Less than six months ago, when Ben Roethlisberger was posed a question about his football mortality, he cracked a smile and delivered a somewhat serious reply.
“I’m pretty sure that I have less days ahead than I have in the past,” he said. “I’m pretty sure of that.”
Perhaps far fewer than even Roethlisberger could have intended at that moment, if he is indeed contemplating retirement, as he suggested in a radio show appearance on Tuesday. Unquestionably, Roethlisberger made it clear that he’s giving serious thought to the end of his career.
“I was talking to my wife about it last night and I’ve talked to my agent about it and [to coach Mike Tomlin] about it,” Roethlisberger told Pittsburgh’s 93.7 The Fan. “I’m going to take this offseason to evaluate, 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 going to be a next season. All those things. In my point of my career and my age, that’s the prudent and smart thing to do every year.”
There’s a key phrase in there: every year.
This isn’t the first time Roethlisberger, who turns 35 in March, has thought about when the end will come for him as a football player. As he described his thoughts on it back in August, it has been a vague consideration for a while. One that has been largely tied to two factors: his health and family.
So this isn’t entirely new. Roethlisberger has spent the past few offseasons gauging his health and thinking of long-term ramifications, albeit without raising the specter of retirement publicly. Is he serious about not returning for 2017, which would be his 14th season in the league? That seems unlikely, given financial realities and the build of the team around him. If anything, Roethlisberger has been inching closer each offseason to letting the Steelers know he’s not going to last forever. And he was already sending that message last offseason.
“I take the mentality and the approach that if I look for how many I have left in the future that I’m cheating the here and now,” he said in August. “I don’t think that’s fair. I think that this game, as we all know, you’re one play away. Tomorrow could be my last day playing football. You never know. I joke – but I’m kind of serious – that [ownership] or the good Lord are going to tell me when I’m done, you know? You just have to take that approach. That’s the way I take it. I’m not going to look for the end. I’m going to look for the here and now. When I’m done, I think I’ll know.”
Given the context of past statements, Roethlisberger is sounding like he’s measuring his end with a little more conviction. It doesn’t mean he’s going to retire – and he said as much in his radio appearance. It means that maybe for the first time, he’s considering it enough to allow it to be a conversation he’ll address publicly. That’s great for the Steelers, who will have to prepare for the future by adding a potential successor. And that move is much easier to make when the iconic quarterback is already sending signals that his time is dwindling.
But there’s been little doubt that this conversation was coming. Last offseason, one source close to the quarterback said Roethlisberger’s growing family had him giving more consideration to his long-term health. Married with three children, Roethlisberger’s typical offseason reset – where he avoided significant offseason work in hopes of letting his body recover – has taken longer than when he was in his 20s. It has been more difficult to put his body through a season of punishment, then hope that an offseason of total rest could rejuvenate him before his physical ramp-up in training camp.
That’s part of why Roethlisberger reported to camp 15-20 pounds lighter than usual last July. Rather than repeating his usual process, he wanted to see how his body felt coming into the preseason in shape. It wasn’t a massive overhaul – more like a consistent spate of cardiovascular work to keep extra weight off. The hope was it might combat some of the long-term aches and pains, and resolve some of the nagging injuries he has consistently played through.
By all accounts, it worked. Roethlisberger felt great in August. He was seemingly on his way to one of his healthiest seasons ever before surgery for a torn meniscus sidelined him for a game in October. Amazingly, that was the only contest he missed, and he went on to finish the season aided by an offensive line that allowed him to be sacked a career-low 17 times.
The staggering playoff loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC title game – along with that surgery – almost certainly have weighed on Roethlisberger as the offseason has begun.
“As he said Tuesday, “[At] this point in my career, I think it’s prudent – just like I’m sure James Harrison is doing and other guys who have been in this league a long time [are doing] – to evaluate and just make sure. You want to be able to leave this game walking out of it in a healthy spot. You don’t want to be carted out.”
Roethlisberger refused to rule out retirement, but he didn’t exactly rule it in, either. And as the offseason progresses, the motivations for his return will continue to look better. His offensive line should return entirely intact next season. The Steelers will likely place the transition tag on running back Le’Veon Bell. Harrison and the defense will remain intact and some of the young players should take a step forward. And the Steelers will have plenty of room under the salary cap – not to mention draft picks – to tweak a team that is still solidly inside a Super Bowl window.
And lest his accountant forget, Roethlisberger still has $18.6 million of his already paid signing bonus that could potentially be clawed back if he departed this offseason (though it’s fair to wonder if the Steelers would go after the money).
At the end of Tuesday, all the incentives to play next season were still there. Just as they’ll exist next month, through the spring and into the summer, when Roethlisberger’s body will have healed and the painful loss to the Patriots will have faded. All of which will result in Roethlisberger returning.
But the message is out there now further than ever and less vague than at any other point in recent years. Roethlisberger is seriously thinking about the end. And for that reason alone, the Steelers have to be thinking seriously about it, too.
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