The release of the video on social media of Ben Roethlisberger throwing with teammates Monday sent a jolt through Steelers Nation that certainly lifted the spirits of many wondering if the star quarterback would be capable of returning for the 2020 season.
The Steelers have remained confident that will happen all along. But many outside the organization have questioned whether Roethlisberger will be capable of making a return from an elbow injury that required a season-ending surgery that limited him to just six quarters in 2019.
That seems more likely after Monday.
The next question that must be answered is exactly what kind of play the Steelers can expect from their 38-year-old quarterback?
Again, the Steelers seem confident regarding that prospect.
"He didn’t play last season so his body, the rest of his body, got the year off," GM Kevin Colbert told me at the NFL Scouting Combine in February. "I think that’s part of it. Any time you repair anything with any kind of surgery, nobody knows at what point, you know when it happened, but what were the symptoms? Was his arm as strong as it had been? Who knows? I’m just optimistic that it could be better."
What could that mean? Plenty for the Steelers. In fact, the return of Roethlisberger might be the biggest acquisition for any team in the NFL this season.
Forget Tom Brady going to the Buccaneers, Phillip Rivers to the Colts or DeAndre Hopkins to the Cardinals. This is bigger.
Yet, from the national media, we get "hot takes" like this:
Steelers used to be about Lombardi trophies in February. Now it’s haircuts and hype videos in May. This is what happens when you miss the playoffs in back to back years and Baltimore is loaded and Cleveland oozes talent and has real head coach. 🤷🏼♂️#ScheinOnSports @MadDogRadio
— Adam Schein (@AdamSchein) May 19, 2020
"Baltimore is going to win that division. The question is who is the 2nd best team, Pittsburgh or Cleveland? I believe it to be Cleveland. ... Is there a single skill position guy on the Steelers we are certain would start for the Browns?" — @getnickwright pic.twitter.com/mjy0zMmgeF
— First Things First (@FTFonFS1) May 19, 2020
This is silliness.
Per FootballOutsiders.com's offensive metrics, which measure all facets of the passing game, the Steelers had the NFL's 30th-most productive passing attack in 2019 without Roethlisberger, ranking ahead of only the Panthers and the Jets. In 2018, with Roethlisberger leading the league in passing yards, they were eighth in the NFL in that same metric.
But with a much-improved defense, the Steelers don't necessarily need Roethlisberger and the passing game to be a top-10 unit. If he can put up middle-of-the-pack numbers, the Steelers should be a much better team.
Thing is, Roethlisberger is capable of doing much more than that.
In 2019, average quarterback play would have represented a season with 3,603 yards, 22 touchdown passes, a completion percentage of 64.3 and a passer rating of 91.6. Those are the numbers posted by the quarterbacks who ranked 16th in the league in each of those statistics.
History shows us Roethlisberger is certainly capable of playing to that level. His average season from 2004 through 2018 saw him complete 64.4 percent of his passes for 4,163 yards with 27 touchdown passes and a passer rating of 94.2. Over the past 10 seasons, not including the two games he played in 2019, those numbers improve to a 65 percent completion rate, 4,099 yards with 26.2 touchdown passes for a passer rating of 95.5.
Of course, the question remains if he can still be the same quarterback at 38 that he was at 32. But recent history also shows us that is possible.
A look at his contemporaries who recently played at age 38 shows they had no dropoff in production in that season.
In 2015, Brady completed 64.4 percent of his passes for 4,770 yards with 36 touchdowns and a 102.2 passer rating. All are well above his career averages.
Drew Brees played at 38 in in 2017. He completed 72 percent of his passes for 4,334 yards, 23 touchdown passes and a 103.9 passer rating. His touchdown passes and yardage were down, but the Saints also added running back Alvin Kamara that season and Brees attempted 536 passes that season, his fewest since 2009.
Peyton Manning played his age 38 season in 2014, completing 66.2 percent of his passes for 4,727 yards and 39 touchdowns. His passer rating was 101.5.
Finally, Brett Favre, a player with whom Roethlisberger was compared to early in his career because of their gunslinger mentality, played in 2007 at age 38. He completed 66.5 percent of his passes for 4,155 yards with 28 touchdown passes and a 95.7 passer rating.
Now, none of those players was coming back immediately from a season-ending injury, but Manning had sat out the entire 2011 season with a neck injury that left him with some lingering issues.
Roethlisberger is not expected to have any of the lingering issues from which Manning suffered, most notably a numbness in his fingertips that affected his ability to feel the football.
In fact, as Colbert stated, the Steelers have some expectation for Roethlisberger to be a better version of himself in 2020 given the repairs done.
"The fact that the injury and subsequent surgery happened so early in the season in 2019 is probably an asset to him and to us as we push into 2020," Mike Tomlin said last week on a Steelers Nation Unite call with fans. "I think everybody is comfortable with where things are. We're excited about him and what he is going to do for us this year."
I wasn't sure what I would find when I looked back at the seasons for those four notable quarterbacks who have played late into the 30s and early 40s. But the results are there for all to see.
Now, I also went back and looked at the careers of Joe Montana and Warren Moon, as well. But I didn't include them in this case study because both were 38 in 1994. In terms of the NFL, comparing that to something happening today would have been like comparing something that happened in 1994 to 1978.
Given the way the game has changed, it wasn't a fair comparison. They are different eras.
But people automatically expecting Roethlisberger to struggle because he's 38 and coming off an injury aren't necessarily looking at this correctly. The rules of the game mean quarterbacks -- especially older ones -- don't get hit as often. They get the ball out of their hands quickly.
And for Roethlisberger, even though he's not the athlete he was in his 20s and early 30s, his above-the-neck game has improved so much over the past few years. That, more than anything else, was what the Steelers were missing in 2019.
The Steelers getting Roethlisberger back this season is every bit the addition the Buccaneers are gaining from acquiring Brady. In fact, the Steelers getting Roethlisberger back might even be a bigger acquisition than Brady. Roethlisberger knows the offense and the personnel. There won't be a period of adjustment for him as there will be in Tampa.
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