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.
Regardless of how far the Steelers are able to advance in the 2021 playoffs, it’s now clear they need to prepare for the end of the “Big Ben” era. Roethlisberger, 38, is the fourth-oldest quarterback participating in this postseason behind Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Philip Rivers. There are only so many throws left in that arm.
After the Steelers’ playoff run ends, 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.” The 2021 season would be his 18th in the NFL.
While a return appears to be the most likely outcome for the six-time Pro Bowler, 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. How would they 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, but if the front office wants to address other areas, 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.)
That sounds like a really interesting offseason for the Steelers, but the reality is Roethlisberger will probably remain under center unless either he or the team unexpectedly comes to the conclusion that he can no longer be “Big Ben.”