Philip Rivers retired Wednesday, and he surely was not the first. Eli Manning, the initial quarterback chosen among the “Class of 2004,” played his final game in 2019. Tight end Kellen Winslow, whom the Cleveland Browns picked rather than select a QB, has been gone from the league since 2013. Tackle Shawn Andrews, according to legend the player Steelers coach Bill Cowher argued to select that year, has been absent from the league for more than a decade. Ben Roethlisberger outlasted them all.
So he has that, and two Super Bowl rings, and six Pro Bowl appearances, and more fourth-quarter comebacks than all but three other men, more QB victories than all but four others, more playoff wins than all but five others, more passing yards than all but six others and more touchdown passes than all but seven others.
This should be enough. It is time.
I will not insult Roethlisberger by trotting out the Chuck Noll cliché that Big Ben needs to get on with this life’s work. Because this has been his life’s work. To suggest otherwise is to devalue the sacrifice and achievements of anyone who has been a professional athlete this long, this successfully. He has earned a quarter of a billion dollars playing this game. He can afford whatever retirement activity he wishes, whether that’s working or not.
It would be best if he realizes this, that those moments on the bench adjacent to center Maurkice Pouncey after the Steelers’ playoffs loss to the Browns might have been heartbreaking, but they served as a poignant conclusion to a career that contained so much more exhilaration. If Roethlisberger feels compelled to write a different ending, the Steelers must convince him, however difficult it may be, that he has played his final game in black and gold.
The Roethlisberger of 2020 is not worth a $41.25 million chunk of a salary cap that is projected to drop as low as $180 million because of revenue issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Neither is it worthwhile to concoct a nominal extension that would reduce that cap hit next season but extend compliance issues into the future.
If he retires now, or “retires,” the Steelers would retrieve $19 million of cap space that could be spent on some other area of need, in particular retention of gifted linebacker Bud Dupree either on a second franchise tag or a long-term deal.
With Dupree on the right side of the defense and superstar T.J. Watt on the left, the Steelers managed to lead the league in sacks and conjure an 8-8 season with not-yet-ready-for-prime-time Mason Rudolph and undrafted free agent Duck Hodges playing quarterback in 2019. With the Dupree-Watt tandem still in place this past autumn, the Steelers won 11 consecutive games and again were the league’s most destructive defense. With Dupree injured and absent for the final five regular-season games and the playoffs, they went 1-5.
Roethlisberger played in all but one of the games Dupree missed. Not only did he fail to make a difference in the majority, he was the most obvious problem. Presented an opportunity to mount another game-winning drive against Washington, he checked down to a worthless short route and saw his throw deflected and intercepted. Against the Bills, he threw a pick-6 late in the first half that inverted a game in which the Steelers D had stifled Josh Allen and his teammates for 30 minutes. In a Monday night game against the Bengals, Roethlisberger fumbled to set up an opposing field goal, overlooked an open deep receiver in favor of a too-short third-down pass to double-covered JuJu Smith-Schuster that led to a punishing hit and fumble, and later he threw an interception — all of which gifted the Bengals with a 17-0 first-half lead. In the playoff game, he threw two interceptions that preceded Cleveland scores as the Browns built a 28-0 lead that a furious comeback could not overcome.
Having missed an entire season with an injury, Roethlisberger appeared to value his availability above all. It would be obscene to suggest that fear of discomfort motivated his rush to deliver the ball, because he continued his career-long aversion to abandoning a play by throwing away the ball. Fear of inactivity, though — of more time watching in street clothes as his teammates continued on without him — seemed to drive so much of what transpired over the final two months of the season.
And when there was no future with which to be concerned, only the game that absolutely had to be won in the moment, it was too late to become something else.
As it is now. Roethlisberger was the greatest quarterback in Steelers history, even above Terry Bradshaw, who was in command as the Steelers won the first of their six Lombardi Trophies. But the use of the past tense is not accidental. That player is no more. To allow him to consume 23 percent of next season’s salary cap is to engage in a wishful fantasy.
Rivers played the Bills, on the road, and fell only by three points while topping 300 yards and not turning over the ball once. The Bills yet may reach the Super Bowl. Roethlisberger played the Browns, at home, and threw four picks to a team that intercepted only 11 in 16 games and was gone from the postseason a week later.
Rivers was realistic about his future. If Roethlisberger is not, the Steelers must acknowledge that, sometimes, reality bites.