It has been nine months since Ben Roethlisberger that he might retire before the 2017 season. By April, the Steelers quarterback confirmed he was returning for his 14th season but hinted during training camp .
The good news is that Roethlisberger is still playing because the Steelers' offense is stacked with play-makers in need of a franchise quarterback. The bad news is that Big Ben looks more like Old, Disinterested Ben, and you're left wondering if the problems are with the quarterback, the offensive coordinator or a combination of variables that explains why the engine has fallen out of Pittsburgh's high-powered offense.
The most recent indicting performance came on Sunday when the Steelers hosted the Jaguars, an outfit that featured the NFL's best pass defense while also ranking dead last in run defense. Ask 100 people from all walks of life how they would game plan against the Jaguars and 100 people would tell you to run the ball a lot. This would be the conclusion even if you'd never heard of Le'Veon Bell.
So naturally, the Steelers threw the ball 55 times and gave Bell the ball on just 15 occasions, even though they led 9-7 midway through the third quarter. The results were telling if not wholly predictable: Roethlisberger completed just 60 percent of his throws, though that number jumps to nearly 70 percent if you include the five (five!) interceptions, which included two pick-sixes, that changed the complexion of the game.
The Jags cruised to a 30-9 win, and the Steelers were left to wonder what the hell was wrong with Roethlisberger. Even he seemed at a loss to explain what happened.
"Maybe I don't have it anymore," the 35-year-old quarterback.
Coach Mike Tomlin, who has long been one of Roethlisberger's biggest proponents -- and for good reason -- could only muster this during his postgame press conference: "He's not playing well, I'll let him speak for it."
Not exactly the exception to the rule
But was Sunday's loss an anomaly or a trend? Roethlisberger has been good but not great this season; before the Jaguars game he hadn't thrown for 300 yards, and his passer rating in the last three games are worrisome: 82.7 in a loss to the Bears, 79.3 in a win against the Ravens, and 37.8 against the Jags.
And if like us, your reaction to that 37.8 passer rating was "Well, that must be a career low," you'll be shocked to know that it's not. In fact, Roethlisberger logged a 37.8 passer rating 10 months ago against the Bills when he finished 17 of 34 for 220 yards, with no touchdowns and three interceptions.
How does this compare to the rest of an otherwise Hall of Fame career? Here are the games where Roethlisberger had a passer rating of 65.0 or lower, by season.
If we combine seasons, from 2015-17 Roethlisberger has failed to eclipse a 65.0 passer rating seven times; from 2012-14 it happened four times; from 2009-11 four times; from 2006-08 10 times; and from 2004-05 four times.
Worth noting: Big Ben was involved in a serious motorcycle accident after the 2005 season and had his worst NFL season in 2006.
Worth noting, Part 2: Big Ben's worst-ever game as measured by passer rating came against the Redskins during the 2008 season. He went 5 of 17 for 50 yards with no touchdowns and an interception in a game the Steelers still won 23-6.
The beginning of the end?
So is Roethlisberger's game slipping or is this just a rough patch? History shows he has had rough patches before and always come out out the other side looking like one of the game's best quarterbacks.
Here's a graph of his passer rating and completion percentage, as an eight-game moving average, from 2012, when offensive Todd Haley arrived, through the Sunday's game against the Jaguars:
That's pretty consistent over time. But what happens if we shorten the range to 2015-17?
Notice anything? About midway through last season, Roethlisberger's numbers started to dip. Now let's just look at 2016-17:
To paraphrase a Tomlinism, the line is pointing down.
Pro Football Focus' grades tell a similar story; Big Ben ranked third among all quarterbacks in 2014 and 2015, dropped to 16th last season and is currently 24th just ahead of Trevor Siemian, Joe Flacco and Jay Cutler. And the deep-passing game, which has been featured often this season, almost to the point of overkill, also isn't working -- despite a stable of deep-play targets that includes Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant.
Roethlisberger ranks dead last in PFF's deep-passing metric, just behind Blake Bortles. On the season, Big Ben is 5 of 27 for 183 yards with no touchdowns, two interceptions and a passer rating of 24.5 on attempts at least 20 yards downfield.
Perhaps most amazing is that no matter the scenario -- under pressure, no pressure, play-action pass, time in the pocket before throwing -- Roethlisberger ranks in the bottom third in the league.
This is troubling, especially for a team many people liked to make a deep playoff run because of their quarterback. And perhaps these developments will expedite the organization's search for its next franchise passer. But here's the silver lining: It's unlikely that Roethlisberger's game suddenly fell off a cliff. Instead, it's been a gradual decline and offensive coordinator Todd Haley has been slow to adjust.
Time for a pivot
Le'Veon Bell, especially against the league's best pass defense.
"You'll have to ask coach Haley that at his press conference on Thursday," Foster said, via ESPN.com's Jeremy Fowler. "I don't know the answer to that one. We have to define our identity soon, because we're coming to our midway point of the season. We can't play around anymore."
Foster added that offensive linemen "always want to run."
If there ever was a time to feature Bell and the running game, Sunday was it. The Jags' run defense is dreadful. The second-best time to feature Bell and the running game? This Sunday when the Steelers travel to Kansas City to face the undefeated Chiefs, whose defense ranks 11th overall, according to Football Outsiders, but are 25th against the run.
In two meetings last season, Bell rushed 18 times for 144 yards in Week 4 and 30 times for 170 yards in the playoffs. Also worth noting: Big Ben was 22 of 27 for 300 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions in the first meeting, and 20 of 31 for 224 yards with no touchdowns and an interception in the second meeting.
The lesson: As long as he's standing in the backfield, the Steelers should probably use Bell.
Is Big Ben even broken?
Meanwhile, several NFL evaluators were unconcerned with Roethlisberger's struggles.
"Until I get more evidence, I'm going to say Ben is going to end up being better than he is right now and back to his normal self," a coach with AFC North experience told ESPN.com's Mike Sando. "I just don't think the team is in sync at all. It doesn't feel right from the outside, but they are 3-2 and they are on top of the AFC North anyway. So, here we go."
And an evaluator who has seen the Steelers live added, "It is way too early to panic. This is what happens when your guys hold out. What they really need is to stop the run and stop turning the ball over, and things will calm down."
Roethlisberger, who has played in 190 regular-season games and isn't inclined to overreact, agrees.
"Doing this long enough, you understand not to panic," the quarterback told reporters. "I'm not going to hit any buttons where it's like, 'Oh man, what do I do to change all this and that, go see people.' Just come out on Wednesday and be ready to practice."
And on Sunday, let's pray he's ready to give the ball to Bell.