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Ben Roethlisberger Bounce-Back Is a Long Shot for the Steelers

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterJuly 21, 2020

El quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, de los Steelers de Pittsburgh, observa el marcador cerca del final en la derrota ante los Seahawks de Seattle, el domingo 15 de septiembre de 2019, en Pittsburgh. (AP Foto/Gene J. Puskar)
Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

The Steelers are banking on Ben Roethlisberger to accomplish something this year that no other quarterback has ever done before. 

The 38-year old suffered an elbow injury in Week 2 of last season after attempting just 62 passes. According to various dispatches out of Western Pennsylvania, he is now healthy, clean-shaven, eager to return to work and in the Big Ben version of football shape: somewhere between "dad bod after a 30-day cleanse" and what the TB12 method would look like if it stood for "12 beers."

The Steelers, nearly a playoff team with ineffectual/problematic backups Devlin Hodges and Mason Rudolph last season, hope Roethlisberger can return to 2018 form. But for him to become a franchise-caliber quarterback again, he will have to swim against the tide of history. 

Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

Per Rivers McCown's research in the 2020 Football Outsiders Almanac, only eight quarterbacks over the age of 36 have thrown 100 or fewer passes in a season since 2000: Randall Cunningham (2001), Vinny Testaverde (2002), Steve Beuerlein (2003), Chris Chandler (2004), Rich Gannon (2004), Brad Johnson (2008), Charlie Batch (2010 and 2012) and Kerry Collins (2011). Most quarterbacks are either long-established starters or retired by that age, so throwing fewer than 100 passes is generally a sign of a serious injury, a benching or some other significant late-career pitfall. 

None of the quarterbacks above were quite in Roethlisberger's class, but there are league MVPs and Super Bowl performers on the list, and most of them were quality starters for many years. Yet the only quarterback to become a full-season starter again after a late-career interruption was Testaverde, who started 15 games for a miserable 6-10 Cowboys team in 2004. 

The evidence is clear: Quarterbacks can truck along for years and years, but once they roll to a stop after a certain age, it's nearly impossible for them to get back up to speed. Which is bad news for Roethlisberger and the Steelers.

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Neither Roethlisberger nor the Steelers would be satisfied with a 2004 Testaverde play-out-the-string season this year, of course. Luckily, the folks at Football Outsiders Almanac widened the scope of their historical research and discovered some quarterbacks who accomplished great things after late-career layoffs, including a fellow named Johnny Unitas.

The 35-year old Unitas suffered a serious arm injury in the 1968 preseason. Veteran backup Earl Morrall replaced him and led the Colts to a 13-1 record and an NFL championship. The Colts then lost Super Bowl III to Joe Namath and the AFL champion New York Jets; I guarantee that you have heard the tale. Unitas threw just 32 passes that regular season before replacing Morall and failing to lead a comeback in the Super Bowl. 

But that was not the end of Unitas' career. He returned as the Colts' starter in 1969. He then led them to a victory in Super Bowl V after the 1970 season before fading back to the bench, then to the Chargers and then off into the sunset. Those old Colts teams, like the current Steelers, had outstanding defenses, which is why they were able to reach the Super Bowl with Morrall (the Nick Foles of the bell-bottom era), just as the Steelers were able to go .500 with an offense full of Jaylen Samuels Wildcat plays last year. 

Once we expand the "aging quarterback" parameters, there's a much more recent example of a late-career comeback than Unitas whom you may be familiar with. Some guy named Peyton Manning missed all of the 2011 season with a neck injury and then came back to win the Comeback Player of the Year award, an AFC title, an MVP award and finally a Super Bowl. 

Manning, like Unitas, was 35 years old, younger than Roethlisberger and the quarterbacks at the start of the article. But his recent success means that we don't have to go back a half-century to find someone who did something similar to what Roethlisberger is trying to do.

Furthermore, the Steelers don't need Roethlisberger to throw for 5,129 yards and 34 touchdowns like he did in 2018 or have Manning's 2012 to '14 seasons to be Super Bowl contenders. They'll take Unitas 1970, Tom Brady 2018 or the 2015 version of Manning, who was all but cooked and needed the Broncos defense to carry him much of the way.

If Roethlisberger returns as a standard-issue wily, grizzled field general, Pittsburgh has the potential to upend the AFC. Football Outsiders Almanac gives the Steelers a 30 percent chance of winning 11-plus games and emerging as Super Bowl contenders this season. By contrast, the Patriots (with Cam Newton factored into the calculations) have just a 24 percent chance of winning 11-plus games. 

It's easy to see why the Steelers' projection is so encouraging. Their defense finished fifth in the NFL in both points and yards allowed last season, and it's loaded with young talent, including T.J. Watt, Devin Bush and Minkah Fitzpatrick. The receiving corps led by JuJu Smith-Schuster is young, experienced, deep, blazingly fast and ready to surprise the league after a frustrating campaign in which no one could get its players the ball. The Steelers offensive line is full of familiar faces who have blocked for Roethlisberger for years. 

Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

Stacked up against the rosters of second-tier contenders like the Titans, Bills and (yes) Patriots, the Steelers blow them away. The Pittsburgh roster even compares favorably with those of the powerhouse Chiefs and Ravens. All that's missing is the quarterback. And there's a future Hall of Famer warming up. 

The Steelers are clearly in win-now mode. They traded this year's first-round pick for Fitzpatrick, their roster features at least as many aging vets (particularly on the offensive line) as rising stars, and there is no quarterback of the future on the roster. Roethlisberger's return is an all-in gamble.

History tells us that it's still a long shot for Roethlisberger to bounce back to anything close to form after a significant injury at his age. But if anyone has the talent and toughness to follow in the path of players like Unitas and Peyton, it's Big Ben. The analytics give him about a 30 percent chance of pulling it off. Considering just how far more NFL teams are from reaching the Super Bowl, the Steelers will take those odds.            

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