World Without Ben . . . Amen.
On September 27, 2015, I was in the fourth row, behind the Steeler bench when Ben Roethlisberger was all but carried off the field in St. Louis. From my vantage point, I coud see Ben clearly. His expression showed strong emotions. Pain. Fear. Disappointment.
Undoubtedly, Ben feared the worst; we all did. Rams’ safety Mark Barron had rolled up on Ben’s knee. It looked bad, real bad. I feared that Big Ben’s ACL was torn and he would be lost for the season. I still see that image in my mind’s eye.
Thankfully, perhaps miraculously, Ben missed only four games due to that injury. Nevertheless, I am haunted by that grim scene.
Last Wednesday, Benny turned 34. While his career is certainly not over, the sun is setting. His days as the engine that drives the Steeler offense are numbered. That scares me a bit.
If you’ve considered what life will be like after Ben, you are either scared like me or too young to remember life before BB. It’s hard to believe that he’s been “the man” since the second game of his career in 2004. Next year will be his 13th season with the Steelers.
As a mature (er, over 60) Steelers fan who remembers Terry Bradshaw’s rookie year, I have vivid memories of life before Ben, particularly the long, long period between the career ending injury of Bradshaw and the selection of Roethlisberger; 1983-2003.
As a public service to those of you who did not endure those two decades (or who have blocked out the trauma), I will endeavor to describe what it’s like to go twenty one years without a Super Bowl quality quarterback. No, Neil O’Donnell does not count. You are not a franchise quarterback if the Steelers let you go elsewhere at age 29 after going to the Super Bowl.
The primary starting QBs during this period were Cliff Stoudt, Mark Malone, David Woodley, Bubby Brister, Neil O’Donnell, Mike Tomczak, Kordell Stewart, Kent Graham and Tommy Maddox. This is not exactly a Murderers Row of quarterbacks. During these twenty one years, the Steelers did manage eleven playoff appearances, but only one Super Bowl appearance, the loss to the Cowboys in SB XXX.
Past history tells us nothing about what life will be like without Ben, but it does tell us how we fared after Bradshaw left. The most telling statistic is that in seven of the twenty one years, the Steelers had seven losing seasons. Seven. Mike Tomlin, in his nine year tenure has NO losing seasons — zero. Imagine the reaction of Steeler Nation to seven out of twenty one seasons with a losing record today. The sky is falling, the sky is falling!!!!!!
The sky didn’t fall, but those years were the glory days of the 1970s, nor were they comparable to the successful ones lead by Ben.
Life in the NFL without a great QB is hard; real hard when contending for a Super Bowl is an expectation, not just an aspiration.
In case you haven’t looked around the league lately, franchise/HOF QBs don’t grow on trees. Even before the retirement of Peyton Manning (thank you, Lord), there were only eight passers with Super Bowl rings.
Twenty five Super Bowls have been won by thirteen HOF quarterbacks. Projecting conservatively, five more quarterbacks who have won a total of ten Super Bowls will likely be inducted. I hedged on both Ben and Eli Manning, though I would put them both in. If both of them reach the HOF, the number goes to 6 QBs winning 12 Super Bowls.
Thus, out of fifty Lombardi Trophies, 35 to 37 winners were lead by a HOF quarterback. Sure, it’s possible to win a Super Bowl without a HOF quarterback, but it is somewhat of an anomaly.
Hopefully, the front office will be able to find a Hall of Famer, or at least a franchise-type quarterback, once Ben retires. However, based on the number of franchise type quarterbacks in the league (maybe ten at any one time), it will most likely take some time. Last time, it took 21 years. Even if you count Neil O’Donnell as a franchise type QB (again, you should not) it took nine years from Bradshaw’s last year as a starter to find a solid quarterback. Finding a worthy successor to Ben could and will likely be, a long search.
Are you really ready for that? How does a crazed Yinzer deal with imposing doom . . . or at least gloom?
Well, the short answer that you don’t. However, I will hopefully cope in two ways:
Enjoy Benny while we got him. Big Ben has a window of probably two or three years as a dominant quarterback on a contender. Last season could have been really special if not for his injures and the injuries to Pouncey, Bell, Williams and AB. We have a real shot at seeing something special, including a real chance at our seventh Lombardi. We need to enjoy the ride, because you never know when we will be in a position to win again.
Trust the Steelers’ organization. I am, by nature, an optimist. The front office is doing a great job at rebuilding, while remaining very competitive. Back to back 8-8 seasons is a remarkably palatable bottom, all the while losing Keisel, Aaron Smith, Casey, Woodley, Foote, Farrior, Polamalu, Clark, Charlie Batch and Ike to age and Mike Wallace, Cotchery and Sanders to free agency. The Steelers’ brain trust has built a great offense and a promising defense, still a work in progress. This just may be the nucleus of a team strong enough to make the Super Bowl, maybe even win it without a top shelf QB a la SB 20 (Bears), SB 35 (Ravens), SB 37 (Tampa) or SB 50 (Broncos). The QB play was less than stellar, but the defense was strong and the offensive talent was good enough to get them over. I think our organization, with its great coaches might just be able to pull that off.
Ben’s retirement will leave a void and for a time, funereal sadness. But it will be as it must be. Nothing lasts forever and Big Ben has taken us on a great ride. I’m going to enjoy the thrill as long as it lasts. We Steelers’ fans know what we have in Ben — a HOF quarterback who makes plays no other quarterback can make. Regardless of what happens after he’s gone, we’re all ahead of the game.