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The Steelers Look Done Without Ben Roethlisberger. What Will Happen Now?

Pittsburgh will turn to Mason Rudolph to replace its 15-year starter, who will miss the rest of the year after undergoing elbow surgery

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On September 19, 2004, Steelers quarterback Tommy Maddox suffered a right elbow injury that knocked him out for six weeks and handed the reins to then-rookie Ben Roethlisberger.

”I’ve got to be the leader now,” Roethlisberger told reporters after the game.

Almost exactly 15 years later, Roethlisberger will miss the rest of the season with a right elbow injury, according to a statement from head coach Mike Tomlin. Roethlisberger suffered a noncontact injury on his throwing arm late on a routine pass in the second quarter of the Steelers’ 28-26 loss to the Seahawks on Sunday.

Roethlisberger had already been dealing with an elbow issue, according to ESPN’s Dianna Russini, who reported that some teammates knew the quarterback was practicing through elbow inflammation He was replaced by backup Mason Rudolph, who completed 12 of 19 passes for 112 yards (5.9 yards per attempt) and two touchdowns. His first pass bounced off receiver Donte Moncrief’s hands for an interception, but Rudolph rebounded to lead three scoring drives for 16 points in the second half. That wasn’t enough to stop the Steelers from falling to 0-2, and during the past 12 years roughly 90 percent of the teams that started 0-2 have missed the playoffs. Those odds likely already have Steelers fans thinking about next year, and now it’s hard not to wonder about Roethlisberger’s future as well.

Roethlisberger, who will turn 38 in March, plays with a physical, sack-shedding style that has led to various injuries since Pittsburgh took him with the 11th pick in the 2004 draft. He played just one full 16-game season in the first nine years of his career (those absences did wonders for Charlie Batch’s Q score). But as Pittsburgh’s offensive line improved and Roethlisberger saw less pressure, he became a far more reliable presence. He started 16 games three of the past six seasons and played 45 of Pittsburgh’s last 48 games. Last year running back Le’Veon Bell refused to play for the team, and Pittsburgh retooled its offense on the fly to lean on Roethlisberger, who led the league in completions, pass attempts, and passing yards at age 36. But now a noncontact injury will sideline him for what will be the longest absence of his 15-year career.

The Steelers will turn to Rudolph, Pittsburgh’s third-round draft pick out of Oklahoma State in 2018, for the final 14 games of the season. Last year Rudolph had to simulate practice in virtual reality because he got so little practice time as the third-string quarterback behind Roethlisberger and backup Josh Dobbs. But the team revealed their faith in Rudolph when they traded Dobbs last Monday to the Jaguars, who themselves are dealing with an injury to starter Nick Foles that landed him on injured reserve.

Days after the team drafted Rudolph in April 2018, Roethlisberger told the Pittsburgh radio station 93.7 The Fan that he planned on playing three to five more years and that he was surprised the Steelers drafted a quarterback instead of a player who could help them win a Super Bowl now. A year later the team handed Roethlisberger a contract that seemed to agree with his timeline: He signed a two-year, $68 million extension with $37.5 million guaranteed at signing in April that made him the second-highest-paid quarterback in the league after Russell Wilson and kept him under contract through the 2021 season.

Depending on how Rudolph plays during the next 14 games, Pittsburgh fans could have mixed feelings about the quarterback who won two Super Bowls with the team. There are differing opinions about Roethlisberger among team alumni, the Pittsburgh fan base, and football fans at large. Steelers GM Kevin Colbert said Roethlisberger was “unquestionably the leader” of the team in March, but an unusual number of teammates have said Roethlisberger is the reason Pittsburgh has underachieved this decade. Former Steelers running back Josh Harris tweeted in March that Roethlisberger intentionally fumbled the ball at the end of a game in 2014 because he disagreed with offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s play call. Former Steelers running back Le’veon Bell told Sports Illustrated’s Jenny Vrentas that Roethlisberger was “a factor” in his decision to leave the team.

“The organization wants to win,” Bell said. “Tomlin wants to win. Ben wants to win—but Ben wants to win his way, and that’s tough to play with. Ben won a Super Bowl, but he won when he was younger. Now he’s at this stage where he tries to control everything, and [the team] let him get there.”

The Roethlisberger news comes on the heels of the announcement that Brees will miss at least six weeks with a thumb injury that required surgery. Brees, who will turn 41 in January, has missed just one game due to injury since coming to the Saints in 2006. But Brees reportedly tore a ligament in his thumb when his hand hit Aaron Donald’s as the quarterback followed through on a pass on Sunday; he was unable to grip a football afterward. Either Brees or Roethlisberger has led the league in passing yards for six of the past eight seasons, including tying for the league lead with 4,952 yards in 2014.

Roethlisberger is not the only quarterback from the 2004 draft class who won two Super Bowls whose job security is now in question. After Giants quarterback Eli Manning, the first pick in that draft, submitted a terrible performance against a tough Bills defense on Sunday, Giants head coach Pat Shurmur on Monday refused to commit to the 38-year-old Manning as the team’s starter. When asked about benching Manning for this year’s no. 6 pick Daniel Jones, the Giants coach gave a telling nonanswer.

”He’s been our starter to this point,” Shurmur said. “I’m not ready to talk about that.”

Roethlisberger, Brees, and Manning have been in the NFL for a combined 48 years, but all three of their futures have fallen into jeopardy in the same 24 hours. The Giants have a plan for Jones to succeed Manning, though few have confidence that their plan is a good one. The Saints have never been a long-term planning organization since hiring Sean Payton, and having both Drew Brees and Teddy Bridgewater in contract years reflects that. The Steelers are financially committed to Roethlisberger through next year and have both him and Rudolph under contract through 2021.

When Roethlisberger took over in Pittsburgh for Maddox, the Steelers went 13-0 with Roethlisberger under center. They fell to the Patriots in the AFC championship game, but went 11-5 and won the Super Bowl the following season. This 2019 Steelers team is not cut from the same terrible towel. Pittsburgh is 0-2 and has allowed 32 more points than they have scored, tied with Manning’s New York Giants for the second-largest point differential and ahead of only the historically bad Miami Dolphins. Perhaps the Steelers can be one of the 10 percent of 0-2 teams to make the playoffs. Maybe they can make a Super Bowl run next year. But first they need a leader.