Before Ben Roethlisberger clutched his right elbow Sunday, the Pittsburgh Steelers were aware their franchise quarterback was experiencing pain in his passing arm.
But they trusted in his threshold.
“I don’t think anyone was too worried about it,” right guard David DeCastro said. “You know Ben. Ben’s going to come out and play.”
When Roethlisberger didn’t come out to play the second half against the Seattle Seahawks, the Steelers were too emotionally invested in trying to win the game with backup Mason Rudolph to worry about Big Ben’s fate, let alone his future.
But they understood the consequences.
“Ben’s, obviously, tough as can be, and we’ve seen him come back from stuff,” wide receiver Ryan Switzer said. “When we found out he wasn’t, we figured it was probably serious.”
So it was a stunning scene Monday inside their locker room, just 90 minutes after the Steelers announced Roethlisberger’s injury requires surgery that will end his season.
And, given he is 37, quite possibly his Hall of Fame career.
“It’s super weird, that’s for sure,” DeCastro said. “It’s really surreal. But, at the same time, you’ve got to have that football player mentality: next guy up and move on. But, obviously, with a guy like that, it’s a little different, easier said than done.”
Don’t we know.
Pittsburghers remember Terry Bradshaw’s career ended in similar fashion, with the four-time Super Bowl champion clutching his right elbow after throwing a touchdown pass to Calvin Sweeney against the New York Jets in December 1983.
The Steelers knew Bradshaw was hurt. He missed the first 14 games of that season while recovering from spring surgery to repair torn muscles and tendons in his throwing arm. But they would take an injured Bradshaw over the alternative.
“Right now, he’s not healthy,” Steelers coach Chuck Noll said in a 1984 New York Times column by the late Dave Anderson. “But if he can throw the ball, we want him.”
Expect the Steelers to say the same about Roethlisberger, who never had missed more than four games in any of his 15 seasons.
“I think I’ll be all right,” Bradshaw said at the time, “but if I’m not fine, I’ll retire.”
Never did I expect Roethlisberger to say the same, as you know he wouldn’t want to end his career this way.
Big Ben didn’t disappoint.
“I am completely determined to battle through this challenge and come back stronger than ever next season,” Roethlisberger said in a statement, even though he has flirted with retirement publicly in the past. “The Steelers committed three years to me this offseason, and I fully intend to honor my contract and reward them with championship-level play.”
But that’s a reality the Steelers and Roethlisberger have to face: This could be a long season and an even longer search to find his successor as the franchise quarterback.
The Steelers’ previous search spanned two decades, from Cliff Stoudt to David Woodley to Mark Malone to Bubby Brister to Neil O’Donnell to Mike Tomczak to Kordell Stewart to Kent Graham to Tommy Maddox before Big Ben arrived in 2004.
So before we ordain this the start of the Mason Rudolph Era, consider how many times the Steelers failed and how many years it took to find another franchise quarterback, how many years the Steelers waited to win a fifth Super Bowl (26) and how few years (three) before they won a sixth Lombardi Trophy.
Roethlisberger is the only remaining player from the Steelers’ most recent Super Bowl championship team, and Switzer was among the teammates who called him their “unquestioned leader.”
“He’s a legend. He’s a future Hall of Famer and an unbelievable player,” said Rudolph, a 2018 third-round draft pick. “I truly did learn something every week from him, whether that be communication-wise or his creativity in the huddle.”
The Steelers shouldn’t require that from Rudolph, who has the benefit of playing behind a veteran front five that includes three Pro Bowl players and alongside young stars in running back James Conner and wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster.
But this is a seismic shift for the Steelers at the game’s most important position, one that should have them worried. The Steelers finally met the day when Ben isn’t coming out to play.
And we understand the consequences.