The Steelers will not meet to evaluate their roster until after the season, and Ben Roethlisberger's declining play has yet to be a topic of many internal discussions there, sources said. But when the quarterback position is sized up in 2021, league sources indicated coach Mike Tomlin will play a critical role in however Pittsburgh moves forward.
Many in the organization believe Roethlisberger and the Steelers stumbling offense are in line for a bounceback game against the Colts today and remain optimistic that the quarterback can make key adjustments in the final weeks to put the team in a better position to advance in the playoffs. They believe the offense can become more balanced and that they have in essence already hit rock bottom.
But the film from Week 15's loss to the lowly Bengals told an ugly story, and Roethlisberger's five-week rut is certainly a cause for concern in the organization, while the 38-year-old quarterback appears to be nearing the end in the eyes of many executives and evaluators who have watched him closely this season.
"If this isn't the end, it's damn close to it," said one longtime NFL evaluator who has watched the Steelers this month.
Roethlisberger has a unique stature in this storied organization, helping the team win Super Bowls under two coaches and becoming by far the most prolific and accomplished passer in franchise history. The Rooney family and Tomlin have stood close by him through off-field and personal challenges and he has earned more money in Pittsburgh than any player in team history. Any decision to move on from a player of this magnitude, at any time, would require significant study and introspection, and sources said the Steelers brass is not thinking in those terms while trying to right a three-game losing streak and prepare for the postseason.
With general manager Kevin Colbert going year to year with this contract and being open about the possibility of retirement in his not-too-distant future, Tomlin's role in any decision at this most vital of positions cannot be understated. Tomlin, 48, is already among the most successful coaches of his era and is someone the Rooneys envision coaching their team for a long time to come. He and Roethlisberger share a special bond, and with one year and $19M left on the quarterback's deal, he will have a significant voice in the composition of the quarterback room in 2021, sources said.
Over the last five weeks, Roethlisberger has attempted 225 passes -- second-most in the NFL in that span; checking out of runs into passes remains an issue, sources said -- for just 5.31 yards per attempt, last in the NFL. His six interceptions in that span are tied for the NFL lead and Roelisberger's QB rating of 77.5 ranks 25th in the NFL. The team does not push the ball downfield, the spread formations in empty sets have become very predictable and receivers are being asked to catch short pass after short pass in high-traffic areas where big hits are commonplace.
The Steelers have lost the ability, and some scouts would say, the will, to run the football with any regularity, and rival execs point out this is the worst offensive line play they have seen out of that unit in many years. The Steelers were stifled on both sides of the ball last week by a Bengals defense that has been among the worst in the NFL this season. Roethlisberger shredded that defense earlier this season, but his knee and back have become larger issues as the season has gone on. His lack of mobility and decreased athleticism have become more acute as well, evaluators told me.
His body of work has him headed to Canton, as a sure-fire first-ballot Hall of Famer, but at a time when contemporaries like Eli Manning, Drew Brees, and Philip Rivers are either retired or have been facing questions about retirement, rival coaches and execs are wondering the same about Roethlisberger. The Steelers aren't keen on debating that topic at this time, but they've also never seen struggles quite this acute from him, either.