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Saunders: Ben Roethlisberger Fought to the Finish, But the Magic Runs Out Eventually



KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Very few people get to dictate the circumstances of the end of their NFL career, and Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger found that out on Sunday, with the Steelers’ 42-21 playoff loss to the Kansas City Chiefs likely going down as Big Ben’s last NFL game.

Father Time comes for every one, and in a sport as unpredictable and violent as professional football, the end can be unexpected and sudden. It also can be messy, with the salary cap putting pressure on teams to move on from aging stars before they might be ready to go.

Of the 10 retired NFL quarterbacks with the most career passing yards, a quick proxy for the league’s very best, John Elway had the absolute pinnacle, finishing his career as a back-to-back Super Bowl champion.

But that’s far from the norm. Dan Marino, Warren Moon, Carson Palmer, Philip Rivers and Frank Tarkenton — half the list — never won a championship at any point in their careers, let alone in their final season.

Drew Brees went out after a home Divisional Playoff loss last season, with only 3,750 in the Superdome thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.

Brett Favre had a messy divorce with the Green Bay Packers after they drafted Aaron Rodgers and played three more sub-par seasons with the New York Jets and Minnesota Vikings that included an NFL fine for inappropriately texting a New York reporter.

Eli Manning was benched three games into his final season with the New York Giants.

The hope for Roethlisberger’s final season was something like Peyton Manning’s 2015, when he struggled mightily and was even benched at one point, but a strong defense and running game carried him to a Super Bowl win.

That didn’t play out for Roethlisberger, with the rest of the Steelers’ offense collapsing under the weight of an overmatched offensive line and the defense no longer capable of maintaining dominance all on its own.

Instead, he went out as a loser in four consecutive playoff games, with his final Super Bowl win coming in 2008 and the following 13 seasons spent chasing a third ring, only to end his career about as far from it as he ever was at any point in his pro tenure. It led to an emotional finish, and not in an overwhelmingly positive way.

“I don’t know if it’s emotional because it’s just the end of the season,” Roethlisberger said. “It’s supposed to be emotional no matter what. We never like to lose and go out. I’ll miss these guys.”

It’s never easy to watch an athlete that has meant as much to a franchise and a city as Ben Roethlisberger has to the Steelers and Pittsburgh.

But in many ways, the way he finished his career was appropriate for the kind of player Roethlisberger was in his career. He was never the most talented player at his position. His success came because he was tough and strong and sturdy and refused to give up when the play was broken, or it looked like he was sacked, or even after a massive elbow injury at age 37.

His entire career, Roethlisberger kept coming back and fighting, even when the fight was lost.

He got a hero’s send off in his final game at Heinz Field, beating the Browns to keep the team’s narrow playoff hopes alive. He then got to beat the Ravens one last time, thanks to some overtime heroics and a little luck, navigating a seemingly impossible path to the postseason.

Eventually, the magic ran out it. It always does. It’s a fitting end, even if it’s not the one he likely wanted.

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