PITTSBURGH — Ben Roethlisberger likes to point out that he's played through the end of every contract he's ever signed. It's tangible proof of the longtime Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback's commitment both to the game itself and the franchise he's led to a pair of Super Bowl titles.
That commitment will be tested over the coming months.
The 37-year-old's aching right elbow needs surgery. His 16th season is over. Maybe his likely Hall of Fame career, too. And the keys to the offence Roethlisberger operated so deftly for so long are now in the hands of backup Mason Rudolph, who was in elementary school when the player known universally as Big Ben became a full-fledged NFL starter in the fall of 2004.
"It's kind of sucky circumstance with our leader and good friend going down," Rudolph said Monday after the team placed Roethlisberger on injured reserve. "He would want me to step up and lead to the best of my ability. That's what I've always believed in and that's what I'm going to do."
The end of Roethlisberger's season arrived suddenly. The Steelers were moving down the field late in the second quarter against Seattle on Sunday when he twice clutched his elbow following pass attempts. Though he stayed in for the remainder of the drive — including a pair of completions with his arm in obvious pain — when the Steelers came out for the second half, their captain wore a white baseball cap and watched from the sideline as they lost 28-26 to drop to 0-2.
"That's when I knew it was serious, when he didn't come back in," wide receiver James Washington said. "But he did throw the ball like multiple times after you know it was already messed up. That just shows his leadership. He didn't really want to leave us out there, but sometimes you've got to do what you've got to do in this sport."
Roethlisberger underwent an MRI late Sunday. While the nature of Roethlisberger's injury hasn't been disclosed, team doctors decided surgery was the best course of action. He'll undergo the procedure later this week. There is no timetable for any possible return.
"It's really surreal," guard David DeCastro said. "But at the same time, you've got to have a football player mentality, next guy up and move on. But with a guy like that it's a little different. Easier said than done that's for sure."
Roethlisberger has been Pittsburgh's starter since taking over for Tommy Maddox in Week 2 of the 2004 season as a rookie, developing a signature style for his ability to extend plays, a method dubbed "Ben being Ben." Yet that style evolved over the years as he matured from raw game manager to one of the most prolific passers in league history. His start on Sunday marked the 218th appearance of his career, second most in the history of a franchise that dates to 1932. He holds the club record in just about every major statistical passing category, including yards (56,545), touchdowns (363), attempts (7,230) and completions (4,651).
Roethlisberger didn't just put up numbers, he won. A lot, going 144-71-1 in the regular season and 13-8 in the playoffs, restoring the Steelers to glory in the process. His 6-yard touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes with 35 seconds left in the 2008 Super Bowl against Arizona gave the Steelers their sixth title and is considered one of the seminal moments in Super Bowl history.
He entered 2019 coming off the best statistical season of his career. He captured the NFL passing title last fall after throwing for a career-high 5,129 yards. He signed an extension in April that runs through the 2021 season and would carry him to the eve of his 40th birthday. He spoke openly during training camp about his love of the game returning, a rekindling that happened to coincide with wide receiver Antonio Brown's off-season departure for Oakland following an ugly falling out with the club.
Despite that optimism, Roethlisberger's season was off to a sluggish start. He failed to get the Steelers into the end zone during a blowout loss to New England in Week 1 and was just 8 of 15 for 75 yards against Seattle, though he did complete 5 of 6 passes on the drive that marked his final plays of the season.
Roethlisberger complained of elbow pain after falling to the Patriots but played through it, a testament to the toughness that's defined his career. He'll need to rely on that tenacity as he faces a lengthy rehabilitation while weighing whether a 17th season is worth the physically demanding road it will take to get there.
Meanwhile, the team that Roethlisberger has served as the face of for so long will have to find a way to move forward without him. Rudolph played capably in the first meaningful snaps of his career, completing 12 of 19 passes for 112 yards, two touchdowns and an interception that came off a deflection. Rudolph won praise from his teammates for his poise, yet the Steelers know it will take all 53 of them — not just one — to fill the void left by Roethlisberger's absence.
"This is not ideal but at the end of the day, it is what it is," DeCastro said. "As football players, you deal with it. Let's go see what we're made of."
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