastro.

The defense has also regressed after a strong start to the year, mostly due to injuries and poor play from the linebacker group in particular. Devin Bush has been a liability and trade aquisition Joe Schobert hasn’t played up to his standard. All this has equaled a 7-6-1 record so far this season, about as average as you could possibly be. Pittsburgh is still in the thick of the AFC playoff race, but this team is clearly not a contender even in a down season for the conference.

Facing the facts: Ben’s time is up

Despite his obvious decline as a player, Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t been the Steelers biggest issue on offense this season. Some might see that as a reason to bring him back for another year (assuming he wants to), but if anything it shows that it’s time to move on. Ben isn’t going to get any better at his age, and while the team may be able to add pieces to help him this offseason, I don’t think it will be enough to compete.

I don’t want to see Ben regress even further, especially with how little mobility he has left. He is a sitting duck in the pocket and his line is too young and inexperienced to protect him consistently. It’s time to move on and begin a new era of Steelers football, regardless of how hard it may be.

Ben may see the writing on the wall as well, if you think there is anything true about Adam Schefter’s report from earlier this month. Schefter has certainly been wrong before, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this is legit. Ben has been visibly frustrated multiple times this season, and he must realize this team isn’t ready to compete with or without him.

They don’t need a total rebuild, but the amount of holes the roster has won’t be easy to fix in just one off-season. I don’t know who the next QB will be, but regardless it’s time to move on.

The uniqueness of Ben Roethlisberger

You may recall from the beginning of this piece that I said the numbers alone don’t express who Ben Roethlisberger was as a player. It’s a bit simplistic, but you can almost split his career in two separate parts: playmaking Ben and field general Ben. Over the first 10 seasons of his career, Ben made a living of extending plays and finding his receivers down the field. Watch any highlights from that time and many of them involve him throwing defenders off and finding the open man.

His ability to shrug defenders off or throw even with players hanging on him was unbelievable. He also had a knack for scrambling for first downs despite not being the fastest player out there. Overall, Ben was one of the most unique QB’s of the 2000’s, but that style of play was taking it’s toll.

Ben has been sacked more times than any QB in NFL history, and most of those sacks were recorded from his 2004 rookie season through 2013. The Steelers realized Ben wouldn’t last if he continued to rely so heavily on extending plays, so they built up the offensive line and surrounded him with weapons in the passing game.

It allowed Ben to transition into a true field general, and it lead to some of his most productive seasons in the mid-to-late 2010’s. Unfortunately, all the hits and the passage of time has taken it’s toll. Ben has nothing left to prove, and for not only his sake but for the sake of the franchise, it’s time to move forward.

The Ben Roethlisberger era: Final thoughts

It’s impossible to narrow down what this era of Steelers football has meant to fans. For fans like myself who are in their 20’s, it’s all we have ever known. I have spent a lot of time studying the history of the game, so I am very familiar with the Steelers teams of the 70’s and 80’s. Still, it isn’t the same as being a fan during that time. They tend to have a less positive view of this part of Steelers history, especially 2010 and onward.

I can’t really blame them for that, but context is important. Not only has the sport changed drastically since the Steel Curtain era, there is more parity in the modern NFL. Despite the lack of playoff success over the last decade, this team has always managed to stay competitive and fun to watch. Not many fanbases can say that.

Nobody knows for sure what the future holds for Pittsburgh. Ben could even surprise us all by returning for another season. Either way, the team has to look towards the future of the quarterback position. For now all I can say to Steelers fans is this: don’t be surprised if it takes a few attempts to find the next franchise guy.

Ben has received a lot of criticism over the past few years, much of it deserved. But he is still the best QB in team history, and one of the best to ever do it. Whoever is chosen to be his successor, the only advice I have for them is this: don’t try to replace what Ben has meant to the Steelers. Be your own player, and build your own legacy. If you can do that, Steelers fans will welcome you.

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