Analysis

Ben Roethlisberger retires: Iconic quarterback defined Steelers era, in good times and bad

Late last summer, in the waning days of training camp, Ben Roethlisberger sat in the sun overlooking Heinz Field a few minutes before practice was to begin. Roethlisberger didn't do much in that practice because, well, when the franchise quarterback is 39 years old, you want to save the legs and the reps, no matter how new the offense or how green the offensive linemen. Roethlisberger instead loped through that afternoon, talking to teammates, consulting with coaches, running the occasional series. He was fit and healthy and happy. A quarterback who often looked very much his 39 years, Big Ben appeared, at that moment, like he was ready to play many more.

Roethlisberger knew better, of course. He was the first to joke that he hadn't taken a hit yet, and he spoke openly about the topic that shadowed that conversation and the ensuing season. No, he hadn't decided then whether 2021 would be his final year, Roethlisberger said that morning. But there was wistfulness in the answer. He didn't want to look past the 2021 campaign, he said, because he didn't want to neglect what was in front of him.

"I don't want to miss this, because I'm enjoying it," he said.

Ultimately, Roethlisberger was able to savor a season that stretched -- somewhat surprisingly -- into the playoffs. The quarterback who lorded over the AFC North for much of this millennium beat the Browns and Ravens in the final two weeks of the 2021 regular season, knocking both division rivals out of the playoffs. Those wins, combined with two fascinating Week 18 results -- the Jaguars shocking the Colts and the Raiders narrowly avoiding a tie with the Chargers -- allowed Roethlisberger and Co. to sneak into the postseason at 9-7-1.

But Pittsburgh wouldn't make it out of Super Wild Card Weekend, as the back-to-back reigning AFC champion Chiefs defeated the Steelers, 42-21. Eleven days later, Roethlisberger put out a Twitter video announcing his retirement, providing the conclusion that became increasingly predictable as the quarterback's 18th season played out.

There were still moments in 2021 when Roethlisberger tapped into his magical playmaking ability, when he could summon the incredible pump fake before rifling a pass into a tight window, when his playground style gave the Steelers a jolt and propelled them to wins, some of them highly unlikely. Those moments, though, grew more sporadic, less reliable, the struggles more prolonged, the holes harder to dig out of. One five-day stretch in December summed up the situation. In a Sunday game against the Ravens, Roethlisberger ran the no-huddle offense and engineered a 17-point fourth quarter for a 20-19 win. He was sharp and efficient. But going against the Vikings the following Thursday night, Roethlisberger looked immobile and was sacked five times as Minnesota built a 29-0 lead through two and a half quarters. Even a furious comeback attempt was not enough to pull off a win that day.

The end is rarely smooth, even for two-time Super Bowl champions who will eventually be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. There was criticism of Roethlisberger in his last season, even from some former teammates. But that December performance against Baltimore encapsulated Roethlisberger's career. It was rarely pretty, but plenty gritty, marked by an abandon that could produce dazzling plays, unsightly mistakes and -- early on, especially -- off-field behavior that brought a legal investigation, tried the patience of his team and fanbase, and then produced a remarkable personal renaissance.

There was so much drama -- from injuries to a frightening motorcycle accident to a suspension following allegations of sexual assault -- that even teammates sometimes wondered about Roethlisberger. But there was never any question, from them or anyone else, that for nearly two decades, Roethlisberger gave the Steelers a chance to add to their crowded case of Lombardi Trophies every single season. Roethlisberger wanted to win at everything -- he competed in training camp battles to hit the uprights with a football. He was the Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2004, and took that Pittsburgh team to the AFC Championship Game. The Steelers won the Super Bowl in his second season, and again in his fifth. They went a third time in his seventh season, but lost to Aaron Rodgers' Packers. They never had a losing season with him. Only Tom Brady led his team to more victories than Roethlisberger did since entering the league as the No. 11 overall pick in 2004.

Roethlisberger always deferred to Terry Bradshaw as the greatest Steelers quarterback because he had won four Super Bowls to Big Ben's two. But Roethlisberger played longer and won more games and, given the era in which he played, will be remembered as the superior signal-caller. After his final home game, a 26-14 victory over the Browns on Monday Night Football, Roethlisberger summed up his career while talking about what was, trappings aside, a rather ugly game.

"(The win) wasn't pretty, but like I said out on the field, it feels like that's been my style: not pretty, but finding a way to win," Roethlisberger said. "I think that's 92 wins here at Heinz Field, and what it's always been about for me is winning football games."

Roethlisberger outlasted the other two first-round quarterbacks from his rookie class with whom his career will forever be linked -- Eli Manning and Philip Rivers -- which is remarkable, given his physical brand of play. Among the players Roethlisberger admired as he grew up in Ohio was John Elway, who inspired Ben's jersey number and playing style. That style made Roethlisberger a perfect fit in Pittsburgh. He was the offensive version of the Steel Curtain -- far from graceful, but big and strong and reveling in the physicality of the game while still capable of making gasp-inducing plays. The plays often looked like they had been drawn up in the dirt, and broke down from there, sending the lumbering quarterback on a scramble before he uncorked a dart. Roethlisberger's body took a beating -- he played a game with a broken nose, and had injuries that spanned, literally, from head to feet -- which meant he would not play into his 40s like a handful of his contemporaries.

But when Roethlisberger played, he was exactly what the Steelers needed: a quarterback who was difficult to take down -- opposing scouting reports emphasized to pass rushers that if they got to him, they had to make sure they brought him to the ground -- whose gift was extending plays and extending seasons.

