Ben Roethlisberger's vague comments add to Steelers' disappointing finish

PITTSBURGH -- That nine-game winning streak feels galaxies away now.

QB Ben Roethlisberger's public flirtation with retirement punctuates a sour ending to a very good season for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Antonio Brown's Facebook Live snafu started a rough week, followed by the flu affecting several players, a false alarm in the team hotel 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 -- on his weekly appearance with 93.7 The Fan -- refusing to commit to playing in 2017. 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. Coach 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 retired, but they 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 Dallas rookie Dak Prescott. Pittsburgh has 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, and then scramble for a replacement.

Roethlisberger has to know he has at least three more good years left, and if he plays, he'll have $46 million to show for it. That's $12 million in per-year 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 the quarterback's plans, but the coach summarized the travails of the last week with a big-picture look at his coaching approach:

"My goal is to be world champs. We weren't that, so you can describe it whatever way you choose to," Tomlin said. "In that vein, I've only been successful one time in 10 years. I'm OK with that. I'm not looking to feel good. I'm not. I'm not looking to pat myself on the back. I don't think any of us are. I think it's our desire to be world champs. It's not us this year. There are consequences with not being that. There's an assessing that comes with not being that. No different than any other year when we haven't won it."

Turns out Roethlisberger has been assessing too.

The Steelers' impressive push into the playoffs after a 4-5 start and a stout defensive performance over two months shouldn't go overlooked. The way things ended leaves an unsavory taste, which is odd for a 13-win season (including playoffs).

The Steelers must address in-house matters now, starting with the quarterback.