Steelers must break from Ben Roethlisberger after AFC playoffs bust vs. Browns

Ben Roethlisberger failed to erase lingering concerns about his quarterback play in the host Steelers’ shocking 48-37 AFC wild-card playoff loss to the rival Browns on Sunday night. Let’s hope that’s enough for the Steelers to seek out his immediate successor in the 2021 offseason, regardless of whether he chooses to retire.

Before Christmas, before he led a successful second-half comeback in Week 16 against Colts to help the Steelers win the AFC North, Sporting News detailed Roethlisberger’s physical limitations tied to his arm strength — plus wear and tear — at age 38. With no solid running game on which to lean and struggles to push the ball downfield all season resulting in poor air yardage, Pittsburgh tried to win as many games as it could by being short-to-intermediate pass-happy.

But that put Roethlisberger in a position of needing to avoid big mistakes in big games, knowing the big plays were harder to get. That didn’t happen vs. Cleveland, as Big Ben’s four interceptions among five team turnovers ultimately cost Pittsburgh in a high-scoring affair.

The bad snap on the Steelers’ first possession that turned into a gift Browns touchdown wasn’t Roethlsiberger’s fault. His interception on the game’s penultimate possession was out of desperation. But Pittsburgh was pretty much doomed when Roethlisbeger threw three picks within the opening 20 minutes of game time.

The Steelers could look at their big second-half rally from 28 down to make it a 11-point game and big overall numbers (501 yards, four TDs, 110.0 passer rating) and overlook his awful first half. But that should make them only more frustrated with Roethlisberger, because he was forced to chuck at a high volume (47 completions on 68 attempts with no sacks) as a result of his own early mistakes that helped dig a big hole.

Roethlisberger did at one time express in 2020 he would like to come back for his Age 39 season. In some respects, he came back strong from a 2019 season lost to a right elbow injury and played well enough to rebuild his confidence, taking advantage of his top-flight young wide receivers and veteran tight end. He gave what he could, but in the end, it wasn’t good enough.

If the cap-strapped Steelers don’t restructure Roethlisberger’s contract, then they will be looking at a $41.25 million cap hit for 2021. Releasing or trading Roethlisberger would cost the Steelers $22.25 million in dead money, but it would also produce $19 million in cap relief. A once-tough decision should now be a no-brainer: Move on from Big Ben and roll with a QB on a rookie deal.

The Steelers’ first-round playoff exit locked them into the 24th pick in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft. Their failure to make a deep playoff run puts them in a better position to secure a potential franchise quarterback from the second wave of prospects in a strong QB class.

Roethlisberger will be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He has had a great career with the Steelers marked by two Super Bowl victories. His overall body of work makes him the best QB in franchise history, edging Terry Bradshaw. He has lasted 17 seasons — three more than Bradshaw — toughing it out and winning plenty for the Black and Gold.

But Roethlisberger is more like Drew Brees than Tom Brady in the sense there are tangible signs of decline in his game because of Father Time. In an AFC full of emerging young guns — including his counterpart Sunday night, Baker Mayfield — the Steelers need to flip the switch to a youthfuul passer with a higher ceiling. 

Consider Mayfield, all of 25, will be the elder statesman in the AFC divisional playoffs, where Patrick Mahomes (25), Josh Allen (24) and Lamar Jackson (24) will also be playing. Mayfield and Jackson give the Browns and Ravens a leg up on the rest of the AFC North for the near future, and the Bengals with Joe Burrow are just around the corner.

BENDER: Browns grow up in stunning win over Steelers

The Steelers have enjoyed a big quarterback advantage in the division for a long time, with Roethlisberger keeping both Joe Flacco and Andy Dalton’s at arm’s length and consistently lapping whomever the Browns tried before Mayfield. The Steelers don’t want to suddenly be in the back of the line, which is where they are headed with more Big Ben.

With the way Roethlisberger is playing now, the edge is fading fast. The thought of sliding back a little with a rookie passer might be tough for Mike Tomlin to accept, especially with a defense that’s ready to win now and great potential in the rest of the passing game. But the Steelers should be confident they will hit on someone, just as the Browns, Bills, Chiefs and Ravens did at various stages in the draft.

Heck, at No. 11 overall in 2004, Roethlisberger was the third QB taken (behind Eli Manning and Philip Rivers), and that worked out very well for Pittsburgh, from going 13-0 with him starting as a rookie to eventually being a consistent AFC contender and having two big rings to show for it.

Such a big change is difficult, but big breakups happen in this league. The Steelers can’t let what happened to the Patriots after they parted ways with Brady scare them off. They need to think they can do what the Chargers did after saying a hard goodbye to Philip Rivers.

Roethlisberger’s costly playoff performance against the Browns wasn’t an anomaly. It was confirmation of the evidence that was working against his better play this season. 

The Steelers need to see that and start raising their eyes toward a big-time replacement for Big Ben.

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