CINCINNATI — Steelers starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is 37 years old. By the time he takes another snap under center, he’ll have turned 38.
That’s not exactly a spring chicken. Roethlisberger’s start of the 2019 of the season tied him with legendary center Mike Webster for the longest career, season-wise, in team history.
With good reason, the Steelers’ plan for the AfterBen, has been widely speculated, but never firmly laid out.
At one point, it looked like Josh Dobbs had a chance to earn status as Roethlisberger’s successor. He was traded to the Jacksonville Jaguars in September.
The Steelers used a third-round pick on Mason Rudolph in the 2018 NFL Draft, assuring him at least a good opportunity at being the next Steelers starting quarterback, simply as a result of the draft capital expended to acquire him.
When Roethlisberger was lost to the season with an elbow injury, Rudolph got that chance. On Sunday, he was benched in favor of undrafted rookie Devlin Hodges, who led the Steelers from behind and over the Cincinnati Bengals.
Mike Tomlin has not revealed his plans for who will start next Sunday against the Cleveland Browns, and for the moment, it seems that the Steelers have a bona fide quarterback controversy.
While he’s not tipping his hand, Tomlin’s decision to bench Rudolph already tells a good part of the story. When doctors opened up Roethlisberger’s elbow in early September, the Steelers’ realistic chances of winning a Super Bowl were dashed.
The opportunity that lay in front of the Steelers for the remainder of 2019 was not stock the Rooney Family trophy case with Lombardi No. 7, but to identity if the Steelers have quarterback that will let them do that or not.
When Hodges grabbed his helmet on Sunday, it was a sure sign that the team no longer believes Rudolph can be that player.
Yes, the Steelers needed the win over the Bengals to preserve their No. 6 position in the AFC Wild Card battle, but realistically, even if the Steelers could pull of a Wild Card-round upset, would even the largest zealots in Steelers Nation like their odds of a late-December win in Foxborough?
Rudolph has struggled, clearly. If the Steelers think he can be their quarterback of the future, job one for the rest of the year would be letting him work through those struggles, find his form and potentially challenge Roethlisberger for a starting job in 2020.
He wants and probably needs, for his development, to be given that chance.
But if the Steelers’ braintrust has already decided that Rudolph is not the answer, then the right play is to start whichever quarterback Tomlin and Randy Fichtner think gives them the best shot of earning that postseason bid, giving the rest of the team valuable playoff experience, even if it ends in a loss.
That’s how Duck Hodges ends up in the game. Hodges, while effective in leading the Steelers to a victory, has hardly been a dynamo in his three games. There’s good reason Tomlin waited through five Rudolph interceptions over five quarters and continued giving him chances before pulling the plug.
Just based on his status as an undrafted rookie, there’s a strong probability that Duck isn’t the answer, either. There have been a few — Kurt Warner being the last — undrafted quarterbacks to lead their team to a Super Bowl. But it’s clearly the exception and not the rule.
So whichever player start on Sunday against the Browns, the big takeaway from the Steelers quarterback controversy that once again, they’re still looking for their starter in the AfterBen.