By now, it's clear Ben Roethlisberger wasn't writing himself off when he suggested, "Maybe I don't have it anymore," after throwing five interceptions in the Steelers' surprising, 30-9 home loss to the Jaguars last Sunday.
No doubt, Roethlisberger hasn't played well. His numbers (six touchdowns, seven interceptions, 75.8 passer rating) say plenty. But in conversations this week with trusted personnel executives from four teams the Steelers have played this season, I couldn't find anybody willing to agree with the idea Roethlisberger has declined much, if at all, at age 35, with a tough road test looming Sunday against the unbeaten Kansas City Chiefs.
One exec told me "guys are fishing" to even discuss a decline off of five games (after which, let's not forget, the Steelers are 3-2 and lead the AFC North). Another said Roethlisberger looked the same as always on tape going into their game.
"Maybe a little bit of foot speed [is gone] -- in the past, he was a really good scrambler. But not anything skill-wise," said a third exec, who pointed to the Steelers' pass-heavy approach in some games as one contributing factor. "He's still accurate. He can still throw it a f---ing mile."
A fourth exec said Roethlisberger's accuracy might have slipped a little, but pointed to what's long been regarded as his greatest skill -- extending plays until he can make something happen down the field -- as making him more prone to a string of bad breaks than, say, Tom Brady in the New England Patriots' precision short passing game.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin pointed out Roethlisberger was hit on a couple of the five interceptions against the talented Jaguars, who are a challenge for anybody, with one of the NFL's top cornerback groups and several guys up front playing at a high level, too. Another interception was tipped at the line. Another was thrown to a receiver who lost his feet. Tomlin also noted it's not unusual for Roethlisberger to lay bare his emotions after tough games, such as when the QB mused about retirement in the wake of January's AFC Championship Game loss at New England.
To the extent that uncertainty about his future influences perception about The State of Big Ben, it's worth pondering how the extraordinary late-career productivity of the 40-year-old Brady (who won his fifth Super Bowl last season), 38-year-old Drew Brees (who has a chance to win his fourth straight passing title this season) and Peyton Manning (who was an MVP at 37 and a Super Bowl winner at 39, despite clear physical decline), among others, influences how we're thinking about quarterbacks when they reach this stage.
Roethlisberger's in his 14th season. So are Eli Manning and Philip Rivers, who faced off last week in a showdown of 0-4 teams (Rivers' Chargers prevailed) and haven't set the world afire themselves. That's not ancient at a position where brain seems to increasingly matter over body, but consider the historical record of Year 14 seasons (compiled by NFL Media Research) for one peer group to Brady, Roethlisberger and the Mannings: the multiple-time Super Bowl winners.
Peyton Manning sat out his 14th season while undergoing a series of neck surgeries and was subsequently cut by Indianapolis. Joe Montana played in one game because of an elbow injury and was traded to Kansas City the following offseason. Terry Bradshaw played in one game because of an elbow injury and then retired. Bob Griese's 14th season was his last, too. Troy Aikman had already been released by Dallas after 12 years and retired. Jim Plunkett was banged up and drifting in and out of the lineup for the L.A. Raiders. Even Brady's 14th season was subpar for him in 2013.
A dozen quarterbacks have won multiple Super Bowls in NFL history. The highest passer rating ever recorded by one of them in Year 14 (minimum five starts)? Bart Starr's 89.9 -- in 1969.
The likes of Brady, Peyton Manning and John Elway (who won his Super Bowls in Years 15 and 16) all had more success ahead of them. Point is, there's a lot that goes into playing quarterback, or even wanting to, at the stage Roethlisberger's at. Odds are you've made your money. You have other priorities, including family. You also probably have wear and tear, as Roethlisberger does -- including a sprained MCL, sprained foot, concussion, AC joint sprain with torn ligaments in his throwing shoulder and torn meniscus since the start of the 2015 season. He rests his arm a lot in the offseason and has been sitting out Wednesday practices recently.
None of which is an excuse if Roethlisberger forces a ball into triple-coverage. But it's probably unfair to view his year-to-year approach late in his career and occasional postgame self-flagellation as evidence he's lost confidence or not all-in with a Steelers team that has high expectations and is as talented at the skill positions as anybody.
As Roethlisberger told reporters when pressed about reaction to his comment Wednesday: "They can question me. I don't question myself. No offense to any of you guys, but it doesn't matter to me how you guys question me."
At least within the NFL, those questions don't seem to be there.
The Five W's for Week 6
Ever wish you had the access of a highly connected NFL reporter? Well, now you do! Sort of. Submit your questions on Twitter using the hashtag #AskedAndAnswered. @TomPelissero will select the best submissions and work to find an answer.
WHO takes an in-game snap for the Vikings first, Teddy Bridgewater or Sam Bradford? (submitted by @MIVikesfan) The safer bet is probably Bradford, just because Bridgewater hasn't practiced in 13 1/2 months. Bridgewater will undergo a physical Monday with his surgeon, Dr. Daniel Cooper, and that'll determine the next steps. The expectation continues to be that Bridgewater will return to practice soon, but how long will it take him to feel ready to test his reconstructed knee at game speed? It's a big difference -- just ask Bradford, who looked a lot more comfortable in practice last week than he did in Chicago before getting yanked in the second quarter Monday night, according to people who watched him. The non-contact bone bruise Bradford suffered in Week 1 and associated issues with the knee joint aren't reason to shut him down, but he remains week-to-week and it'll be Case Keenum under center again Sunday against Green Bay. A Week 9 bye seems like a notable reassessment point for everyone.
WHAT are reasonable expectations for Adrian Peterson in Arizona? For starters, don't expect Peterson, at age 32, to be the injured All-Pro the Cardinals are trying to replace. As one NFL personnel director put it: "You're going from a guy in David Johnson that was multitalented to a guy that isn't." Peterson's one of the great runners of his era. But part of the reason he sat on the free-agent market, then spent four games in a bit role with the Saints, is he's really a two-down player. He doesn't worry opponents as a receiver, and he's long been a liability in pass protection. That could mean defenses challenge Arizona's spotty O-line with pressure on early downs, creating new problems for Carson Palmer and company. When you're dead last in basically every rushing category, of course, seeking some kind of spark is understandable. Peterson has lost some juice and can't create like he used to, but scouts say he's not finished either. Cardinals coach Bruce Arians has already said they intend to feed him Sunday against the Bucs. (Side note: I spent the first night of the 2015 draft with Peterson's agent, Ben Dogra, who called Arizona GM Steve Keim and told Peterson to work buddy Larry Fitzgerald in hopes of orchestrating a trade that'd get Peterson out of Minnesota. The Cardinals didn't bite; the next night, they drafted Johnson in the third round.)
WHEN will someone get fired in Cleveland? A bunch of NFL people brought this up to me this week, with the Browns 0-5 this season, 1-20 in the Sashi Brown/Hue Jackson era and making another QB change for Sunday's game at Houston. Here's why it's complicated: Owner Jimmy Haslam had to know the Browns would be bad -- potentially really bad -- for at least two years, despite their hope that amassing huge numbers of draft picks would accelerate the rebuilding process. (They own five picks in the first two rounds in 2018, too.) Jackson knew going in that was the danger of taking this job -- that he'd be in a no-win situation for a couple seasons and then they'd sacrifice him right before the team has a chance to get good. I have spoken to people in the NFL who believe in what the Browns are trying to do; with that many more picks than everyone else over several years, the thinking goes, how can they not end up with a superior foundation? Scrapping the whole thing after two years or less would undercut the very idea Haslam committed to. Still, the mounting losses aren't dissuading the majority that points out all those picks don't mean anything if you don't get the right players. And benching rookie DeShone Kizer for Kevin Hogan the same week you play against an impressive rookie QB, Deshaun Watson, that you passed on drafting twice at least gives the impression some people know 1-20 can't become 1-31, or else.
WHERE does Eli Manning throw the ball with all his top receivers out? Keep an eye on rookie tight end Evan Engram, whom some teams graded as a receiver coming out of Ole Miss after he blazed a 4.42-second 40-yard dash at 6-foot-3, 234 pounds. Engram's an aggressive, willing blocker, but he's not overpowering or strong at the point of attack. At this point, why not split him out and give him more chances beginning Sunday night at Denver? Then again, Engram played 57 snaps last week and, despite the injuries, Eli Manning targeted him only once, and didn't connect. Just another puzzling aspect of the Giants' 0-5 start, with mediocre play by what was supposed to be a dominant defense at the top of the list.
WHY aren't NFL scouts buying into a little drama around USC quarterback Sam Darnold? A postgame critique of the Trojans' offense and a subsequent apology to coaches didn't line up with word out of the school, where Darnold is regarded as quiet, humble, down to earth. "The whole building loves that guy," one area scout said. The bigger questions are about Darnold's play, which has been uneven, at best. He has a long release and other issues NFL teams would like to see him improve. Some feel Darnold was overhyped after lighting up Penn State in the Rose Bowl last January, but he still consistently comes up in conversations about UCLA's Josh Rosen and Wyoming's Josh Allen among the top QB prospects for the 2018 draft. Darnold's only a redshirt sophomore, and there continue to be rumblings he'll stay another year.
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