Big Ben’s Real Message –

News about a fun Super Bowl week event in Houston in a few paragraphs—podcast fun and good beer—but we open on a non-Super Bowl bit of news from Tuesday: Ben Roethlisberger hinting that, at 34, he may have played his last snap for the Steelers.

First: I do not believe he will quit. Not for a second. But I do have some interpretation of his comments.

In an appearance on 93.7 The Fan in Pittsburgh, Roethlisberger said in the wake of the Steelers’ AFC Championship Game no-show in New England: “I’m going to take this offseason to evaluate, to consider all options, to consider health and family and things like that and just kind of take some time away to evaluate next season, if there’s going to be a next season.” He said he wasn’t meaning to say he wasn’t coming back, just that he wanted to take some time to decide his future.

I’ll tell you what I think. And understand that this is a reading of the tea leaves. I have not spoken to Roethlisberger. I have not spoken to his agent, Ryan Tollner. But I have noticed this season that Roethlisberger has seemed frustrated with a few things. I am not absolving him of his share of the blame for the offensive performance, to be sure. The Steelers, in the divisional victory at Kansas City and the title game at New England, managed two touchdowns in two games. This makes it far worse: Over 110 minutes—the game in Kansas City and the first 50 minutes at New England—Roethlisberger managed zero touchdown passes in the most important games of the year. Even without the suspended Martavis Bryant, and even with Le’Veon Bell getting hurt in the first half of the AFC Championship Game, this is a feeble two-game performance by what is supposed to be one of the most explosive offenses in football.

I think, particularly in his post-Kansas City criticism last week of the selfish Antonio Brown, and this week of the team’s lack of maturity and readiness for the game, that Roethlisberger was focusing his frustration on three people: Brown (to be sure), coach Mike Tomlin, and offensive coordinator Todd Haley.

The dissing of Brown is easy. He’s too often this year been immature, and if Roethlisberger had to settle him down on the sidelines at Foxboro—which has been reported—it’s an Odell Beckham-like bout of baby-ness that simply has to stop. Brown’s too great a player to be sulking. He’s the major reason why the Steelers won the division in the first place, after his reach over the goal line resulted in the AFC North-winning touchdown on Christmas against Baltimore.

I got the sense, regarding the Roethlisberger/Tomlin situation, that the quarterback is frustrated that Brown is acting up over and over again, and the coach hasn’t stopped it. Good on Tomlin for forcefully going after Brown after the Facebook incident last week, but little things have flared up often this year. I cannot imagine Tom Brady issuing a read-between-the-lines bitch-out of an offensive teammate; he’d never question how Bill Belichick was handling a player. Maybe Roethlisberger isn’t. But two weeks in a row, when he questions things like maturity of players and attentiveness after the game of players, what really is he talking about? Players, yes. But also—right or wrong—the control of them by the head coach.

Roethlisberger deserves his share of the blame for the first 19 series of the Kansas City/New England game to be played without a touchdown pass. Great quarterbacks can overcome personnel issues, and some play-calling issues too. Where was the great throw or two into postage-stamp targets? Where was the on-field brow-beating we might have seen from Brady? Unseen.

As for Haley, he deserves criticism here too, and not just a little. How does a team with Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback and Antonio Brown at receiver and a very good offensive line generate zero touchdown passes in a 19-series span in the two biggest games of the year? It’s unacceptable. Maybe there’s a reason why Haley got zero sniffs this year at a head-coaching job with the six openings. And maybe it has to do with the fact that this offense, at the biggest moments of the year, vastly underachieved. The blame needs to be spread, and the play-designer and caller needs to accept his share too.

So I think Roethlisberger will meet with Tomlin at some point soon, and probably with the brass, and probably with Haley. Those meetings need to be had. And I think Roethlisberger will come back at age 35, for his 14th year. But he’ll be heard first.

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