This much is certain: There is far, far more of Ben Roethlisberger’s NFL career behind him than ahead of him. He spoke publicly after last season of his contemplation of retirement, only to return for a 14th season as quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers and take another shot, at age 35, at a third Super Bowl triumph.
But what is not clear now, as Roethlisberger and the Steelers ready for Sunday’s AFC divisional-round playoff game at home against the Jacksonville Jaguars, is just how much time he has left. Is he down to one more season? A couple more? Or could it be as little as one more game?
“You have to treat every game like it could be your last because you never know when it is,” Roethlisberger said this week when he met with reporters. “We saw an example of that obviously earlier in the season with Ryan [Shazier, the Steelers linebacker who suffered a spinal cord injury during a game in early December]. You just never know when it could be your last. I’m hoping it’s not his last. But you have to go out and play every play and enjoy every play and every game like it could be your last.”
Does he believe, Roethlisberger was asked, that Sunday’s game is his last at Heinz Field?
“I’m not thinking about that right now,” he said. “I don’t think it is my last. But I’m not thinking about that right now. I’m going out to play this one and give it everything I have.”
It’s possible that Roethlisberger does know what he’s going to do after this season and simply isn’t ready to say it. It’s possible that he merely is playing rhetorical games: There’s a chance, after all, that the Steelers still could play another game at home this season. If they beat the Jaguars and the Tennessee Titans upset the top-seeded Patriots, the Steelers would host the AFC championship game.
But it’s also possible that Roethlisberger doesn’t know yet what he’s going to do beyond this season, that he will figure that out only after he has some time to decompress following the playoffs. Roethlisberger has made it clear that he is taking a season-to-season approach, and he has spoken of wanting to exit the game with his body and mind intact. He has acknowledged the long-term health consequences that can result from playing his sport, and he has said those issues weigh on him.
Yet he never has been one to play the game timidly. He has not toned down his tough-as-a-linebacker playing style. He is as rugged and as difficult to tackle in the pocket as ever. Roethlisberger has taken a seize-the-moment approach. During an interview at the Steelers’ training camp in Latrobe, Pa., in the summer of 2016, he said he was not viewing what remained of his career as a countdown to the finish.
“I try not to,” he said then. “I look at the here and now and just play for this season. I feel if I look forward to the end or to next year or the year after, how many years I have left, then I’m cheating myself and cheating my teammates and the fans. This game is such a violent, physical game. You never know when it’s your last. So I take the approach that I’m going to live for the here and now and play this game one game at a time, one play at a time.”
There is a line of thinking that because football is so demanding and exacts such a toll, a player who speaks as openly and candidly about pondering retirement as Roethlisberger has done is already well down that path to walking away. But Roethlisberger, in between talk of retirement, seems to have managed to maintain his desire.
“I do think he’ll give it up after this year,” former Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann said. “Once you start thinking about retirement — if the fire isn’t there, if the passion isn’t there, it’s so difficult. You never know. But I’d be surprised if he keeps playing. When you start talking about retiring, you’re more than halfway there. You’re way down the road. But right now, you see the fire and you see the passion in him. You’re seeing what has made him a Hall of Famer.”
Roethlisberger had a solid regular season. He remained healthy and in the lineup, sitting out the regular season finale as the Steelers rested key starters. He had 28 touchdown passes, 14 interceptions and a passer rating of 93.4. Five of those interceptions came in a 30-9 loss to the Jaguars in Pittsburgh in October; two were returned for touchdowns, and Roethlisberger wondered aloud after the game if he still had it any more.
“That first Jacksonville game, I don’t think he was mentally into the game the way he is now,” Theismann said this week. “You’re getting a revitalized Ben Roethlisberger. . . . I think they have a chance to go to the Super Bowl. But without Antonio [Brown], you don’t know. A lot depends on him and how he looks.”
Brown, the standout wide receiver who suffered a calf injury during the Steelers’ loss to the Patriots last month that went a long way toward deciding the AFC’s top seed, is to return to the lineup Sunday. Whether he will be as effective as usual remains to be seen. The Steelers’ offense will need to be at its best as it faces a Jacksonville defense that ranked second in the league during the regular season and held the Buffalo Bills without a touchdown in a 10-3 victory in last weekend’s playoff opener.
“Preparing for these guys is never easy,” Roethlisberger said this week. “They’re the best defense in the league for a reason.”
It could be a redemptive game for Roethlisberger after his dreadful regular season outing against the Jaguars. But that’s not the main issue now. What really matters is the Steelers finding a way to keep their season going to move on to their expected rematch with the Patriots in the AFC championship game. If this is Roethlisberger’s send off, shouldn’t it be appropriately grand?
“It’s the postseason,” Roethlisberger said. “I’ll play anybody in the postseason. Just the opportunity you get here is what it should mean to everybody and how special it is. So I’m sure everybody’s excited.”
Read more on the NFL: