Ben Roethlisberger may have played his last game as a quarterback in the NFL on Sunday.
After the Pittsburgh Steelers announced on Monday that their 37-year-old quarterback was having surgery on his right elbow, it’s fair to start wondering if this is perhaps the last we have seen of Big Ben in the NFL at all.
While the exact nature of the surgery is still undisclosed, any time a quarterback’s arm is operated on is always concerning on how the player will respond. That concern only grows when said player will be 38 years old before he can step on the field again.
It is not as if Roethlisberger was showing signs of decline prior to the injury, though. The two-time Super Bowl champion quarterback was coming off a career-best season in which he led the NFL with 5,129 passing yards and averaged 320 passing yards per game. He had finished with at least 3,800 passing yards in each of the last six seasons.
Yet, would a 38-year-old with a surgically repaired right elbow be able to continue to put up those kinds of numbers?
It is hard to imagine so, especially in the current NFL where offenses rely heavily on a strong passing game.
Former Carolina Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme returned from Tommy John surgery at age 33 in 2008, but attempted just 414 passes in an offense that ran the ball 504 times.
Roethlisberger, while more talented than Delhomme, attempted a career-high 675 passes last season, just the second time he’s exceeded 600 pass attempts in his career. And while James Conner had a breakout season in the running game, the Steelers as a team ran the ball 345 times — 92 fewer rushing attempts the year prior when Le’Veon Bell was on the team.
It may be worth wondering if the added emphasis on Roethlisberger may have been a contributing factor to his elbow injury.
Regardless, Roethlisberger plays in a pass-first offense in a pass-first league and there are legitimate questions if he could still do that following his surgery.
The Steelers also have to look at the future for themselves, too. They missed the playoffs last season and have started this season 0-2. They no longer have Antonio Brown or Bell, and could find themselves in a position at the top of the draft in 2020.
It may be in the Steelers’ best interests to start considering a rebuild now.
The college quarterback class for next year’s draft is expected to be loaded with talent. Tua Tagovailoa, Justin Herbert and Jake Fromm are a few of the potential options on the board.
Of course, a lot of that also hinges on what they can get out of Mason Rudolph. The third-round pick from the 2018 NFL Draft looked sharp in his debut against the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday, throwing for 112 yards and two touchdowns.
He will now be under center for the next 14 games for the Steelers; plenty of time to demonstrate whether or not he could be the guy to succeed Roethlisberger.
If he does show enough, the Steelers will want to center their rebuild around him. While Roethlisberger signed a contract extension in March through the 2021 season, they could still part ways with him in 2020. They would have to pay him $25 million, but they would save $8.5 million against the cap, overthecap.com.
At the very least, Roethlisberger’s surgery could realistically signal the end of an era in Pittsburgh.