LATROBE, Pa. — Two days after the Steelers’ 2016 season ended with a loss to the Patriots in the AFC championship game, Ben Roethlisberger made an appearance on a sport-talk radio show in Pittsburgh and revealed that he was considering retiring.
“I’m gonna take this offseason to evaluate,” he told Pittsburgh’s 93.7 The Fan, “to consider all options, to consider health and family and things like that and just kind of take some time away to evaluate next season—if there’s gonna be a next season.” The radio hosts sounded shaken by the mere thought.
No one, including Roethlisberger’s own teammates and coaches, knew exactly what to make of it. Roethlisberger was turning 35 in March and had shown no signs of decline. Yet, coach Mike Tomlin says, Roethlisberger “has had similar feelings and an evaluation process, probably, for the last several years.” The way Antonio Brown, his favorite receiver, saw it: “He’s done everything, as a player, that you can do. He’s won Super Bowls, been an All-Pro. He’s top-10 in touchdowns, top-10 in passing yards. You talk about some of the things that he’s already done, you start thinking, he probably could [retire] and be all right.”
Roethlisberger did take some time to “consider his options.” He and his wife weighed the pros and cons, the biggest of which was: What physical or mental damage might he suffer from continuing to play? Roethlisberger ultimately decided to come back for a 14th season, for a shot at a third Super Bowl ring and a fourth AFC crown, but he has given no guarantee that he expects to play beyond this season. This very well might be his last.
“I can’t predict the future,” Roethlisberger said after practice on Thursday, with large bags of ice wrapped around his right elbow and right knee. “I am definitely just going one year at a time. I love this game, but I love my family more than I love football. That will certainly be a factor. My wife and I talk about it. My wife is not going to tell me to get out. She says, ‘ I love you. I know you love the game.’ But I did say this at the start of camp, ‘I want my kids to remember me playing football.’ My wife said, ‘I also want you to remember football.’”
For now, Roethlisberger is keeping those creeping fears at bay by going through the familiar motions of camp. As players sauntered onto the field for practice Thursday, Roethlisberger and his center, Maurkice Pouncey, were playing their usual pre-practice game. They were taking turns throwing footballs, trying to hit the crossbar on the uprights. As they went on, they stepped back to the 20, 25, and 30-yard lines. On his last throw, Roethlisberger nailed the bar from the 35. The crowd cheered, and he threw his fist in the air.
“I’m up 6-1” so far this camp, Roethlisberger later said, with a grin.
Once practice started, it was clear the Steelers were treating Roethlisberger with caution. While everyone contorted themselves for pre-practice stretching, he was playing catch with a coach. Every other 11-on-11 drill, it seemed, Roethlisberger sat out. He’s not expected to play much during the preseason, either. The Steelers hope to play him for five to six series—that’s it.
This strategy is obviously in place to keep Roethlisberger healthy; he’s aware of his long-term health now more than ever. Recently, he’s mentioned several times how he self-reported a concussion in November 2015, in a game against the Seahawks. “In my younger days, I wouldn’t have been as upfront about what I felt in Seattle a couple years ago,” he says. “I’d have just played through it the best way I could. But I’m not doing that anymore. You can have a lot of body parts replaced. But you can’t do a brain transplant.”
When Roethlisberger did practice, he looked as sharp as he usually does. During one seven-on-seven drill, he lofted a nice pass down the right sideline to Martavis Bryant, the 6' 4" receiver who missed all of last season after being suspended for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Roethlisberger had previously told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he felt lied to and let down by Bryant. They have apparently made up. During a two-point conversion drill, Bryant scored on a double reverse, and Roethlisberger ran and hugged him in the end zone like they had won the Super Bowl.
“[Martavis] has matured greatly,” says Todd Haley, the Steelers’ offensive coordinator. “He’s worked extremely hard on his own, which is not easy to do. Now he’s come in, and there’s some rust there . . . But we’re seeing flashes of what we think he can become.”
Perhaps that’s another reason why Roethlisberger came back. This may be the most explosive offense he’s ever played in. Brown and Le’Veon Bell are All-Pros, obviously, but the Steelers have a depth of weapons they didn’t have a year ago. There’s Bryant, a legitimate deep threat who draws coverage away from Brown; Eli Rogers, a shifty slot receiver who is expected to make a leap in his second full-year playing; and JuJu Smith-Schuster, their most recent second-round pick who can play both inside and outside.
Once Roethlisberger gets talking about this offense and the season-at hand, the retirement talk fades. The day after he appeared on that Pittsburgh radio show and first mentioned retiring, he came to the Steelers’ facility to meet Haley for his exit interview, a year-end meeting during which the coach and player review the season and discuss their next steps going forward. They spoke at length, and the topic of Roethlisberger retiring never came up. “I didn’t bring it up, and he didn’t either,” Haley says. “All he talked about was what we needed to do to get better. … It just speaks to Ben’s competitiveness and desire to put everything else aside. The No. 1 goal is how can he do his part to get us into that big game, with a chance to win it all.”
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