PITTSBURGH – Ben Roethlisberger came back for one more run, wanting a chance for his final performance to not be a lopsided first-round playoff loss.
Even with his closest friends gone. Even with a first-year offensive coordinator. Even knowing he'd have an almost completely rebuilt offensive line. Even with rookies likely to take over in the backfield and at tight end.
The longtime Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback and likely Hall of Famer's reward? An unlikely postseason berth and ... a lopsided first-round playoff loss.
Pittsburgh's unwieldy season came to the crashing halt in a 42-21 whipping at the hands of Kansas City on Sunday. The Steelers (9-8-1) arrived at Arrowhead Stadium as the longest shot in the 14-team field and played like it.
The issues that plagued them all year – from offensive coordinator Matt Canada's ineffectual play calling to a defense that was consistently drilled on the road – manifested themselves over the final three quarters. Patrick Mahomes did seemingly whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. It looked an awful lot like a handful of games from this season, including a 36-10 loss in the same stadium the day after Christmas.
Roethlisberger's career likely ended with an 11-yard pass to Zach Gentry as the clock ran out. The 39-year-old married father of three met briefly with Mahomes at midfield, saluted the fans in black and gold who stuck around to the bitter end, then walked into the tunnel – and into the next phase of his life.
“Being a husband and father, you never take a day off,” he said. “You've got to keep going, and so, as we move from one chapter to the next, it's going to be different, but it's going to be fun. It's going to be a challenge and I'm looking forward to it.”
The Steelers have pieces in place to build around post-Big Ben. All-Pro outside linebacker T.J. Watt is in his prime, and rookie running back Najee Harris and rookie tight end Pat Freiermuth look like long-term fixtures.
They have over $40 million money to spend in free agency, but it's highly unlikely they would splurge on the open market on a quarterback.
The moe likely scenario is letting Mason Rudolph and Dwayne Haskins spend the next seven months competing for the right to replace Roethlisberger. A draft pick, maybe someone like Liberty quarterback Malik Willis, could wait in the wings for an opportunity.