I’m sure you all recall the scene at the end of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2020 season. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and center Maurkice Pouncey sitting dejectedly next to each other on the sideline bench. Trying to console each other after a brutal loss, understanding that this may well be the end of the road.
But for whom? As it would turn out, it was Pouncey who opted to retire following an 11-year career. Roethlisberger, now 39, returned for his 18th season in the NFL, this time coming back in the most competitive environment the AFC North has ever seen, which currently has them situated in fourth place.
It was, indeed, the Cleveland Browns that took them out in the Wildcard Round, having posted their first non-losing season since 2007, and that game earned the Browns their first playoff victory since 1994, in their first playoff game since 2002. It was a gut-wrenching loss.
But it wasn’t the reason Roethlisberger felt compelled to return for another year. “You never like to lose a game”, he told reporters earlier today. “At the end of the year, only one team ever ends the way they want to. But I wouldn’t say that they’re the reason I came back”.
The two-time Super Bowl champion was already under contract for the 2021 season, but there was some genuine question as to whether or not he would be brought back by the team. He ultimately accepted a $5 million pay cut as part of a substantial cap-relieving contract restructure, which he insisted in the offseason that he initiated.
The Steelers ultimately went 12-4 in the regular season a year ago in Roethlisberger’s return from a major elbow injury that knocked him out for the vast majority of the 2019 season. He’s now further removed from that injury, and insists that he is better off for it, though we’re not exactly seeing the results. His yards per attempt, yards per game, and interception percentage are all roughly the same, but his touchdown percentage is way down. Even his intended and completed air yards are substantially the same as a year ago.
Roethlisberger had one of the most successful starts to a career that a quarterback has ever had in NFL history, becoming the youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl in year two, and then coming back for a second Lombardi in his fifth season, making three total appearances in the championship game in his first seven years.
But the past decade has been a completely different ball game in terms of postseason success. They have won just three games since their loss in Super Bowl XLV in 2010, with one appearance in a conference championship. They haven’t won a playoff game since the 2016 season, and have only appeared in the playoffs twice. If Roethlisberger is motivated by failure, then there was nothing unique about their loss to the Browns in January.