Ben Roethlisberger and the Rise of the Oversensitive Franchise Quarterback

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterMay 8, 2018

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger takes questions during the news confrence after an NFL football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Sunday, Jan. 14, 2018, in Pittsburgh. The Steelers lost 45-42 and the Jaguars advance to the AFC championship. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

Ben Roethlisberger has always been about as thick-skinned as a soap bubble. Tweet him about why he's so sensitive, and he'll probably block you (if he hasn't already). So it's no surprise how he's been acting in the weeks since the Steelers drafted Mason Rudolph as his maybe-kinda-sorta eventual successor.    

Roethlisberger, who is 36 years old and took up annual retirement speculation as an offseason hobby two years ago, responded to the team's reasonable decision to select Rudolph with a tour de force of snippy passive-aggression during an appearance on 93.7 The Fan in Pittsburgh last week. He dismissed Rudolph as a possible third-stringer who cannot "help this team now." He suggested that the Steelers must have "screwed up" last year's selection of Joshua Dobbs in the fourth round to return so quickly to the quarterback pool, picking Rudolph in this year's third round. When asked about mentoring Rudolph, he responded like a recently dumped lover refusing to give back some old DVDs. "If he asks me a question, I might just have to point to the playbook," he said.

And again, none of it is even surprising with Roethlisberger at this point. What might be a bit of a surprise, though, is how desensitized we've all become to this phenomenon of the oh-so-sensitive franchise quarterback. Suddenly, the NFL's paragons of excellence cannot stop complaining.

In the same week that Roethlisberger was throwing himself a talk-radio pity party, Tom Brady told an audience at something called the Milken Institute Global Conference that he's no longer feeling the love from the Patriots organization.

"I plead the fifth!" Brady replied when asked if he felt appreciated by his employers. That was meant as a joke—try pleading the fifth when your spouse asks you your feelings and see what a big laugh you get—so Brady then offered a deeper perspective on the burden of being Brady. "I think everybody in general wants to be appreciated more in their professional life," he said, adding that the Patriots are "trying to treat me in the way they feel is going to get the best out of me."

Poor underappreciated Tom Brady. Just months ago, his documentary-filmmaker buddy was chronicling his transfiguration into an immortal warrior prince. One little hiccup at the Super Bowl, and suddenly he sounds like he's at the beginning of a long rant that ends with him screaming, "Why, coach, why?" while punching a cushion and sobbing.

Up in Green Bay, meanwhile, Aaron Rodgers is about to get a contract extension that will make the $100 million guaranteed Matt Ryan just got look like the contents of a coffee house tip jar. And the Packers had better pony up quickly—because not only is Rodgers the NFL's best quarterback at the moment, he's also yet another superstar quarterback who likes to vaguebook about his easily bruised feelings.

As reported by Charles Robinson of Yahoo Sports in mid-April, Rodgers has been not-so-silently displeased this offseason with his team's decision not to retain his quarterback coach and to release Jordy Nelson. There is no word yet on how Rodgers feels about head coach Mike McCarthy's recent praise of new backup DeShone Kizer, but that's the kind of talk that might prompt Big Ben to fake retirement or send Brady off to wallow in discontentment before a captive audience at the Gordon Gekko Institute for '80s Style Moneygrubbing.

And then there's Baltimore, where new quarterback Lamar Jackson revealed that Joe Flacco has not spoken to him since the draft, and John Harbaugh has talked about "getting Jackson on the field" during the Ravens rookie camp, an arrangement Flacco bristled against in the past.

Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

Flacco isn't one to send verbal messages of dissatisfaction, because Flacco's idea of a juicy quote is to read off his license plate number to the teller at a DMV. Also, Flacco has real reason to worry about his job security, unlike his fellow sad-emoji quarterbacks, so he can't afford any Roethlisberger-style talk-radio venting. But a two-minute phone conversation would have forestalled a lot of unnecessary drama, assuming Flacco thinks such drama is unnecessary.

So what does this new trend toward franchise quarterback hypersensitivity tell us? For one, how far removed these individuals have become from not just from fans, but from their own teammates.

Le'Veon Bell never gets a guarantee that extends beyond the franchise tag, but Roethlisberger feels free to get territorial about a third-round pick. Brady makes cryptic remarks at events that sound like settings in Tom Wolfe novels while the Patriots trade away his backup, a potential franchise quarterback, and then pick the least-threatening quarterbacks on the draft board to assure him that he's still their one and only.

Even among NFL royalty, these quarterbacks are more royal than most, which makes it really off-putting when they get petulant about the tiniest setback or slight.

Quarterbacks on the Roethlisberger-Brady-Rodgers tier are paid not just to win games, but also to represent our highest ideals of professionalism and leadership. That's why team execs throw around phrases like "face of the franchise," why Ryan's very-good-but-not-great play is worth a $100 million guarantee (his extreme corporate blandness is considered an asset) and why independent-minded prospects like Josh Rosen give old-school football guys the willies. Teams don't want their quarterbacks to be "about" anything except winning the next football game.

Duane Burleson/Associated Press

Putting personal feelings or goals before the good of the team is the NFL's cardinal sin, and superstar quarterbacks are supposed to be without sin. But something has recently changed. Now, top-tier quarterbacks feel free to snub rookies and question team decisions. And the better the quarterback, the more un-leaderlike behavior he can get away with.

Perhaps a little free speech and free thought by the quarterback 1-percenters isn't such a bad thing. Maybe we're the problem for expecting veteran quarterbacks to claim that they are thrilled to groom their eventual replacements, even though we know it's a heap of hooey. We might all be a little saner if we allowed our quarterbacks to act a little more human.

But Roethlisberger and the other bruised berries aren't really daring to be honest and open. They are being almost cowardly when they communicate through riddles, rumors, sly suggests and zingers. They have the power and job security to be blunt, but they would rather be coy and invite the kind of attention and speculation that they pretend to hate.

Tom Brady can admit to the high-rollers at some corporate powwow that, yes, sometimes he clashes with his longtime bosses. Rodgers can state, flat-out, that he wants to have a say in Packers personnel decisions. Flacco can acknowledge that he's in professional peril and that his only recourse is to get to work. Roethlisberger can mark the territory around his locker without going out of his way to wreck a rookie's first week in the NFL.

It goes without saying that any of these quarterbacks could take a stand for something more meaningful than their own job satisfaction. Barring something so radical, we'd settle for hearing them just get real about the fact that they don't like getting old, suddenly competing for their jobs, watching old friends move on or taking orders from the same guy for 17 years.

Their real frankness would be refreshing. Real leaders, after all, know when to be a little bit vulnerable. But quarterbacks today would rather try to maintain their fearless-leader facades while sounding like kids about to throw a tantrum because there wasn't enough icing on their slices of birthday cake.

Let's hope this new phenomenon doesn't last long. Because no one wants their leaders to be rich, powerful, tough-talking guys who cannot admit that to themselves that they are really, deeply sensitive.

            

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.

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