There are a lot of arguments being made in favor of the idea that the Pittsburgh Steelers should be running the football with greater frequency. Most of them are bad arguments that equate offensive balance with offensive success. There is, however, one good reason for the Steelers to run the ball more frequently, and that is to preserve Ben Roethlisberger’s arm.
For starters, Roethlisberger is 37 years old. While he has talked often about how he has felt better than he has in years, including his arm strength, he also says that he barely does any throwing in the offseason to preserve his arm.
Yes, that is so he can throw the ball 800 times if he has to. But every year that goes by brings him closer and closer to losing something on his passes due to arm fatigue. He already had to alter his mechanics in October of last season because of an elbow issue that he suffered in the season opener. Yet he still threw 675 passes.
Now, with that said, there isn’t necessarily a lot of history of quarterbacks coming off seasons in which they threw 650 or more passes and suddenly tanking. Prior to Roethlisberger this past season, it was most recently done by Drew Brees and Joe Flacco in 2016. Flacco had an admittedly bad 2017 season, but frankly that’s not a surprise.
Brees has thrown 650 or more passes in a season an astonishing seven times, and considering it’s only been done 17 times in NFL history, according to Pro Football Reference, that’s something to take into consideration. The first time he did it, he threw for over 5000 yards and led the league in passing touchdowns the following year while coming close to doing it again. That was at the age of 29, however.
He would then proceed to do it five years in a row, from 2010 through 2014. During that time, he averaged 5077 yards per season with 39 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. After doing it again in 2016, he would set a new NFL record for completion percentage the following year, but would only throw 23 touchdowns, albeit to just eight interceptions.
Philip Rivers did it in 2015. The following year, he improved his yards per attempt and threw a few more touchdowns, but his interceptions also rose from 13 to 21, the most in the NFL, and in his career. Peyton Manning did it twice. The first time, he missed the next season with a neck injury. The second time, he came back and averaging nearly eight yards per attempt with 39 touchdowns to 15 interceptions. That was after he set the record for the most yards and touchdowns in a season the year before, of course.
Matt Ryan and Matthew Stafford are the only other quarterbacks to have done it since 1994. Outside of a significant drop in touchdown passes the first time Stafford did it, none of their following seasons statistically bore an obvious mark of fatigue, but of course both of them were young.
Only Manning and Brees have ever thrown so many passes at such an age as Roethlisberger did last season, and both of them are first-ballot Hall of Famers, with many regarding them as two of the three greatest quarterbacks of all time. They have also previously been more accustomed to higher-volume workloads.
While it would be nice, in theory, for the Steelers to take some balls out of Roethlisberger’s hands for his own sake, the reality is that the only thing that will enable this to happen is if the offense runs the ball more successfully.
One also must consider that many of the passes he does throw are of a shallow variety, at, behind, or near the line of scrimmage, referred to collectively as part of a run-game extension. These throws put less strain on his throwing mechanics.