By Jeremy Hritz
Ben Roethlisberger enters his 19th season as the Steelers’ franchise quarterback with more questions than ever surrounding his game. More questions than his rookie season, or his return from the infamous motorcycle injury in the 2006 season. Questions and doubts are a natural outcome of an aging quarterback, and Roethlisberger is not immune to the scrutiny, as all of the greats at the position have had to navigate such terrain at the similar points in their careers.
There Is Precedent
Peyton Manning returned to football with the Denver Broncos after sitting out the entire 2011 season following neck surgery, and skeptics were uncertain Manning would ever be able to regain his pre-injury form. In his first season, Manning threw for 4,659 yards, 37 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions, a stat line eerily similar to that of Roethlisberger’s in 2020 coming off his elbow surgery. In his second season removed from injury, Manning earned the NFL MVP Award, tossing 55 touchdowns, and achieving one of the best seasons of a professional quarterback in NFL history. That season also resulted in a Super Bowl berth, which did not end as well, with the Broncos getting annihilated by the Seahawks and the Legion of Boom, 43-8.
Two seasons later, Manning’s physical skills substantially declined, especially his arm strength and ability to push the ball down the field; however, in a modified role as starting QB with not as much pressure to throw long, Manning was still able to lead his team to success, and despite missing several games due to Plantar Fasciitis, he returned to lead the Broncos to a Super Bowl victory against the Carolina Panthers. This was Manning’s final season, at age 39, and he retired thereafter (a hell of a way to go out) a Super Bowl Champion.
It is worth citing the Manning example, as it shows there is precedent for success, even as a quarterback ages and athleticism declines. And the comparables don’t stop there, as I could continue to list quarterbacks such as John Elway, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Brett Favre, who despite their age and degenerating physical abilities, still played at a high-level within the constraints of their skill sets and led their teams to winning seasons, and in some cases, Super Bowl Championships.
I don’t make these comparisons to say that Roethlisberger is going to ride off into the sunset on a black and gold stallion hoisting a Lombardi, rather the purpose is to show that there is a road map and well-documented history that it can be done. And this is what makes the upcoming season so exciting, as the parallels with fellow NFL QBs are undeniable.
Adapting the Road Map to Roethlisberger’s Game
If ever there was a year for Rosthlisberger to adjust his game, it is this year, as he has a new offensive coordinator, new running back, new offensive line, and a sense of desperation knowing that his career is in its twilight. Last season, out of survival, the Steelers shifted to a short passing attack that limited options for the offense, and the Steelers with Ben threw the ball an average of 40 times per game, and while that provides several opportunities for big plays in the passing game, it is also several opportunities for mistakes and turnovers, which eventually plagued the team and led to their early exit from the playoffs.
While throwing 40 times pre-elbow injury could be accommodated in the offense, it limits the scope of the offense and constrains it success to a central figure, as opposed to dispersing the responsibility amongst a cast of offensive players. In other words, in 2021 under Canada, and this appears to be what is occurring, the offense will be de-centralized, and now, as a result of the retooling of the offensive line and the drafting of Najee Harris, the success of the offense is not dependent on just one player. In the ultimate team sport, success is predicated on the functioning of all 11 pieces on the offense in sync and in rhythm.
As dreadful as the Steelers running game was in 2020, there is no reason to believe it will not be markedly better this season; however, a key element in this offense working, is that Roethlisberger has to buy in to it and relinquish some (a lot more than in the past) of the control of the offense and play within a scheme and gameplan. Roethlisberger’s athleticism in the past allowed him to create when plays broke down, but his athleticism now has nearly all but faded. What remains is still an NFL-caliber arm and the intelligence and experience of the game that comes from playing 18 years in the league.
While there is still a place for Big Ben slinging the ball 40 times on occasion, or audibling out of the calls, he will serve his team and teammates better to trust in the offensive philosophy and gameplan of Canada, and execute within the scheme. This is no easy task, as for the longest time, Ben has not only been the leader on the field, but a quasi-coach as well, and old habits die hard. But if he can adapt and learn to play within a system and according to his current talents, the Steelers will be in good position to make a deep postseason run.
The best athletes are malleable, flexible, and ever-changing, and based on necessity and what it takes for their team to succeed, they change and adapt. Ben Roethlisberger is a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and he too, possesses the ability to transition into a new form, a new version of himself. If the Steelers are going to challenge in 2021, this is an absolute must for Roethlisberger.
Ben 2.0 anyone?