If one attempts to conjure the moment that shall forever define Ben Roethlisberger as a quarterback, there is only one sequence that reasonably comes to mind: He holds the ball as he scans the north end zone at Raymond James Stadium, pump fakes to the flat to perhaps draw defenders away from the goal line, points with his left hand as if calling his shot and then fires a pass that may be the most audacious in the six decades of the league’s showpiece championship game.
Three defenders are adjacent to the target when Roethlisberger releases the football. How can he see Santonio Holmes? How could anyone conceive that receiver to be open? But Cardinals cornerback Ralph Brown’s desperate leap is launched from too remote a position to be more than a distraction to Holmes. Safety Aaron Francisco’s late push forces Holmes over the sideline but does not dislodge the ball. Corner Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is just there to be part of the photograph. The Steelers, upon video confirmation, complete one of the most dramatic Super Bowl comebacks and claim their sixth Lombardi Trophy.
Somehow this episode never has become as widely celebrated as the less challenging and less consequential “Catch” by Dwight Clark from Joe Montana in the 1982 NFC championship game, in the same way Bill Mazeroski’s 1960 World Series home run is less well known than Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” to win the National League pennant nine years earlier.
And maybe that’s OK.
Because the moment that truly defines Ben Roethlisberger as a Steeler came three years earlier, when he was in his second season and trying to play a central role — but certainly not to carry the team — in pursuit of the organization’s first Super Bowl title since its 1970s dynasty.
It was none of the 474 touchdowns he produced or the 5,879 passes the threw during his 18 seasons. Fitting for a franchise that transformed defense into a religion through the work of such prophets as Mean Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, Jack Ham and Mel Blount, the definitive play of Roethlisberger’s career was a tackle. It was desperate and awkward and not at all secure, but the ballcarrier wound up on the ground before true calamity could ensue, and that was enough.
The greatest quarterback in the franchise’s history showed himself, in that moment, to be every bit a Steeler.
It was Pittsburgh sports talk host Mark Madden (WXDX, 105.9 FM) who made this point on a recent broadcast, and he was almost entirely correct. His reasoning leaned hard on how Roethlisberger rescued Hall of Fame teammate Jerome Bettis from ignominy, and surely he did, but more so it was Roethlisberger’s willingness to make whatever play was required to assure victory, in the way such pure Steelers as Hines Ward, Aaron Smith, Larry Brown and Carnell Lake had through the years.
“I’ve been here a long time, and it’s been a lot of fun. God has blessed me . . . It was meant to be that I was going to wear black and gold,” Roethlisberger said Sunday. “I hope that I was able to pass the legacy of what it is to be a Steeler from Dan Rooney. We all miss him; everyone who knew him misses him. Hopefully I could pass some of that on to the guys and continue the tradition of what it means to be a Steeler.
“Once you start to lose the old regime, if you will, you’ve got to find ways to pass it down. And we’ve got some guys in there that will continue to do that.”
Roethlisberger played his final game in the NFL on Sunday. His career did not end with a Super Bowl victory, like John Elway or Peyton Manning or, for that matter, Bettis. It did not end with him basking in the adoration of 60,000 Yinzers standing, chanting his name and, for the lucky few, slapping his hand as he walked a victory lap around Heinz Field following Week 17’s Monday night victory against the Browns.
There still was a game on the schedule after that, and through a bit of serendipity that seemed even less likely than finding a future Hall of Fame QB competing for the Miami RedHawks in the Mid-American Conference, the Steelers extended their season by scratching their way into the NFL playoffs. And there, against the two-time reigning AFC champion Chiefs, they endured a miserable offensive first half and failed to take advantage of the 7-0 lead to which T.J. Watt’s fumble return for a touchdown staked them. They lost 42-21, with Roethlisberger throwing the final two touchdown passes of his career merely to make the result appear less embarrassing.
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It ended with him on the field, playing serious football for what will be the final time of a life that has been consumed by the game for more than a quarter-century. It ended with the Steelers calling a timeout to give him one last shot to feel what it’s like to throw the Steelers into the end zone, only to see the receiver on his final pass, tight end Zach Gentry, hit hard 3 yards short. It wouldn’t have altered the result — just the margin.
“We thought last week would be the end. We didn’t know what was going to happen and . . . got blessed to play another football game,” Roethlisberger said. “It’s a blessing to be able to play this game. How lucky are we that we get to play football for a living? Yeah, we’re out there getting beat up, but we get to entertain millions of fans and throw, catch, run — do what we’ve all done as kids. That’s our job now.”
Well, it was, for Roethlisberger, until this day.
“I don’t know if it’s emotional because it’s just the end of the season. This would be emotional no matter what,” he said. “We never like to lose and go out, and I’ll miss these guys. It’ll probably really hit me come training camp time.”
This ending will not satisfy the smallish but increasingly amplified portion of Steeler Nation that views every result but a Lombardi Trophy as a massive failure, but it’s not often an athlete accepts a championship award as the final act of his or her career.
Roethlisberger, though, will leave the stage among the statistical leaders in nearly every major quarterbacking category: passing yards (No. 5), completions (No. 5), touchdowns (No. 8) and, among those with careers of 10 seasons or more, passer rating (No. 16). More important to Roethlisberger, he would say, is he also ranks No. 5 in victories as a starting QB, No. 6 in playoff victories, No. 2 in game-winning drives and No. 7 in winning percentage among those with at least 100 starts. The names in his company are those immediately cited as the greatest in the sport’s history: Brady, Manning, Elway, Montana, Unitas.
