Recent sagas involving Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown might have been clues. Their failure to make the playoffs last year for the first time since 2013 was perhaps another hint.
But the Pittsburgh Steelers now have their clearest indication yet that it's time to start fresh.
The team's 37-year-old quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, is out for the rest of the 2019 season because of an elbow injury. And although the Steelers gave Big Ben a two-year contract extension this past offseason, that sunk cost should already be considered a mistake.
The Steelers should spend the remainder of this likely doomed season evaluating their roster with 2020 and beyond in mind. Soon after that, they should strongly consider parting ways with both Roethlisberger and longtime head coach Mike Tomlin.
Understudy Mason Rudolph outplayed Roethlisberger when the young backup replaced the 16-year veteran against the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday. In that game as well as Pittsburgh's dull season-opening loss to the New England Patriots, Big Ben struggled mightily.
He looked jittery under pressure, missed several open receivers (including a wide-open Johnny Holton on what likely what have been a deep touchdown pass against Seattle and a streaking James Washington in the first half against New England), and his movement inside and outside of the pocket lacked energy and speed.
His receivers didn't help him, but he was still wildly inaccurate, and it appears as though he's lost his touch. He completed only 56.5 percent of his passes in a small sample this season, and he led the NFL with 16 interceptions last season.
It's obvious that Roethlisberger was beginning to decline in 2018. In his first non-Pro Bowl campaign since 2013, Big Ben had the sixth-highest percentage of negatively graded throws at Pro Football Focus. PFF's Steve Palazzolo called it a season plagued by "misses and poor decisions," and the early returns in 2019 were no more comforting.
Roethlisberger deserves a lot of credit. He's tough, and he's been getting beaten up for a decade-and-a-half in Pittsburgh. He's been sacked more than 500 times in his career. Even before injuring his elbow in Week 2, he appeared to hurt his shoulder earlier in that same game. He played through cracked ribs last year. He had knee surgery in 2016, another shoulder injury in 2015, and a foot sprain and a concussion at other points that season. Fingers and shoulders and ankles and hands. Concussions, his foot, his Achilles. He's been through the wringer.
Considering all of that physical punishment, it's amazing that he's missed only seven games over the past six years. But now, it seems that toll has begun to catch up with him.
Roethlisberger looks like a man tired of being hit. He looks defeated, exhausted and somewhat out of shape. And while that's perfectly understandable, it's also a sign that it might be time for something new.
Roethlisberger flirted with retirement nearly three years ago. And while Sports Illustrated's Albert Breer reported in May that Big Ben told team owner Art Rooney II that he plans to play three more seasons, it might be in the Steelers' best interest for the six-time Pro Bowler to spend the rest of that time elsewhere.
Deion Sanders recently called Roethlisberger "disengaged" and "disinterested" before suggesting that the future Hall of Famer could retire by the end of the year. That could be a blessing in disguise for an organization that needs to be honest with itself about its chances with a sluggish 38-year-old quarterback coming off a significant injury in 2020.
It's been a memorable run, but Roethlisberger has won only nine of his last 18 starts in black and gold. The franchise has won only five playoff games since taking home the Lombardi Trophy a decade ago. On paper and otherwise, the Steelers are in worse shape now than they were for much of that decade-long stretch.
The Steelers failed to contend last year, and they looked like less of a contender in six quarters with Roethlisberger this year. At home against the Seahawks, Roethlisberger's only touchdown drive came when the offense took over at the Seattle 22-yard line following a turnover. Four of his other five possessions resulted in punts, with the offense picking up just one first down on those four failed series. It was even worse in New England, where Roethlisberger and Co. generated a measly three points and converted only three third downs.
Even before Roethlisberger was ruled out Monday, the Steelers were listed as at least a small underdog for their Week 3 road matchup with the San Francisco 49ers. There's a good chance this team was going to start 0-3 with Big Ben.
So, why delay the start of the next chapter? Even if he wants to keep playing and the Steelers can't trade him, releasing him in the new year with a post-June 1 designation would cost them $12.5 million in salary-cap space in each of the next two seasons, according to Spotrac. That's hardly ideal, but it sure beats the $66 million alternative of keeping him under contract through 2020.
FiveThirtyEight gives the Steelers only an 8 percent chance to make the playoffs, but they now have an extended stretch of regular-season games in which they can evaluate the young talent on their roster, starting with Rudolph.
The 2018 third-round pick out of Oklahoma State performed well while giving Pittsburgh a chance in relief of Roethlisberger against Seattle. The 6'5", 235-pounder is likely ready for NFL action after an impressive three-year starting career in the Big 12 followed by a redshirt season behind Big Ben. And he looked calm and poised while throwing two touchdown passes in the second half Sunday.
Rudolph went 30-9 during his three college seasons under center, winning two bowl games after making the 2015 Sugar Bowl but falling to Ole Miss. There's no reason why he can't become the league's next great middle-round success story at quarterback, joining Russell Wilson, Kirk Cousins, Nick Foles and Dak Prescott.
It's time for the Steelers to find out if he has it in him.
If he does, they'll have a Big Ben replacement who'll cost barely $3 million over the next three seasons combined. And if he doesn't, the Steelers likely will have bombed, which could position them for a run at a highly rated 2020 quarterback prospect like Tua Tagovailoa or Justin Herbert.
Either way, Roethlisberger probably shouldn't be in the equation.
The next 14 games also give Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert a chance to consider whether it makes sense to keep Tomlin on board for a 14th season. Moving on from Roethlisberger would present a perfect opportunity to move away from a head coach who deserves a lot of the blame for the team's lack of success in recent seasons.
As yours truly established in a plea for the Steelers to make a move last year, Tomlin is a bad game manager. He still hasn't figured out how to handle the clock in the fourth quarter, and he hasn't won a challenge since the 2016 season. He struggles with situational coaching, and his justification for baffling decisions is often nonsensical. All of this was on full display when the Steelers blew a game against the Oakland Raiders last season, and it was again an issue despite a positive result when Pittsburgh beat the Pats in December.
It's also fair to wonder about how much command he has in the Steelers locker room.
Former Pittsburgh star James Harrison said last year that he believes Tomlin lacks discipline, while legendary former Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw criticized Tomlin for not being enough of an authority figure soon thereafter.
Roethlisberger and other key players have been publicly critical of their teammates, and Steelers players were criticized for raiding Bell's locker once it was confirmed the now-departed veteran back wouldn't return from his 2018 holdout. Tomlin was seemingly an enabler for Brown as well, which might have ultimately contributed to the star receiver's unceremonious (and unrewarding) departure.
Whether the Steelers like it or not, a new era is coming soon. The best strategy might be to embrace that change by starting from scratch behind center and on the sideline.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.