The 2020 Pittsburgh Steelers started the season 11-0 but finished the regular season with a 1-4 record with the lone win being a comeback against the Indianapolis Colts. One of those losses came against the 2-10-1 Cincinnati Bengals, who were without Joe Burrow and Joe Mixon. However, the Bengals looked like a playoff team.
Finishing the season as ugly as they did, there was a concern for the Steelers heading into the postseason. But they were playing the Cleveland Browns, a franchise that was making its first playoff appearance since 2003 and was looking to win its first playoff game since 1994 and its first one on the road since 1969. Although the Steelers finished the season with a whimper, there was no way they would lose to a franchise they have dominated throughout the 21st century. “The Browns is the Browns” as Steelers Wide Receiver JuJu Smith Schuster said.
Fast forward three weeks later and the Steelers organization is now in the worst possible position an NFL franchise can be in limbo. After being completely embarrassed by the Browns on their home turf, the Steelers have a ton of questions heading into next season.
Is it time to tear it all down and rebuild? Do they re-sign a wide receiver who made more Tik Toks than big plays in JuJu Smith-Schuster? However, the most important question is this: What do the Steelers do with the face of the franchise, Ben Rothlisberger?
“Big Ben” Roethlisberger has been the franchise quarterback for the Steelers ever since he was drafted in the historic 2004 Draft. Since then, he has done the following.
- Won two Superbowls
- Won AP NFL Rookie of the Year in 2004
- Eight division titles (including one in 2020)
- Ranks In Top-10 in passing yards (All-Time)
The list of accolades and honors just keep going on and on. However, “Big Ben” is now a shell of his former self. He was out for all but a game and a half in 2019 with a torn elbow that required surgery. This was nothing new to Roethlisberger as he had a long history of injuries including four concussions and a chest rib separation.
Big Ben’s Decline
But Roethlisberger has always been able to come back, despite all of the physical damage his body was taking. Now, he is a 38-year-old quarterback coming off major elbow surgery and has seemed to have lost everything that made him a Hall of Famer in the first place. Ben is strong and difficult to take down in the pocket with a strong arm and great accuracy.
During the 2020 season, he was competent as he threw for 33 touchdowns to only 10 interceptions, but looked frail and afraid to move around in the pocket and was often carried by the talented offensive line and receiving core.
He especially looked frail in the embarrassing home playoff loss to the Browns as he threw four interceptions including three in the first quarter alone. This is not the same man who led the Steelers to two Super Bowl victories and certainly not the quarterback the Steelers should start next year if they want to be contenders. You can’t just cut Roethlisberger if he has no intentions of retiring. However, a proud organization such as the Steelers can’t just disrespect someone who has been the leader of their franchise since 2004.
If the Steelers intend to start Ben for the 2021 season, they will not be the playoff team they are expecting. So what do they do? Disrespect a future Hall of Famer for contention or sacrifice a year to preserve Ben’s legacy as a Steeler? This is the conundrum Pittsburgh finds itself in.
The first option is the easiest for both sides. Roethlisberger retires as a Steeler, as Pittsburgh takes on only one year of dead money from his contract. Then the team takes a quarterback in a loaded 2021 Draft Class (Dwane Haskins is not a potential franchise QB). This would be the easiest direction for the team to go in as they can move on from the Big Ben era with dignity and class while also building for contention for 2021 and beyond.
But let’s say Ben still feels he has something left in the tank. Then what? The Steelers have a few options if Roethlisberger wants to play next year which is more likely than not, going to happen.
Options 2 & 3
They can keep him as their starting quarterback and go all-in on Dwane Haskins as the heir apparent and not trade up in the draft. Pittsburgh can also draft a QB while keeping Big Ben to start next year. This option wouldn’t come without its problems though.
Roethlisberger is known to have absolutely no interest in mentoring an heir apparent as his treatment of Mason Rudolph clearly shows. I still think this could be a great option for the Steelers as they can draft their future franchise QB, such as Mac Jones from Alabama. They let him sit and learn for one year on the bench behind Ben, then start him the year after.
Deteriorating Locker Room
The issue with this is the drama that would follow because of Roethlisberger’s reputation of being vocal about how he feels about his teammates. Just ask Antonio Brown how that felt.
If Pittsburgh just wants to move on from Roethlisberger and they only care about the team and its future rather than its reputation and legacy, they can cut Rothlisberger and start Haskins or instead, draft a QB. This is the most unlikely scenario as the Steelers would never disrespect a franchise legend and Hall of Famer such as Big Ben.
The Steelers have a lot of franchise-altering moves to make this offseason. I personally cannot say what direction they should go in since there are so many possibilities depending on how the organization solves its quarterback position.
All I can say is this: this offseason could be the turning of a historic franchise.