"Life without Ben" remains a somewhat vague concept throughout Steelers Nation, because like life itself, no one actually knows when the end will come. Human beings in their mid-30s often are just hitting the start of the prime of their lives, but for a professional athlete participating in a team sport it means the end is near.
During his regularly scheduled segment today on 93.7 The Fan, Ben Roethlisberger said he didn't know how much longer he wants to continue playing professional football, and he also would not confirm that he would be back as the Steelers quarterback for the 2017 season.
On "The Cook and Poni Show," Roethlisberger said, "I'm going to take this offseason to evaluate, to consider all options, to consider health and family and things like that, and just kind of take some time away to evaluate next season, if there's going to be a next season. All those things. I think at this point in my career, at my age, that's the prudent and smart thing to do every year."
It's wasn't 90 minutes later that Coach Mike Tomlin said in front of the media at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex for his final news conference of the 2016 season. As always, Tomlin began with an assessment, and while those assessments in-season most often dealt with the team's most recent game, this one attempted in part to provide some insight into what is going on right now with the team in the immediate aftermath of losing the AFC Championship Game.
"In the midst of that disappointment, there's some great opportunity to gather information and to start the process that is the beginning of 2017," said Tomlin. "That's what a lot of the end-of-the-year business is about for us. It wraps a bow around what is 2016, but largely it sets a trajectory and provides black-and-white information for us as we lay the foundation for 2017."
Having a franchise quarterback is the cornerstone of the foundation for any NFL team every year, and so it wasn't long into the question-and-answer portion of the presser before the topic of Roethlisberger's hedging on his future was presented to Tomlin.
"He said it, so you do take it seriously," said Tomlin. "That's a fair assessment of where he is in his career. I'm not alarmed by it. I just think that's football. Obviously, I'm hopeful that he returns, and the potential of his returning or not returning will weigh heavily in our planning. But I'm not alarmed or surprised by that thought process. That's life. He's a significant component, the significant component, of what it is that we do. We'll plan and react accordingly."
Roethlisberger will be 35 in March, and during his 13-season career, he has played in 202 NFL games, attempted 6,550 passes, and been sacked 505 times, and since all of his career has been spent with the Pittsburgh Steelers, those numbers include playoff games. He has won two Super Bowls and played in a third, and he owns every significant franchise passing record.
The topic of Roethlisberger's plans for the immediate future certainly will come up during his exit interview with Tomlin. It's Tomlin's procedure to meet individually with every coach and every player following the end of every season, and he said he has not had that session with Roethlisberger yet.
"We haven't met yet," said Tomlin. "Our plan is that generally he's one of the last, if not the last, player I meet with."
And so this Steelers offseason begins with some uncertainty concerning the status of their franchise quarterback, and Tomlin acknowledged it would be a significant undertaking to replace that type of player – a starting quarterback – on an NFL roster. But specifically regarding Roethlisberger, Tomlin's succinct answers to two subsequent questions lent credence to what he had said earlier in the session: "I think it's just football."
Question: Is it the first time you've ever heard Ben say he might not come back for the next season?
Question: Did he tell you (personally) that in the past, that he might not come back for the following season?