5:20 PM ET
PITTSBURGH — That nine-game winning streak feels galaxies away now.
Antonio Brown’s Facebook Live snafu started it off, followed by the flu affecting several players, a false alarm in the team hotel on Sunday morning, a false alarm on the field with an uninspired performance in the AFC Championship Game, Le’Veon Bell’s groin injury and the franchise quarterback refusing to commit to playing football in 2017 on his weekly appearance with 93.7 The Fan. Minutes before that refusal, Roethlisberger said the Steelers got outcoached and outplayed by New England.
All that comprises the manual on how not to end a season.
These items — especially the decision to play zone coverage on Tom Brady — are magnified after losing by 19 points in the franchise’s biggest game in six years. Mike Tomlin says he accepts any outside assessments that come with losing. The rest of the issues will dissipate soon enough. But the Roethlisberger storyline will have a lingering impact because of the subsequent chapters to come.
His level of commitment will be an every-year discussion now, forcing the Steelers to reach into the quarterback bin for reserves regardless of Roethlisberger’s eventual decision. Two team sources say they would be surprised if Roethlisberger in fact retired but are respecting his process.
The Steelers already needed to evaluate and consider high-level quarterback prospects over the next few years in hopes of finding their version of Dak Prescott. Pittsburgh would have every reason to expedite that process now. Zach Mettenberger is the Steelers’ only other quarterback under contract for 2017.
The Steelers are doing what any reasonable franchise would do with a top-shelf quarterback approaching his mid-30s: Exhaust the starter until Father Time collapses the pocket, then scramble for a replacement.
Roethlisberger has to know he has at least three more good years left, and an extra $46 million to show for it. That’s $12 million in base salaries over three consecutive seasons, plus $5 million roster bonuses in 2018 and 2019. With Roethlisberger 22 months removed from getting a $31 million signing bonus, it’s hard to imagine the contract is a motivating factor here.
Tomlin hopes Roethlisberger returns and won’t speculate about his quarterback’s plans, but he did summarize the travails of the last week with a big-picture