Roethlisberger out for season but determined to return to Steelers in ’20
When he arrived for training camp in July, Ben Roethlisberger claimed to be in his best shape in years and was eager to lead the Pittsburgh Steelers back to the Super Bowl for the first time in a decade.
He felt rejuvenated mentally after a turbulent offseason and had worked with a personal trainer to strengthen his shoulder and back in preparation for his 16th NFL season.
“Physically, I feel as good as I have,” Roethlisberger said at the time.
Less than two months later, it was Roethlisberger’s right elbow that betrayed him. A day after Roethlisberger didn’t return for the second half of a 28-26 loss to Seattle, the Steelers announced their 37-year-old franchise quarterback will undergo surgery and miss the rest of the season.
The Steelers placed Roethlisberger on injured reserve Monday and will turn to Mason Rudolph, despite having 30 minutes of NFL regular-season experience, for the rest of the season.
“This is shocking and heartbreaking for me, to miss this much of a season and feel like I am letting down so many people,” Roethlisberger said in a statement. “I can only trust God’s plan, but I am completely determined to battle through this challenge and come back stronger than ever next season.”
Roethlisberger said he is committed to playing until the end of his contract, which runs through the 2021 season, and he will spend the rest of this year mentoring his understudy.
“I will do all I can to support Mason and the team this season to help win games,” Roethlisberger said. “I love this game, my teammates, the Steelers organization and fans, and I feel in my heart I have a lot left to give.”
How Rudolph fares the rest of the season could be just as important to the Steelers’ future as how Roethlisberger handles his recovery.
Roethlisberger’s injury wasn’t specified, but given the amount of time he will miss, a tear of the ulnar collateral ligament is a possibility. The repair, known as Tommy John surgery, is common for MLB pitchers but unusual for an NFL quarterback.
One test case is former Carolina Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme, who was injured in the second game of the 2007 season and underwent UCL surgery that October. Delhomme played in all 16 games the next season and led the Panthers to a 12-4 record.
Delhomme, though, was 33 when he returned from his surgery and lasted only one more season as a starter. Roethlisberger will turn 38 in March.
“It’s tough. You want to be out there with your teammates,” said defensive captain Cameron Heyward, who missed the second half of the 2016 season with a pectoral injury. “I think Ben is going to approach it the right way. He’s going to be there for Mason as much as possible. We’re going to need everyone on this journey. Even if you’re out, you’ve got to be available.”
Roethlisberger signed a three-year contract in April that included $68 million over the next two seasons. He received a $37.5 million signing bonus and had another $30 million guaranteed in the event of injury: $16 million in 2020 and $14 million in ’21.
His contract also will have salary-cap ramifications for this season. Although the Steelers have $9.3 million in available cap space to add a veteran backup quarterback, they have committed a combined $47 million in cap space to Roethlisberger ($26.2 million) and former receiver Antonio Brown ($21.1 million).
When the contract was signed, there was little reason to fear an injury to the franchise quarterback. Roethlisberger hadn’t missed a game because of injury since October 2016. He had started no fewer than 12 games in any of his first 15 seasons.
Roethlisberger expressed discomfort in his elbow after attempting 47 passes in the season-opening 33-3 loss at New England. It was triple the workload he had in the entire preseason: 13 attempts in one game. Still, he practiced Thursday and Friday after taking off Wednesday, which is not unusual.
“There might have been some lingering things, but I don’t think anyone was too worried about it,” guard David DeCastro said. “Ben is going to come out and play. Looking back, maybe he did (have problems).”
Roethlisberger is the last remaining link to the team’s most recent Super Bowl championship team. He is one of 12 quarterbacks to win multiple championships and one of a dozen to appear in at least three Super Bowls.
Roethlisberger ranks sixth in NFL history with 56,545 passing yards and seventh in completions and passing touchdowns. He was coming off a season in which he led the NFL in passing yards, becoming one of seven quarterbacks in NFL history to surpass 5,000 yards in a season.
“It hurts when you lose a quarterback like that: a Hall of Fame quarterback, great leader, great role model for our team,” wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster said. “Playing with him the past two years, he taught me so much on the field and off the field. He made me a better player.”
In Steelers annals, Roethlisberger on Sunday passed Hines Ward for second place on the franchise list of career games played with 218. By playing in three more games, he will surpass Mike Webster to become the longest tenured Steelers player.
That, of course, won’t happen until 2020, provided Roethlisberger’s operation and recovery go smoothly. After shedding Le’Veon Bell and Brown in the offseason, the Steelers will press on without the final “Killer B” while they try to bounce back from their 0-2 start.
“It (stinks) to lose a quarterback who has done it for a long time and played at a high level,” Heyward said. “Ben had big goals for this season and especially this team. We’re going to make sure we uphold those.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .