Ben is (Likely) back… does it matter?

By Joe Smeltzer

Last winter, we longed for the day we’d see Ben Roethlisberger play football again.

Last fall, we smiled when that day came, and for three months after that, we thanked all things good that Big Ben was back.

But by the end of 2020, we started to wonder if the gunslinger could still sling. In the first month of 2021, we thought, not for the first time, that maybe No. 7 had played his last game.

Now, as the snow has (for now) melted, it looks like the old cowboy wants one more ride, and the team still want him around, or at least are willing to let him decide whether he wants to stay or go.

I guess it’s not a slam dunk yet, but odds are one of the greatest Steelers ever will be back in 2021.

Usually, this would make fans on the North Shore dance along the river, fans on the South Side moonwalk down East Carson Street and fans everywhere send pictures, video clips, GIFs, etc. to celebrate.

We remember how we felt when Roethlisberger took the field at MetLife Stadium this past September, finally making his way back from elbow surgery. It was one of the season’s better moments, and certainty one of its most meaningful.

Ben taking the field alone was special, and while the last six games make it easy to forget, his comeback wasn’t a flop.

33 touchdown passes and just 10 interceptions are nothing to sneeze at, and are numbers a lot of teams would love their QB to have.

However, reasonable Steelers fans know better than to be doing cartwheels at the prospect of Roethlisberger’s return.

We saw the Steelers lose five of their last six games, and know that the quarterback, for all his accomplishments, contributed to the carnage.

We know Roethlisberger is 38 years old, and an old 38 at that.

We know the team around him is ageing.

We respect logic enough to understand that the last six weeks of 2020 were probably more indicative of the future— for both the Steelers and Big Ben— than the first 11 were.

So when we found out that an 18th season is likely, the overall reaction, for most, wasn’t joy or even relief.

It was a sour gumbo of indifference and disappointment, and I fall under indifference.

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with being excited about Roethlisberger’s return. If you are, that’s fine, but I’m not.

I care enough about the situation to write this column, but Ben or no Ben, the next few years won’t be fun.

The time to compete for a Super Bowl is gone for now, and those who aren’t seeing that yet— aka the “Sign JJ Watt Mafia”— are in for a nasty surprise.

My hope for 2021 was for the Steelers to swim or, most likely, sink with Mason Rudolph, but the big fella coming back doesn’t upset me.

He’s a future Hall of Famer, and future Hall of Famer’s should be allowed to hang it up when they feel like the time has come.

The cynical side of Pittsburgh goes as far as to think Roethlisberger is hurting the Steelers by being their quarterback. I disagree.

They probably aren’t drafting their future field general this spring, and if they wanted to, I doubt the current general’s presence would stop them. I’d be shocked if Big Ben is here in 2022, so if the Steelers want to trade up and draft North Dakota State’s Trey Lance, why couldn’t they go that route?

I do wonder, however, what Roethlisberger expects to get from continuing.

Maybe he just wants to play some more football. If that’s the case, more power to him.

If Ben’s motivational tool is a storybook ending, however, I think he’ll be bummed out.

The Steelers are closer to being a bad football team than they are to being an elite one. Losing to Cleveland in the playoffs would have been a stinky way to go out, but I don’t think leading an 8-8 or 7-9 team, which the Steelers could well be, would be a good substitute. 

I also wouldn’t think a meaningless Week 17 game, win or lose, is the heroes way to depart.  

Regardless of Roethlisberger’s future, the next few years are going to be difficult. The wise Steelers fans know this. So if and when Roethlisberger comes out onto the field in Week 1, whether that’s in Pittsburgh or somewhere else, it will be quite a different feeling than it was last year in New Jersey.

It won’t be terrible, but it won’t be memorable. It will just… exist.

Kind of like the 2021 Steelers will just exist.

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