Roethlisberger “had an MRI on his right elbow Sunday evening and it was determined by the Steelers’ medical team that surgery will be required,” Tomlin said in a statement. “He will be placed on our Reserve/Injured List and is out for the season.”
The pain was obvious the moment Roethlisberger released a deep pass on the team’s final drive of the first half on Sunday. He grabbed his elbow and briefly went to the locker room. He remained on the sideline for the second half, as the Steelers lost, 28-26, to fall to 0-2.
He completed 8 of 15 passes for 75 yards before leaving with the injury, on a day when Saints quarterback Drew Brees was also seriously hurt.
Roethlisberger called the surgery “shocking and heartbreaking" in a statement released Monday. He said he felt as though he was “letting down so many people."
“I can only trust God’s plan, but I am completely determined to battle through this challenge and come back stronger than ever next season,” Roethlisberger said in the statement. “The Steelers committed three years to me this offseason and I fully intend to honor my contract and reward them with championship level play.”
The statement later concluded: “I love this game, my teammates, the Steelers organization and fans, and I feel in my heart I have a lot left to give.”
Over the last few years, Roethlisberger has publicly talked about retirement, with every word spoken about his future creating a stir. He also has been mindful about the long-term toll that concussions may have taken on him, once saying that “I hope my son plays golf.” And yet, perhaps spurred by the Steelers trading up to take Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph in the third round of the 2018 NFL draft, Roethlisberger has also insisted that the end of his career isn’t near. Not long after that draft, he said he intends to play for “three to five more years,” relegating Rudolph to heir apparent status — until Sunday.
In Roethlisberger’s absence, Rudolph completed 12 of 19 passes for 112 yards and two touchdowns. Although Rudolph seems ready to play, his backup is now an open question after the Steelers last week traded Josh Dobbs, their top backup last year, to the Jacksonville Jaguars, who had previously lost starter Nick Foles to a broken collarbone. Steelers rookie Devlin Hodges is expected to be promoted from the practice squad to back up Rudolph. Roethlisberger, who did not speak with reporters after the game, typically rests on Wednesdays, a tradition that helped Rudolph feel comfortable during Sunday’s appearance.
“You gotta be prepared for those situations whenever your number is called,” Rudolph told reporters. “I thought I was ready. I had a really good feel for the game plan … I had a lot of reps this week, and I didn’t feel like I was unprepared, by any means.”
Tomlin noted Sunday that Rudolph has “been a part of this thing. He’s the backup quarterback. We’re capable of functioning in a very normal manner when he’s in there.”
His teammates also said they had the 24-year-old’s back after Sunday’s loss. “Mason did a really, really, really good job today,” tight end Vance McDonald said, via the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “I was really, really, really impressed,” guard David DeCastro added.
The transition to Rudolph will play out on national television, with the Steelers set for four prime-time appearances in their next eight games. They’re scheduled to appear twice on “Monday Night Football” and once each on the Sunday and Thursday night telecasts. Already two games behind the first-place Baltimore Ravens, the Steelers visit the 2-0 San Francisco 49ers on Sunday before making their prime time debut on Sept. 30 against the winless Cincinnati Bengals.
And Pittsburgh is entering unfamiliar ground without the veteran Roethlisberger. Over the course of his career, the 37-year-old quarterback has missed 20 games, with 16 coming because of injuries and four from his 2010 suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct policy. He missed four games in 2015 with a sprained medial collateral ligament, three in 2012 with a shoulder injury, one in 2011 with an ankle injury, one in 2009 with a concussion, one in 2016 with an ankle injury, one in 2006 after an appendectomy, four in 2005 with a right knee injury and one in 2004 with a rib injury.
Since Roethlisberger became the starter in 2004, the Steelers have gone 11-9 in games he’s missed. But this season, they’re winless after losses to the New England Patriots and Seahawks, their first 0-2 start since 2013, when they finished 8-8. Last season, they started 0-1-1, with a tie against the Browns and a loss to the Chiefs, and finished a half-game out of the second AFC wild-card spot.