2013 marks the 10th season that Ben Roethlisberger has been the Pittsburgh Steelers' starting quarterback. In his Steelers career, Roethlisberger went from Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2004 to the youngest passer to ever win a Super Bowl. He's been to the Pro Bowl twice and is the Steelers franchise passing yardage leader.
Despite a changing cast of wide receivers, running backs, coaches, coordinators and, of course, offensive linemen, Roethlisberger has managed to string together successful seasons that more often than not end with the Steelers in the playoffs. His ability to extend plays while taking punishment other quarterbacks couldn't withstand has been his hallmark and his biggest strength.
That repeated punishment takes a toll, though. Throughout the course of his career, Roethlisberger has suffered a number of injuries, including ones that have caused him to miss games. He hasn't played a full, 16-game season since 2008 and the three games he missed in 2012 was a major reason for the Steelers ending the year with an 8-8 record, resulting in just the third time in his career that the Steelers didn't reach the postseason.
Though Roethlisberger is just 31 years old, he's taken enough hits and suffered enough injuries to have a playing age of 35 or older. The Steelers also just chose to draft a quarterback, Landry Jones, for the first time since 2008. While Roethlisberger is still under contract through the 2015 season, it's curious that the Steelers chose not to extend him—something they do when they're two seasons away from expiring—despite yet again restructuring it.
Is it possible the Steelers are starting to think of a future without Roethlisberger?
Things aren't yet so melodramatic in Pittsburgh, but it's clear that the Steelers are considering a time when Roethlisberger is not their starting quarterback. Not in 2014 and maybe not in 2015—but the drafting of a developmental project passer like Jones may not simply be to finally have a younger quarterback backing up Big Ben, but to offer them his potential successor.
The fact that Roethlisberger hasn't yet received a contract extension is curious, as noted above. While that's not to say that he doesn't eventually get one, it does look like a lot is being asked of him in 2013 before the value and duration of that extension is hammered out. In terms of his long-term job security, 2013 is very important for Roethlisberger.
On Roethlisberger's side is how well he handled the transition in offensive coordinators, from Bruce Arians to Todd Haley, last year. Despite it being less Roethlisberger-friendly—he's made it clear he likes throwing the deep ball, while Haley is more about meticulously moving the ball in shorter-yardage chunks—he had an excellent season.
In 13 games, Roethlisberger completed 63.3 percent of his passes for 3,265 yards, 26 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Haley's influence is immediately evident, with the yardage total on the lower end of his typical production but the touchdowns-to-interception ratio the best it's ever been, owing to Roethlisberger throwing fewer risky, deeper passes and instead going for the surefire first downs that keep drives alive.
Roethlisberger's patience with Haley will likely be tested as the Steelers head into the full swing of their offseason program and then, later, into minicamps and training camp itself. More changes befell the offense in the past few months, with Roethlisberger's primary deep-passing target, Mike Wallace, heading to the Miami Dolphins in free agency, Heath Miller still recovering from a massive, Week 16 knee injury and the drafting of running back Le'Veon Bell and receiver Markus Wheaton in April.
More than ever, Roethlisberger will be required to step up and take a legitimate leadership role on the offense, rather than allowing the defensive veterans to take up that mantle. At the same time, he must fully buy into Haley's system and continue to excel in it, even if in some ways it's like forcing a square peg into a round hole.
Because there are so many new and young players primed to have major roles in the Steelers offense this year, the pressure is actually a bit lower on Roethlisberger than it would have been without all these changes. That buys him a bit of time and gives him somewhat of a pass in 2013, making it less of a "do-or-die" season for him; however, that doesn't change the fact that he still must "do" this year if he's going to remain a Steeler for the rest of his career, whether that comes in 2016 when he's a free agent, earlier, or later.
The fact also remains that the Steelers aren't comfortable with having a poor season—and considering their win-loss records in the Roethlisberger era, 2012's 8-8 finish can be called "poor."
While Roethlisberger isn't directly to blame for that—the rib and shoulder injury that forced him out for three weeks was in certain ways preventable (don't take that hit) and not (it was a freakish injury on what appeared to be a standard hit)—clearly the Steelers are a far better team when their starting quarterback is on the field.
If he cannot stay healthy, and if those missed games cost them wins, then more attention may be paid to the starting position and Roethlisberger's future when it comes to playing it. After all, what good to a team is even the NFL's best player if he's not on the field?
Roethlisberger's time in Pittsburgh isn't up, but to assure him long-term job security by way of a contract extension, certain things are likely being expected of him this year, such as a greater confidence in Haley's offense, an ability to lead the young offensive players around him and an ability to value his health over his willingness to take hit after hit.
While Roethlisberger's 2013 performance will weigh heavily on his ability to get another lucrative deal out of the Steelers, he's not heading into "do-or-die" territory just yet. That will come in 2014, if for some reason he falls to injury yet again this year, takes a step back or if the Steelers again come away with a .500 record or worse.