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Armando Salguero: Big Ben About To Strike Midnight And Steelers Late To Process Of Replacing Him

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It didn’t surprise the Pittsburgh Steelers that Ben Roethlisberger is playing in his final regular-season game at Heinz Field on Monday night, but when the team’s starting quarterback told reporters as much Thursday, it crystalized the fact there will be difficult, enlightened work needed to replace him.

“I would say that all signs are pointing to this could be it — regular season that is,” Roethlisberger said at his weekly press gathering. “I know we still have a chance to potentially get a playoff game there if things fall our way and we take care of business and things have to happen.

“But in the grand scheme of things in terms of (the) regular season, signs are pointing that way that this could be it.”

That means the celebration of Big Ben’s illustrious 18-year career in Pittsburgh — the longest tenure for a quarterback with one team in NFL history — will soon begin in earnest in the Steel City.

But, um, life goes on.

The Steelers aren’t closing up shop after Roethlisberger bows out.

That’s why they’ve been discussing a plan to replace Roethlisberger for nearly a year. Truth is the Steelers expected to replace Roethlisberger this season because his contract ran out after 2020.

And, no, there weren’t any great or obvious successors the team had ready to fill Roethlisberger’s spot for ’21. But work was done after last season to try to identify that player — an assignment that didn’t comes close to finding a better option than Roethlisberger, even at age 39, and previewed how difficult the task ahead could be.

Failing to identify a better option, the Steelers welcomed Roethlisberger’s idea of returning for one final year.

“I guess the writing was on the wall from them, but kind of all of us together,” Roethlisberger said. “I wouldn’t say that I had my mind made up by any means. But I had my mind made up coming into this season that I was going to give it everything I had to try and win a Super Bowl.”

The Steelers don’t look like a Super Bowl contender now but their bigger problem is finding the quarterback who will help them win their next Super Bowl.

There are, of course, multiple directions the club can navigate:

The Steelers can hand the reins of the offense to one of their current backup quarterbacks.

They can try to trade for an established veteran.

They can go the free agency route.

Or they can go into the draft.

All or a combination of some are possible. None suggests certainty.

Earlier this year there were pundits — perhaps even one working at OutKick who’s name rhymes with Hondo — who suggested Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was setting himself up for a run at Aaron Rodgers during the Steelers 27-17 loss to Green Bay.

The two men had something of a moment during that October game which showed the respect they have for one another.

So it made sense if Rodgers forced the Packers to trade him, the Steelers might be on his list of teams he’d consider because of his respect for Tomlin. Except Rodgers this week said he might retire and if he doesn’t the situation in Green Bay has improved to the point that he’s not going anywhere else if he plays.

So much for that.

That leaves Deshaun Watson or maybe Russell Wilson as options when (Watson) and if (Wilson) become available.

The problem there is it’s going to take two or three first-round picks to land an elite veteran quarterback and the Steelers, historically consistent and steady, have not been the kind of organization that makes such unorthodox moves.

One might see the Steelers considering free agency because they have an estimated $43 million in cap space saved for next season. But the quarterbacks currently unsigned for 2022 are headed, amazingly, by Ben Roethlisberger.

Mitch Trubisky, Jameis Winston, Teddy Bridgewater, Nick Foles, and Marcus Mariota are all scheduled to hit free agency and all are younger than Roethlisberger. But which one is definitely better?

The Steelers have also invested in young quarterbacks: Mason Rudolph is signed through next year and Dwayne Haskins is a restricted free agent who can be tendered so that no team would sign him away.

But it’s hard to believe the Steelers would rely on either of these two unproven and so far unremarkable players to enter the 2022 season vying to start without having a grander vision for the position.

The draft is obviously the spot where the Steelers are likely to look for Roethlisberger’s eventual successor.

Pittsburgh currently slots in with the draft’s No. 17 pick which may improve or drop a couple of slots depending what they and other teams do the final two games.

It’s natural for the club to value Pitt QB Kenny Pickett because he happens to train right next door. But Pickett is likely going to be selected in the top 10 spots which could make getting to him difficult.

Other draft options will include North Carolina’s Sam Howell, Matt Corral of Ole Miss, Carson Strong of Nevada, Liberty’s Malik Willis, and Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder.

All have gifts. But all will likely need time to develop — some more than others — to be better than merely functional NFL starters.

So following Roethlisberger’s looming retirement there will be a period in which the Steelers and their fans will come to understand how blessed they were to have him for 18 seasons.

And all that leads to the next logical question: Is there any significant chance the Steelers, lacking an progression plan at quarterback, might try to bring back Roethlisberger one more year?

“No, no, I don’t think they’ll ask me to come back,” Roethlisberger said. “I think I’ve been here long enough.

“It’s 18 years. Almost half my life I’ve given to this city and this team and these fans. But the fun thing is, I know I still have it in the tank to go out there this week and next week and give it everything I have to do everything I can to get us into the postseason. That’s always the ultimate goal, to win us a Lombardi. That’s still my goal. We’re not out of this thing yet.”

Written by Armando Salguero

Armando Salguero has covered the NFL since 1990 for the Palm Beach Post, Miami Herald and ESPN. He was a 2016 Associated Press Sports Editors Top 10 columnist. He is a Pro Football Hall of Fame selector and AP All-Pro team voter.

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