Football is a young man's game. Stop me if you've heard this one before.
And please don't stop if you've read this column before -- because heaven knows I have written a derivation of it about Peyton Manning and Eli Manning and Philip Rivers in recent years. And now it is Ben Roethlisberger's turn.
Father time. Undefeated. You know the drill.
One's football mortality is never all that far behind in a sport this brutal by nature, and Big Ben's seems to be closer than ever. Having watched this team closely all season and talked to several opposing coaches or scouts who have faced them, and hearing voices from within the building, too, it is fair to ask a question all the greats faced at one point or another. Perhaps, at age 38, coming off major elbow shoulder, with an offensive line that is no longer pristine and lacking any downfield thrust of attack and with one of the worst running games in the NFL, we have seen the best we are ever going to see from this first ballot Hall of Famer.
I'd posit that we have, and that a year from now, for a franchise measured by Lombardi Trophies, to expect anything better to what we have witnessed the past four weeks would be naive. In the past, when Roethlisberger has waxed nostalgic about retirement I'd shrug my shoulders; now I'm leaning in.
"If I don't play good enough football I need to hang it up," he opined after another grizzly Steelers offensive performance Sunday night.
Based on this Steelers team, as presently comprised, with all of its limitations on offense and a defense slowly being drained by attrition, I'd suggest we've already seen the best that Pittsburgh can muster, and January will be even more cruel than what December has already offered.
The Steelers scored twice Sunday, once courtesy of a very short field off a turnover. They went 1-for-10 on third down (despite never being in more than third-and-nine), held the ball for just 24:45 and mustered all of 224 yards against a Bills defense that has been getting ripped most of the season for not being up to its own standards. Yes, it may be peaking now, but stifling it has not been. Should the Steelers somehow sputter against the Bengals this weekend -- the NFL's path of least resistance defensively -- and this potential crisis will be full bore.
Sunday night was yet another instance where the Steelers passed more than twice as much as they ran -- they average 47 passes (!!!) to 19 runs over the past five games -- with Roethlisberger tossing a crippling interception that coach Mike Tomlin implied was the difference in the game. Expecting Ben to throw deep much doesn't make much sense -- ask Tom Brady how that is going in Tampa -- but they do it so little and without impact, and running for just 3.7 yards per, they have become far too easy to defend.
When Baltimore's suspect defense, with a COVID-riddled roster that Tomlin referred to as "the JV," nearly won in Pittsburgh with Trace McSorley at quarterback, much was exposed. It wasn't much of a shock that Washington's front ate them alive the following week, and when WFT edge monster Chase Young expounded that the Ravens "exposed some things," he wasn't lying.
The Steelers have lived in empty set, or pistol with a back offset and four wide, pretty much since halftime of their first meeting with Baltimore in Week 8, when Ben authored a wild second-half comeback. It barely carried them past the lowly Cowboys, and checking into so many quick passes at such a high rate will invariably lead to drops, turnovers and receivers constantly making tough catches in traffic near the line of scrimmage. Ben isn't checking into so many of them out of any motivation, but survival and trying to give the team the best to win ... But it's not working and it won't in January, either. Couple that with a knee that has been howling for a few weeks now, and it's not a pretty picture.
Roethlisberger has attempted a staggering 187 passes in the last four weeks alone (only perpetually-trailing rookie Justin Herbert has thrown more), for just 1,025 yards, a stunning 5.45/attempt, with seven touchdowns and five picks (tied for second most in that span). His rating of 82.85 is 26th in that span, and to put that yards per attempt in perspective, it is dead last (even Alex Smith, with all of his and his team's limitations, is at 5.75/attempt); the NFL average in that span is 7.05.
There is no easy way out of this, and should the Steelers continue down this singular road of offensive attack, with one season left on the quarterback's contract, I can't help but wonder what the offseason holds for them. A year ago general manager Kevin Colbert had zero inclination to grab an Andy Dalton or Cam Newton for a million here or there even with Roethlisberger coming back from season-ending surgery. Will they be content to roll the balls back out with Ben and Mason Rudolph in 2021, despite the QB market in trades and free agency likely to be heavy on supply and team-friendly contracts again?
The rest of this division has its shiny young thing at QB. The game is evolving with mobility and moving pockets and athleticism more prized now than ever. Nothing lasts forever. Watching Josh Allen roam and rumble, as Roethlisberger did so well for so long, the dichotomy was impossible to escape. We'll find out soon enough if the Steelers see it the same way.
Lions should consider another ex-player
The Detroit Lions are inviting everyone to the party, it seems, when courting opinions about how to construct their new front office. On Tuesday, former players Chris Spielman and Barry Sanders joined the fray.
There is another former player, right there in Detroit, who I would suggest should be a part of this new regime in some capacity in football operations. A former executive there who was a vital part of the team's brass the last time the organization was truly thriving in the 1990s, who excelled in personnel and on the business operations and salary cap side of things, too. Someone who cares deeply for that city and that franchise and the Ford family, and who has seen so many others profit off their generosity or naivety over the years.
Larry Lee remains very much tied in to what is going on in the NFL after spending 14 years in Detroit's front office, and is on top of the best and brightest coaching and GM prospects, through his work with The Fritz Pollard Alliance, which works with the NFL to promote diversity in the hiring ranks. He is well respected and knows the league and could be a great conduit to team president Rod Wood, who is effectively leading the search and has never been through anything like this quite before and does not have a football background.
Lee is a potentially huge asset sitting right down the road. They should reach out. And if not the Lions, then some other organization.
More NFL insider notes
- There is going to be a lot of movement in the coordinator ranks next month. A ton. Former Cardinals and Giants defensive coordinator James Bettcher is bright and sharp and was saddled with precious little talent (read: none) with those teams. Would love to see what he could do with a few pieces and a fighting chance ...
- I was remiss in my column last week about a GM candidate that I neglected to include. Rams executive Brian Xanders, who previously held the GM title in Denver, should absolutely merit consideration in the upcoming interview cycle. He had some epic drafts with the Broncos and has helped the Rams thrive despite some difficult contracts and limitations ...
- Cardinals wide receivers coach David Raih has done a really nice job bringing Christian Kirk along, and working with that group in general. The run game has slowed some and Kyler Murray's pace has certainly dropped in the second half of the season, but good work being done there ...
- Have a hard time envisioning a head coaching hiring cycle that does not include Giants defensive coordinator Patrick Graham and Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley. Their work is generating chatter around the league and they may have begun the season as under-the-radar guys but that's far from the case now ...
- Former head coach Mike McCoy has done great work with young quarterbacks throughout his career. That should not go unnoticed as staffs are put together in 2021. Very surprised it somehow did in 2020.