Allow me to be perfectly clear, I am not adopting a “sky is falling” mentality with the news of Ben’s rotator cuff and now his sprained ankle. Both ailments seem to be more minor than anything, and in the short-term (2012 and 2013) are likely not be enormous issues or issues at all. Yet with the news of Big Ben’s recent aches and pains, and considering the absolute bludgeoning #7 has taken on a yearly basis over his 8 seasons in the League, I still have to wonder:
Are the Steelers truly prepared for a scenario where Big Ben goes down for a significant period in 2012 or in the near future? Furthermore, will the franchise be fully prepared to replace Big Ben entirely if his career ends unexpectedly, and sooner rather than later?
Big Ben: 8 Years of Success Plus 8 Years of Pain
Ben Roethlisberger has made his mark as one of the most successful Quarterbacks of the last decade through his career so far. A 2X Pro Bowler, a 3x AFC Champion, and a 2x Super Bowl champion, only Tom Brady has more rings as a starting Quarterback, and only Eli Manning has as many as Big Ben. Not too shabby considering the parade of Quarterbacks Big Ben followed since Terry Bradshaw abruptly retired due to injury in 1983. But Roethlisberger’s success has come at a great cost in terms of what his body has been put through.
From on field injuries which have included his throwing shoulder, head, knee, and foot, to off-field injuries like his motorcycle crash six years ago, it is somehow a miracle that Big Ben has lasted as long as he has, played in as many games as he has, and done so much behind terrible to inexperienced Offensive Lines for most of them. To me, his performance in 2010 with a broken face and a broken foot against Baltimore to win the division was nothing short of outstanding. And while football is a team effort and everybody involved in that game deserves a tip of the cap, only a special type of Quarterback with a pair of brass balls could take an illegal swipe to the face from a player like Haloti Ngata and not back down.
Big Ben’s tolerance for pain however is a bit of a double-edged sword, as he might be willing to play though injuries which require rest and time to heal and could be made worse through pushing it. Take the news of his injured shoulder for instance. Do you readers not think that with news about his shoulder that the opposition will not be gunning for Big Ben even more every week with this type of information?
I mean, while the Offensive Line has been upgraded by the addition of players like Mike Adams and David DeCastro, the oldest starter on the Offensive Line is Willie Colon who is 29, and Maurkice Pouncey is the second longest tenured starter at three years. Sure the Line will be improved from a talent standpoint, but a gelling and adjustment period will have to take place, and Big Ben could be the recipient of some nasty hits in the process. I just hope that new Offensive Coordinator Todd Haley can game plan around this weakness unlike his predecessor who thought that 5 and 7 step drops were just delightful with patch-work Offensive Line in front of his franchise Quarterback. But until we see this Offense in action in the regular season over an extended period we will just have to wait.
As much as I would like to see Big Ben play another 8+ years in the League though, it probably will not happen. The older that #7 inevitably gets, combined with the pounding which he has taken and the more hits he will eventually absorb in the future, he will likely not be able to play into his 40′s like a Brett Favre. Then when you consider the severity of some of the significant injuries and beatings he has taken over the years, it is hard to see Roethlisberger playing well into his mid to late-30′s at a high level if at all. If this is indeed the case and Big Ben is eventually forced to the sidelines for reasons similar to these in the near future, and the Steelers must look within if “big tree falls and big tree falls hard,” can Pittsburgh still play winning football?
Current Backup Situation
To their credit, both Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich (the two QB’s which have the #2 and #3 jobs on lockdown) have done a decent job when asked to play during their careers in Pittsburgh. Batch has a 5-2 record and has gone 120 for 208 for 11 TD’s and 8 INT’s from 2002-2011, while Leftwich has done a decent job (2 TD’s passing 1 rush) in the 6 games which he has played from 2008, 2010-2011.
But while Batch and Leftwich have performed admirably during their few chances with the team, they do have numerous questions surrounding them, and might not be the long-term answers as backups for big Ben. Health and age might be the biggest issues facing both players as both have experienced injuries of their own, and both are at the end, or nearing the end of their careers. The soon to be 38-year old Batch missed the entirety of the 2008 season with a bum collarbone, and missed the last half of 2009 with a wrist injury sustained in an Overtime loss to Kansas City. Leftwich, 32, has been banged up even more than Batch the last two years though. Byron sat out most of the 2010 season with a knee injury suffered in the preseason when he was believed to step in during Big Ben’s suspension, and did not play at all last year after suffering yet another preseason injury when he broke his arm in a nasty situation.
While both veterans will be on board for the 2012 season, and should hopefully be healthy, both players are not guarantees to stick around past this year due to their contract situations. Batch and Leftwich will be Unrestricted Free Agents before the 2013 season begins, and are thus only signed through 2012. Thus, if salary cap issues befall Pittsburgh yet again (they likely will) and veteran roster purges eventually take place, either Batch, Leftwich, or both could be on their way out of town if the team cannot afford to keep them.
If one or both of these veteran backups is gone or is injured again, Colbert & Co. in my opinion have to at least consider drafting a Quarterback to develop behind Big Ben next April or at least in the following one. While they do not have to go after one on Day 1, the thought of finding an adequate backup for Randy Fichtner and Todd Haley to mold over the next few seasons, and possibly play in case Roethlisberger gets hurt should at least cross the Steelers brass’ minds.
This franchise made arguably its worst mistake (outside cutting Johnny Unitas) when it passed on Dan Marino in 1983 and did not consider the consequences of ignoring the team’s future at the most important position on the field. Whether the franchise thought Terry Bradshaw had a lot left in the tank, the combo. of Mark Malone and Cliff Stoudt was good enough, or they just really needed a Defensive Tackle, they passed on Marino and the 80′s eventually became a decade of purgatory for the franchise.
As I stated before, I am not saying that the Steelers should use their First Round pick in next April’s draft on a Quarterback. There are enough holes on this roster with either zero players at the position (tall, field-stretching WR), or do not have significant depth with any experience (Safety, Outside Linebacker) behind them. This is a team in a transitional phase which for the next couple of seasons must address holes being left by veterans at important spots and those holes should be addressed as the Front Office sees fit.
I do however believe that the Steelers led by Colbert & Co. should seriously consider adding a Quarterback to groom to the roster next season or in 2014 which can challenge Batch, Leftwich, or both for the #3 job during his first Training Camp and the #2 job the following season. There is no telling what can happen on “Any Given Sunday,” and if Big Ben is unable to answer the bell at some point during this season and beyond, the Steelers would be best served to cover all of their bases. Overall, I just hope the Steelers are at least mulling over and adequately preparing for “Life after Ben,” and can act accordingly over the next few seasons just in case.
Time to chime in: Should the Steelers take a QB at some point in 2013 and 2014? Should they sign a veteran instead? How long do you think Big Ben will play until career-wise? Will he finish the 2012 season un-injured? What happens if he goes down?