“God has blessed me with the ability to throw a football,” Roethlisberger said. “He has blessed me to play in the greatest city, in Pittsburgh, with the greatest fans and the greatest football team and players, and it has just been truly a blessing. I’m so thankful to Him for the opportunity He’s given me.”
Roethlisberger departs with a career that even supersedes the great Terry Bradshaw, who quarterbacked the team to four Super Bowl victories and was in the Hall about 15 minutes after he became eligible. This has been my belief in recent years, and more of those who chronicle the team have settled on this position. Indeed, Bradshaw has four Super Bowl rings, and though Roethlisberger had a chance to match him, he did not have Swann, Stallworth and Franco to help make this happen.
The difference between the two, though, is that Roethlisberger’s career peak endured basically a decade, from 2008-18, whereas Bradshaw struggled so obviously in his early career he even lost the starting job at the open of the 1974 season, to Joe Gilliam, and did not gain it back until more than a quarter of the schedule was completed. When Bradshaw uncovered the whole of his greatness beginning in 1975, he began a stretch — interrupted by injuries in 1976 — Roethlisberger never matched. That included Bradshaw’s MVP season in 1978. It did not last long, though, only to 1981, when injuries began to usurp his excellence.
The game-winning drive in Super Bowl 43 was obviously not the only such occasion of Roethlisberger’s career, just the most consequential. There was the one on Christmas Day 2016, when Antonio Brown’s “Immaculate Extension” reach over the goal lline after fielding a Roethlisberger pass clinched the AFC North title. There was the one in the 2010 AFC divisional round, which included Brown’s “helmet catch” for 57 yards. There was the one in Baltimore in 2008, when he found Holmes just over the goal line to claim victory in another of the rivals’ brutally intense duels.
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There is a YouTube video ranking Roethlisberger’s 10 greatest winning drives. It runs only 19 minutes, so one is unlikely to fall into such a rabbit hole for hours, unless the temptation to watch it over and over proves to be too great.
“It’s been an honor and a pleasure,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, Big Ben’s boss for 15 seasons, told reporters. “I don’t have the words.”
It frustrates many who follow the team that the very best of Roethlisberger did not result even in a Super Bowl appearance. When he led the NFL with 4,952 passing yards in 2014, the Steelers lost their first playoff game. When he recovered from a knee injury to throw for nearly 4,000 yards in 12 games in 2017, the Steelers lost in the divisional round to Denver. When he closed the 2016 season with six consecutive winning starts, the team lost in the AFC championship game. All of those games were with star running back Le’Veon Bell missing all or most of the game with injuries.
When Roethlisberger led in completions, attempts and yards in 2018, the team was plagued by game-changing fumbles and missed field goal attempts and it missed the playoffs by a literal half-game. Teammates’ fumbles materially impacted Super Bowl 45 against the Packers and the 2016 playoff loss at Denver. It is the ultimate team game.
Which is why Roethlisberger’s tackle against the Colts in the AFC divisional round should be the centerpiece of his legacy.
When it appeared certain Bettis would retire after the Steelers’ failure to reach the 2004 Super Bowl despite a 15-1 regular season, Roethlisberger promised Bettis the Steelers would get him to a Super Bowl if he returned.
A sluggish start that year mandated a four-game winning streak at the end merely to make the playoffs. The team would have to play all its playoff games on the road. The second of those would be in Indianapolis, against a No. 1-seed Colts team featuring Manning that had won its first 13 games and finished 14-2.
The Steelers surged to a 14-0 first-quarter lead, led 17-3 after three quarters and were still were ahead by a field goal after the Colts rallied for two fourth-quarter touchdowns. Then, on what figured to be the final chance for the Colts to tie or take the lead, they lost 16 yards on two sacks by Pittsburgh linebacker Joey Porter. The Steelers took over on downs at the Indy 2-yard line with 1:27 left, but the Colts had all their timeouts remaining, so it wasn’t possible merely to kneel on the ball three or four times and commence with the ceremonial handshakes. The only way to assure a victory was to cross the goal line with the football.
They had four shots available. There was no particular urgency to end the game on first down. Bettis, though, barreled into the line with one arm free and angled his body to make the hand embracing the football readily available to the Colts’ defense. Linebacker Gary Brackett plunged his helmet into that target, and the football popped into the air and back 4 yards, with Indy cornerback Nick Harper there to scoop it up and Steelers center Jeff Hartings too late to grab the ball or its carrier.
Roethlisberger immediately began to retreat so he would have an opportunity to interrupt Harper’s rampage. At the 36-yard line, Roethlisberger seized the opportunity to reach and grab Harper’s right shin, his hand sliding down to the instep of Harper’s shoe and tripping him to the ground. The Colts still had 1:09 and three timeouts but could only put themselves in range for a Mike Vanderjagt field goal that would have tied it — had it not ended up 20 yards to the right of the goal posts.
Roethlisberger was on the sideline as that kick happened. He was a helpless spectator like so many others who love the Steelers. This is where he will spend autumn Sundays from now on. In time, once the habitual urge to play abates, he may find he enjoys being a part of Steeer Nation. For the past five decades, notably the two through which he served as the franchise’s foundation, it has been a mostly delightful endeavor.