Ben Roethlisberger laments missed opportunities in final years of career, hopes for place in Canton

Ben Roethlisberger is retired, and he has some thoughts about the game he just left.

Roethlisberger recently spoke with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ron Cook in a wide-ranging, reflective interview in which Roethlisberger was asked about some regrets he took with him into retirement. One of the primary ones was easy to understand: After winning two Super Bowls in the first decade of the 21st century and reaching Super Bowl XLV, Roethlisberger's Steelers won just three more playoff games before he called it a career.

He believes some of the cultural changes with the generational transition had an impact.

"I feel like the game has changed," Roethlisberger told Cook. "I feel like the people have changed in a sense. Maybe it's because I got spoiled when I came in. The team was so important. It was all about the team. Now, it's about me and this, that and the other.

"I might be standing on a soapbox a little bit, but that's my biggest takeaway from when I started to the end. It turned from a team-first to a me-type attitude. It was hard.

"It's hard for these young guys, too. Social media. They're treated so well in college. Now, this new NIL stuff, which is unbelievable. They're treated so special. They're coddled at a young age because college coaches need them to win, too. I know coach (Terry) Hoeppner never coddled me (at Miami). Neither did (former Steelers coach and Pro Football Hall of Famer Bill) Cowher."

It's not difficult to infer what Roethlisberger was referencing. The Steelers were among the most explosive offenses in the NFL just five years ago, boasting the NFL's leading receiver in Antonio Brown and an elite running back in Le'Veon Bell. The two combined with Roethlisberger to make up what was known as the Killer B's, a trio that appeared destined to shred the rest of the NFL.

That group never reached its full potential, of course, with Brown's on- and off-field issues creating an internal chasm, and Bell's contract dispute leading him to sit out all of 2018, a decision Bell now regrets. Meanwhile, Roethlisberger was forced to endure the distractions while attempting to keep the Steelers in the NFL's group of leading contenders.

Eventually, the dust settled in Pittsburgh following Brown's and Bell's departures for greener pastures elsewhere in Las Vegas and New York, respectively -- two places in which neither would ever regain their elite forms. Roethlisberger remained in the Steel City with a fresh cast of contributors who kept the Steelers competitive, but never seriously enough to have another shot at a Lombardi Trophy.

Eventually, Roethlisberger ran out of time. He carried a massive salary cap number into the 2021 season, which forced him and the Steelers to renegotiate his deal for one final season spent together that became a forced farewell tour for more than just the quarterback.

"It was mostly (former Steelers general manager) Kevin (Colbert)," Roethlisberger said when explaining the strained relationship with the Steelers organization. "He was ready to move on. I think Mike (Tomlin) was a little ready to move on, but I think he was OK with me coming back. I think Mr. (Art) Rooney really wanted me to come back last year to play."

They again reached the playoffs, but bowed out via a blowout loss to Kansas City, closing the book on Roethlisberger's career, which included two Super Bowl triumphs, but might have been even more successful had the Steelers not encountered the aforementioned hurdles. Instead, Roethlisberger's final game at Heinz Field served as a grand goodbye, not a coronation of a conference champion making one final run at a title.

"I thought I went out on my terms. I never wanted to stay too long," Roethlisberger said. "I know some people might think I did. 'You stayed last year.' But I thought I played pretty well last year, to be honest. My arm feels like I still could go out and play. I'm pretty confident I could still play. But it's every day. It's mental. Not having to prepare for camp and the season has been the biggest blessing for me. I'm fine with where I'm at with everything."

Pittsburgh forges ahead without Roethlisberger, replacing him with the likes of Mitchell Trubisky and local product Kenny Pickett, two quarterbacks Roethlisberger said he told to be themselves, not him. They'll hope to enjoy even a slice of the success Roethlisberger had in his career, which began with a perfect 13-0 start to his rookie season of 2004 and continued through nearly two decades of winning football.

He believes that could be enough to get him into the Hall of Fame.

"I did it for a long time," Roethlisberger said. "I know doing it for a long time doesn't mean that you get in, but, again, you look at the wins and losses. I think I did it at a high enough level for a long enough time that I think it would be pretty cool to get in. It is a special thing. That is one special place and a special accomplishment."

If not, he'll always hold a special place in the hearts of Steelers fans who reveled in his triumphs for 18 years -- even if the ketchup bottles that once adorned the scoreboard displaying the many points produced by Roethlisberger are no longer standing.

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