Ben Roethlisberger's tenure with the Pittsburgh Steelers, extended at least one year out of something akin to desperation by both parties, looks to be on the verge of the worst type of conclusion.
Namely, Big Ben stepping aside midseason because of his play.
Through three games, he has completed 63.8 percent of his passes for the 1-2 Steelers, throwing a trio of touchdowns and interceptions while taking eight sacks.
But the numbers hardly tell the whole story. The journey to 1-2 really started last offseason when Big Ben was apparently pondering retirement before agreeing to a restructured deal that saved the Steelers money. Long story short, he wanted to keep playing but wasn't going to don a new jersey somewhere else at the age of 39, and the team, after winning 12 games last year, didn't have the capital necessary to make a move for a big free-agent passer or one of the first-round quarterbacks.
Questions about Ben's health dogged the Steelers late last season as they bumbled to a 1-5 finish before a whipping at the hands of the Cleveland Browns in the Wild Card round of the playoffs. What followed was the usual "best shape of his life" buzz this offseason.
Fast forward to the end of Week 3—he's going viral because he simply looks like he doesn't belong:
To be totally fair to Roethlisberger, there are plenty of reasons for this besides Father Time stepping in and putting a hand in his face. Pittsburgh's offensive line hasn't been the same since losing coach Mike Munchak years ago, and this group in front of him now might be the worst on the interior of the entire Big Ben era.
A middling cast of weapons hasn't helped compensate for his deficiencies as a passer. Chase Claypool looks like he could be an elite player, but Diontae Johnson has battled drop issues, and JuJu Smith-Schuster is back after little interest from teams on the free-agent market. The team did invest a first-round pick in running back Najee Harris (instead of a bigger problem area like offensive line), but he can't get going with the poor run blocking, not to mention the minimal impact backs have these days.
Inconsistent and poor, if not downright funny play-calling hasn't alleviated any concerns either. Take the horrific fourth-down play call on a 4th-and-10 while the Steelers were down 14 points with roughly three minutes left. Instead of taking a shot at the end zone to cut the deficit to seven points, Roethlisberger hit Harris out of the backfield for a one-yard loss, resulting in a chorus of boos and him later admitting he wished he had pushed it to the endzone.
This hasn't been an isolated incident:
But much of this is also on the veteran, the trust coaches have in him and, apparently, based on the Week 3 fourth-down attempt that went viral, his trust in his own right arm. Outside of that play, he missed several easy completions deep, including what would have been a critical touchdown after a Steelers wideout burnt Bengals backup Eli Apple deep down the field. For context, Ben attempted 58 passes and lost while Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow attempted just 18, throwing three scores.
Unfortunately for the Steelers, there's no easy solution. That's partially why they settled for a run-it-back with Big Ben again. Mason Rudolph has been underwhelming more often than not. Meanwhile, the Dwayne Haskins redemption arc has been so-so as the former first-round pick was uninspiring at best during the preseason.
But anything might be better at this point. Defenses are blitzing Ben because he can't move, and the secondary sits on short stuff because he isn't reliable deep anymore. Going to a more mobile quarterback who can extend plays, actually perform designed rollouts and threaten a read-option with Harris might be more effective.
There isn't much if the Steelers look outside the organization. Cam Newton is out there, but the same show-stealing media circus New England wanted to avoid is probably something Pittsburgh doesn't want either.
A trade might be a better option, unrealistic as it seems. Maybe the Steelers can talk the Las Vegas Raiders into coughing up Marcus Mariota since Derek Carr continues to play elite ball. However, they don't likely have the capital necessary to reel in a Deshaun Watson, or probably even a Jimmy Garoppolo. If another team like Miami makes a move for Watson, maybe we revisit an idea like Tua Tagovailoa if he's available. But again, capital is sparse.
At least with a Mariota, he can navigate pockets quickly and add a dynamic element to the offense. Also realistic is perhaps Denver's Drew Lock since Teddy Bridgewater is now playing the best football of his career.
The Steelers gambled and lost, doubling down so hard on the hope that Ben could cobble together one last playoff run that they sat out when guys like Gardner Minshew were available for a sixth-round pick.
Either way, the timeline is important. Nobody is saying to pull the plug on Big Ben right now, but the upcoming schedule says it all. The Steelers have to play Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in Week 4, those undefeated Broncos in Week 5 and Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks in Week 6 before a bye.
That bye sure looks like the sweet spot for the Steelers to softly sit him down if the team's looking at a worst-case scenario of 1-5 and little offensive improvement. That's not how either party wanted to see things end for what is guaranteed to be a Hall of Fame career.
But right now? His legacy is starting to take a hit. A poor end will never overshadow the amazing feats by any means, but it's brutal out here in social-media land. He's also making plays that would get most passers benched and prime Ben would never consider. As much as the Steelers want to do right by their icon, keeping him in while he looks like this would accomplish the opposite.
No matter what the Steelers do, they're not likely to have a passer who pushes the ball deep down the field as today's game requires. The short-ranged dink-and-dunk isn't going to get it done anymore, especially if he has lost that ability to move and keep plays alive that once made him so dangerous.
If there's a silver lining Steelers fans probably don't want to hear, it's that the current trajectory will at least keep them in range for a top-tier passer in next year's draft. But it will require either leaving Roethlisberger out there to look like a relic out of his time or sitting him down in a supportive clipboard-holding role.
There's no easy choice for all involved, but that Week 7 bye looks like it's circled in red ink as a potential landmark moment for the 2021 Steelers.