Roethlisberger elevated the pump fake to an art form, taking advantage of a strong right hand that allowed him to control the ball no matter how far into his motion he went before pulling back, and the might to shed defenders. He even pump-faked on the defining throw of his career, and arguably the greatest in Super Bowl history. With the Steelers trailing the Cardinals by three points and 42 seconds left in Super Bowl XLIII, Roethlisberger was flushed out of the pocket to his right. He launched a laser to the back corner, into the tiniest window, over three defenders, hitting the outstretched fingertips of Santonio Holmes, who stood on tiptoes right at the boundary.

It was an astonishing pitch and catch, so unlikely that it took several seconds for Al Michaels to make sure it was really a touchdown before making the call. Roethlisberger later surmised he should never have made a throw that risky in that situation, when a short field goal would have sent the game to overtime. He hadn't even been thinking about a field goal in the moment, though, and it was the kind of derring-do that came to epitomize his play, most often for better, but occasionally for worse.

For a franchise steeped in the lore of defense, Roethlisberger's arrival -- and his role as the face of the franchise -- marked a decided shift. It was clear the Steelers were Roethlisberger's team nearly from the moment he arrived. Yes, they were powered by defense and the running game in his rookie season, which ended with a loss to the Patriots in the AFC title game. But that offseason, Roethlisberger helped persuade Jerome Bettis to return by promising him a trip to the Super Bowl. The Steelers made their way through those playoffs largely on Roethlisberger's arm, an evolution in Pittsburgh that brought it into the offense-dominated era of the game. The Roethlis"burger" and Big Ben's Beef Jerky took off, with a blue-collar city embracing the ultimate blue-collar quarterback. That he quickly added to the Steelers' already-jammed trophy case cemented him as a worthy equal of the storied Steelers of the 1970s.

Much later, Roethlisberger admitted that the tremendous early success led him to get caught up in his own persona. He frequented the party and golf tournament circuit. He could be aloof even among his own teammates. That part of his life reached a dark nadir in the spring of 2010 with the sexual assault accusation in Milledgeville, Georgia. Fans were so enraged that members of the Rooney family wondered if Roethlisberger could ever win them back. Roethlisberger was never charged with a crime, but he served a four-game suspension from the NFL.

"I think you can learn from things in your past," Roethlisberger said in a 2015 interview. "You learn when you throw an interception or lose a Super Bowl. It's the same thing in life with anything. We go through so many things as human beings. We are all far from perfect. We all have to deal with issues throughout life."

Roethlisberger was never entirely comfortable becoming the poster boy for second chances in the NFL, but he acknowledged that the accusation and its aftermath were transformative moments in his life. His demeanor was markedly different when he returned from the suspension. He apologized to teammates and even to members of the media. He married, had children, became active in the community and emerged as the Steelers' elder statesman, carrying the team when the offense was more its calling card than the defense. During that period, coach Mike Tomlin was asked about the Steelers' identity shift, and he said, "The Steel Curtain is dead." It was not disrespectful, merely a statement of fact: The Steelers were now entirely the quarterback's team.

Even for Roethlisberger's detractors, it was hard to argue that that was not a good thing. Big Ben never had the pinpoint accuracy of Drew Brees (Roethlisberger's completion percentage topped out at 68 percent in 2015) or the outsize production of Peyton Manning (Ben's 2018 total of 38 touchdown passes was a career high). But year after year, as teammates came and went, the Steelers were reliable contenders in large part because Roethlisberger was there, going to the playoffs 12 times in his 18 seasons.

In recent years, though, that offense had sagged, even as the defense had again improved. The last time the Steelers got anywhere near the Super Bowl was the 2016 season, when they were crushed by the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. Like so many others of his era, Roethlisberger might have won more titles had Brady not been in the league at the same time. The 2020 season -- the thrilling 11-0 start, the shocking late-season collapse that concluded with a four-interception Super Wild Card Weekend loss to the Browns -- began the countdown to Roethlisberger's exit.

Ben returned in 2021 for a simple reason: Of the available options, he still gave Pittsburgh the best chance to win, by a pretty good margin. The Steelers making the playoffs one last time with No. 7 under center was testament not only to the topsy-turvy nature of the AFC, but to how Roethlisberger still had a few moments of greatness left. His final game in Pittsburgh came in Week 17, against the Browns, in prime time.

A few days before the Monday night tilt, Roethlisberger acknowledged the obvious: that all signs pointed to it being his final home game. It was a signal to Pittsburgh, among the most ardent of fan bases, to get ready to say goodbye. The result was an atmosphere nearly as electric as a playoff game. Friends and family members had been invited to Heinz Field, as had former Steelers. Fans came bearing signs and their loudest voices. When Roethlisberger emerged from the tunnel alone for the pregame introduction, Heinz Field roared for him. The other team captains sent him out alone for the coin flip.

At the end, the Terrible Towels waved for him as they had so many times, and Tomlin embraced Roethlisberger in a bear hug.

Roethlisberger was emotional throughout the night, soaking in the adulation in a city he now calls home. His wife and children were watching from the stands, and Roethlisberger said later he wished he could bottle it all and have it forever. Instead, he took one last, long stroll around the stadium, waving to fans, reading the signs that thanked him for being a Steeler, trailed closely by cameras but clearly deep in his own thoughts. His three children had run onto the field to hug him as the fans -- still in their seats 15 minutes after the game ended -- chanted "Thank you, Ben."

It felt like the end of a Steelers era, with Roethlisberger soon to join the pantheon of older Pittsburgh legends in retirement. Franco Harris was there that night to celebrate Roethlisberger and perhaps to welcome him to his revered place in Steel City lore.

Pittsburgh's affection had been hard won, but Roethlisberger was showered with it. On that bitter cold night, one hand-written sign sent Roethlisberger off with the right blend of nostalgia and awe.

"This isn't goodbye," it read. "It's see you later (In Canton)."

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter.

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