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Saunders: Roethlisberger Shows Steelers Got Transition Timing Right



Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger

The end of the career of a star player is never an easy thing for a team to manage. The Pittsburgh Steelers have learned that lesson many times in their tenure as one of the top franchises in professional sports.

There have been frequent hard feelings between the Steelers and departing stars over the years. Franco Harris played his final season with the Seattle Seahawks after the Rooneys balked at a request for a raise and released him.

Several others, including Troy Polamalu and Hines Ward, wanted to continue playing but decided not suit up for a competitor, instead begrudgingly ending their career.

It’s now clear that we can put Ben Roethlisberger in that group.

Roethlisberger said as much while speaking about the end of his career while discussing his support for Kenny Pickett on his Footbahlin podcast earlier this week.

“I don’t know that I necessarily want Kenny to fail, but when someone comes to replace you and you’re like, ‘I still feel like I had it,’ I hope he doesn’t come in and ball out,” Roethlisberger said. “Because then it’s, ‘Ben who?’”

Roethlisberger’s assertion that he had more in the tank is debatable, at best. He finished the 2021 season 24th in passer rating, 25th in QBR and 25th in adjusted net yards per attempt — sandwiched between Davis Mills and Baker Mayfield. Roethlisberger was at or near career lows in basically every catch-all stat.

Now, the 2021 Steelers offense around him was far from perfect. It’s possible he could have played better if given another shot in 2022. But the Steelers were stuck. A declining Roethlisberger wasn’t good enough to drag a less-than-supremely-talented team over the hump. But he also wasn’t bad enough to allow them to secure the kind of top pick that would make for an obvious successor.

Because of that, the Steelers were going to need to develop their next starting quarterback, investing a pick in a player that might take a few years to come into his own.

The team zeroed in on quarterback early in the 2022 offseason, spending almost the entire pre-draft process heavily vetting candidates, and picked Pickett when they got their choice of the draft class.

Pickett’s rookie year was far from perfect, though he probably played earlier than his draft class says he should have, and he definitely played earlier than the Steelers planned.

Pickett did improve a ton down the stretch, winning over many around the league — including Roethlisberger — with his winning ways and heady plays down the stretch.

According to Pickett, one of the major things that helped him find that success in his rookie season was the relationship he was able to build with Mitch Trubisky, even after he supplanted Trubisky as the starting quarterback.

“He was like an extra coach for me, honestly,” Pickett said. “Being the league for how long he has been in it, being able to ask him questions like, ‘Hey, where do you start with your eyes here?’ ‘Your experience with this concept, how does this work for you, do you like it, do you not like it?’ When you’re starting to game plan, he knows other teams, he’s seen these defenses, he’s been around these defensive coordinators an amount of time.

“He was awesome, and Mason [Rudolph], as well. Just having two guys that have been in it that are open to answering my questions and just kind of being able to soundboard off of them, and that have been in my shoes and obviously, have done it a long time, I can’t thank those guys enough. Extremely grateful for the quarterback room that we have, and Coach Sully [Mike Sullivan], too.”

Both Trubisky and Rudolph agreed to return to the Steelers for 2023, Trubisky under a new three-year contract. They’re clearly happy and willing to play the role they played in 2022. 

Ironically, Roethlisberger credited players like Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch for giving him the same treatment as a young player.

But given Roethlisberger’s other statement, that he was not rooting for Pickett to succeed when he first arrived in Pittsburgh, and his previous, notoriously icy relationship with Rudolph, it becomes clear that Roethlisberger would not have been that kind of mentor for Pickett or another young quarterback.

The Steelers needed to develop a quarterback, because they were not planning on being bad enough to get a sure thing at the top of the draft. They also were not going to do right by any quarterback they were trying to develop by having him playing under or behind Roethlisberger.

The returns are early. Pickett has played in just 12 games, and the story of his career is far from written. But it sure seems like the Steelers got the order of operations part of the process correct in deciding when to move on from Roethlisberger and turn to their next chapter at quarterback.

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May 24, 2023 11:20 am

articles like this don’t want to talk about the offensive line that Roethlisberger had in his last year. Worst line in the entire league.

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