KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- No matter how much magic is in the arm of an A-list NFL quarterback powering through the decades, eventually, the clock runs out.
Hall of Famer John Elway once leaned back in a chair and summed up the intersection of desire and football reality with: "At some point the fire that burns in you to compete, and all of the quarterbacks who play for a long time have that, eventually that fire can’t overcome pain, injury or time. It’s different for everybody when that happens, but it’s almost always the same when it does."
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who like Elway has played every game of his NFL career for the same team, has now likely played his last. The Steelers were overwhelmed 42-21 by the heavily favored Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday in an AFC wild-card game at Arrowhead Stadium.
It was an uphill affair for the Steelers as a whole, but particularly for Roethlisberger, who had publicly hoped last week the underdog Steelers could “go in and play and have fun.’’ It was anything but as Roethlisberger was 0-for-3 passing over the Steelers’ first two possessions, 3-of-8 by the end of the first quarter and 5-of-14 for 24 yards by halftime, when the Chiefs had already built a 21-7 lead. He finished 29-of-44 for 215 yards and two touchdowns.
"It’s tough, it was an honor to play with these guys,’’ Roethlisberger said following the loss. “God has blessed me with the ability to throw a football, to play in the greatest city -- Pittsburgh -- with the greatest fans, football team, players, and it’s truly been a blessing.’’
Toss in a couple of early drops and an ineffective run game, and the Steelers punted seven times in the first half alone. Even a scoop-and-score touchdown by Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt early in the second quarter that briefly gave them a 7-0 lead seemed only to wake up the Chiefs as Kansas City scored on its next three possessions to close the first half.
The rest of the evening was a fingernails-on-the-chalkboard, grind-it-out affair for Roethlisberger and the Steelers as Pittsburgh did not score a touchdown on offense -- a 13-yard scoring pass from Roethlisberger to Diontae Johnson -- until there was 4:10 remaining in the third quarter to make it a 35-14 game. All in all it was a rather anticlimactic closing act on Roethlisberger's decorated career.
He has played in 249 regular-season games in his 18-year career, and Sunday night was his 23rd postseason start. He will finish his career among the elite, in the top 10 of most major career passing categories, including fifth in passing yards and eighth in passing touchdowns, to go with two Super Bowl wins.
“No. 7, man, the way he’s battled, the way he’s always given us a chance, when you talk about having toughness as a quarterback, when you talk about a guy who is going to give you everything he’s got, you can’t ask for more than that,’’ said Steelers defensive tackle Cam Heyward. “Ever since I got here … we had a guy who gave us a chance, when we started a season you said that’s a Super Bowl-winning quarterback. There’s not a lot of quarterbacks who can do what he does.’’
The 39-year-old -- he will turn 40 on March 2 -- has not formally announced his retirement, but before the Steelers’ final home game of the regular season in Week 17 he said “all signs are pointing to this could be it.’’ Roethlisberger did a lap around Heinz Field, thanking fans after the 26-14 win over the Cleveland Browns.
Sunday, a throaty contingent of the Steelers faithful who had made the pilgrimage to Arrowhead perched behind the Steelers bench with “Thank you Ben’’ and “Thank you No. 7’’ signs from two hours before kickoff until the final second in a disappointing night had ticked off the game clock. One group held up four large, truck-tire-sized photos of Roethlisberger’s head at various times before and during the game.
Roethlisberger has always played as if he believed he could escape the price tag of the physical punishment. A list of the joints in his body he hasn’t injured along the way might just be far easier to make than the list that includes injuries to his right (throwing) elbow, right (throwing) shoulder, hip and knees, as well as fractures of his nose, thumb and ribs, just to start.
His elbow surgery in 2019, when he said three of the five flexor tendons in the joint were repaired, has impacted his play over the past two seasons, as well as early in 2019 when he suffered the injury. The past three seasons are the only ones in his career when he averaged fewer than 7 yards per pass attempt.
Sunday, too, in frigid Arrowhead, it looked as if all of those miles on the football odometer had caught up to him. Once again, the Steelers didn’t push the ball down the field often when the game was in the balance, and his longest completion early in the second half was still just 9 yards.
The Chiefs crowded the line of scrimmage much of the time, limiting rookie running back Najee Harris to 27 yards on his first 10 carries of the game, and Harris lost a fumble for the first time this season with 9:56 left in the third quarter.
But the struggle of the exit will not diminish the body of football work Roethlisberger has had in his career. He has two Super Bowl victories and six Pro Bowl selections since he was selected with the 11th pick of the 2004 draft.
At the time, then-Steelers coach Bill Cowher said "the more you watch the guy, his arm strength, his mobility, his accuracy on the run, on the move, I think you look at our situation, it was an ideal situation for him to come into." Cowher also added then "the kid has a lot of upside."