The seven-time Pro Bowler and two-time Super Bowl champion is 39 years old. His name is not Tom Brady. He is not immune to the afflictions of Father Time. The Steelers — who haven't adequately prepared for Roethlisberger's inevitable decline — are facing a harsh reality.
On the heels of an AFC North title in 2020, Pittsburgh is off to a 1-3 start with few signs of hope and an aging quarterback who can't make the plays that once made him special.
In four games, Roethlisberger's averaging 6.1 yards per attempt, a 20% drop from his career average of 7.7. He's failing to make downfield plays despite having playmaking targets in Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson and JuJu Smith-Schuster at his disposal.
He's making mistakes uncharacteristic of his Hall of Fame résumé that have added up to as many interceptions (four) as touchdowns through four games. After throwing for a loss on fourth down in Sunday's 27-17 defeat to the Green Bay Packers, he is now the proud owner of at least one ignominious stat.
It all adds up to a 78.9 passer rating that's nearly 15 points shy of his career number of 93.7. And the Steelers have lost three straight in what's already looking like a lost season. The struggles have led to calls for the Steelers to outright bench the face of the franchise. But where would they look if they did?
What was Pittsburgh's plan?
Despite the signs of 2020's late-season collapse and the inevitable aging process, the Steelers have done little to address the quarterback position in anticipation of Roethlisberger's decline. They traded up for Mason Rudolph in the third round of the 2018 draft. The move irked Roethlisberger as the Steelers looked to his successor. But Rudolph got his shot when Roethlisberger was injured in 2019 and established himself as an NFL backup.
Since then, they haven't selected a quarterback in three straight drafts loaded with prospects. In January, they signed 2019 draft bust Dwayne Haskins, whom the Washington Football Team released midseason when their other quarterback options were Taylor Heinicke and an injured Alex Smith.
Should the Steelers be better prepared? Do they owe it to Roethlisberger to ride this season out? Different teams have taken varying approaches to the inevitable decline of their franchise quarterbacks — with myriad results.
Joe Montana, San Francisco 49ers
Before the term was ever uttered, Montana was the unquestioned GOAT. The 49ers quarterback won four Super Bowls and two MVP trophies as the face of an upper-echelon NFL dynasty.
None of this prevented the 49ers from looking to the future.
San Francisco traded for Steve Young from the Tampa Buccaneers in 1987 in exchange for second- and fourth-round draft picks. Niners head coach Bill Walsh was drawn to Young in 1986 when Montana suffered a back injury, and he got his guy a season later.
The move didn't spell the end of Montana's 49ers reign by any means. He started four more seasons and won two more Super Bowls in San Francisco. But Young seized the starting job in 1991 when Montana suffered an elbow injury and never gave it back. The 49ers traded Montana to the Kansas City Chiefs in 1993. Young made seven Pro Bowls and led another 49ers Super Bowl victory during his own Hall of Fame career.
This is the ultimate succession plan. It also requires the cooperation of another franchise to send you a Hall of Fame quarterback for a pair of draft picks.
Dan Marino, Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins weren't so lucky — or prepared — for the end of Dan Marino's career. As he approached his 16th season at 37 years old, the Dolphins signed undrafted free-agent quarterback Damon Huard.
Huard eventually took over for an injured Marino in the Hall of Famer's final season in 1999. With Marino's retirement pending in 2000, the Dolphins signed three-year NFL backup Jay Fiedler, who eventually beat out Huard for the starting job. The Dolphins made the playoffs in Fiedler's first two seasons. But he and the team regressed by Year 3, and the Dolphins have fielded a rotating cast of quarterbacks since.
John Elway, Denver Broncos
Fresh off of John Elway's first Super Bowl win, the Broncos knew it was time to look to the future. Elway was 37 years old. They spent a third-round draft pick in 1998 on Brian Griese to join veteran journeyman Bubby Brister behind Elway.
Elway was clearly the unquestioned starter and led the Broncos to another Super Bowl win before retiring on his own terms. Griese beat out Brister for the starting job in 1999. He made the Pro Bowl and led Denver to a playoff appearance in his second of four seasons as the Broncos' starting quarterback in 2000. It was his only playoff berth Denver. The Griese era was far from a resounding success, but the Broncos approached Elway's retirement with a plan that didn't leave them scrambling.
Troy Aikman, Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys were on the decline along with Troy Aikman when the three-time Super Bowl champion called it quits after the 2000 season. He was 34 years old, dealing with a rash of concussions and had a broadcast career in the waiting. Much like Pittsburgh today, Dallas didn't have a plan.
The Cowboys didn't draft a quarterback leading up to Aikman's retirement. Fellow aging veteran Randall Cunningham was his backup in 2000. The Cowboys instead waited until after Aikman's exit to address the position, selecting Georgia quarterback Quincy Carter in the second round of the 2001 draft. Carter never lived up to expectations in a four-year career, and the Cowboys dealt with instability at the position until Tony Romo secured the starting job in 2006.
Brett Favre, Green Bay Packers
Brett Favre was still a Pro-Bowl caliber quarterback fresh off a division championship when the Packers picked Aaron Rodgers in the first round of the 2005 draft. The selection got mixed reviews despite the tremendous value of finding Rodgers — who was touted as a potential No. 1 overall pick — at No. 24.
The Packers were in win-now mode and didn't draft to make the team better in 2005 — a refrain that would play out again in 2020. We all know the story from there. Favre played three more seasons in Green Bay that ended with an NFC championship loss at Lambeau Field to the New York Giants. He retired — only to change his mind — and the Packers dealt him to the New York Jets, paving the way for the Rodgers era.
It was a tumultuous path for the Packers. But it's hard to argue with the results.
Peyton Manning, Indianapolis Colts
The Colts were forced to find Peyton Manning's successor long before they hoped. When Andrew Luck landed in their laps, they couldn't resist. Manning was coming off a ninth straight Pro Bowl appearance when a neck injury sidelined him for the 2011 season. The result for the Colts was a 2-14 campaign and the opportunity to take one of the most heralded quarterback prospects in NFL history in the 2012 draft.
With Manning's future uncertain, the Colts made the prudent call to draft Luck alongside the considerably more difficult — and rocky — decision to part ways with Manning. The high-profile succession wasn't so much a product of planning as one of circumstance.
Eli Manning, New York Giants
A contemporary of Roethlisberger's, Manning likewise won two Super Bowls as arguably the Giants' most beloved quarterback. While there are qualms to be had with how the Giants planned his succession, they did come up with a plan. His name is Daniel Jones.
So far, that's not exactly working out. Coming up with a plan isn't enough. It has to be a good plan.
Meanwhile, the New England Patriots had a plan for Tom Brady's retirement named Jimmy Garoppolo. But Brady decided to stick around and win two more Super Bowls in New England. Succession Plan No. 2 saw the Patriots let Brady walk before signing Cam Newton and drafting Mac Jones. The jury is very much still out. As it is on Green Bay's decision to draft Jordan Love with Aaron Rodgers on the back-end of his prime.
History shows that having a succession plan doesn't always pan out. But the teams that succeeded took risks that didn't always look smart at the time and reaped the rewards when fortune landed on their side.
Making a move before the end is nigh is better than making no move at all. It's a lesson the Steelers are learning the hard way.