Ben Roethlisberger had never thrown more than three interceptions in a game before Sunday, when he threw five during a 30-9 home loss to Jacksonville. Before this defeat, the Roethlisberger-era Pittsburgh Steelers had lost at home by more than 20 points just once, an NFL low, during his 13-plus seasons with the team.
How worried should the Steelers be about their 35-year-old, retirement-talking, mortality-musing quarterback?
Roethlisberger, having publicly mulled walking away from the game before the season, suggested to reporters Sunday that he might be finished. Is he? And what should the Steelers be thinking? Posing those questions to five seasoned coaches and evaluators drew out fascinating insights.
Not worried about this season
All five league insiders thought it was way too early for the Steelers or their fans to worry about Roethlisberger and the team in 2017.
"I'm not that worried at all," one former general manager said. "He has been doing it long enough. I don't think his skill set has evaporated. I just think he is on a bad little roll right now. Maybe I'm dead wrong, but that is kind of what I feel."
Even before Roethlisberger's self-doubting comments came to light, a coach with AFC North experience said he thought Roethlisberger, despite his legendary toughness, was right there with all the other quarterbacks who sometimes seem to revel in playing the role of drama queen. Publicly mulling retirement and publicly questioning his own play creates its own drama.
"Until I get more evidence, I'm going to say Ben is going to end up being better than he is right now and back to his normal self," this coach said. "I just don't think the team is in sync at all. It doesn't feel right from the outside, but they are 3-2 and they are on top of the AFC North anyway. So, here we go."
This coach noted that Chicago's ability to run the ball put a level of pressure on the Steelers' offense that they were not accustomed to facing. And then he called Jacksonville a "physical, tough-ass" team on defense that was primed to take advantage of a quarterback and offense that have not hit stride.
"It is way too early to panic," an evaluator who has seen the Steelers in person this season said. "This is what happens when your guys hold out. What they really need is to stop the run and stop turning the ball over, and things will calm down."
Running back Le'Veon Bell's holdout through training camp has not been the only distraction. The Steelers drew more attention than most for their handling of the national anthem controversy. Receiver Antonio Brown has already lost his cool on the sideline and apologized. Meanwhile, Roethlisberger has been inconsistent.
"I have thought in the past they would kind of take a step back, and they really have not, but I think they still go through little slumps like everyone else," the former GM said. "I think their core is still real."
Facing a Favre-like dilemma
One veteran personnel evaluator said he saw parallels to what the Steelers are going through and what the Packers went through when Brett Favre was winding down in Green Bay a decade ago. One big difference: There is no Aaron Rodgers waiting to take over in Pittsburgh. The consensus among coaches and evaluators was that backups Josh Dobbs and Landry Jones do not project as future starters.
"If I am Pittsburgh, I am thinking, 'Man, I wish this guy [Roethlisberger] would quit talking about retirement,'" an evaluator said. "They need to have a plan moving forward because they don't know what this guy is going to do. It is hard having a plan when the guy can just decide he wants to play five more years. They are in the Favre-Green Bay mode right now, where you could draft a guy, but then Ben could play another three years and you have to force his hand."
This evaluator thought the Steelers would probably draft their Roethlisberger replacement once Roethlisberger retires. That could be easier said than done, however, because Roethlisberger could annually draw out his decision deep into the offseason.
"It is a tough situation to be in because he is yanking your chain," this evaluator said. "They usually make the right decision. I know it is wearing them out, all the talk. To be honest with you, are you guaranteed you'll get anybody ever better than him? No. So, you go with him as long as you can. Replacing Favre worked out for Green Bay, but I'm sure there was a point in time where they were like, 'We are not playing this guy [Rodgers] over Brett Favre."
These situations usually come down to whether the team thinks it has a better alternative. There clearly is not one on the Steelers' roster now.
Preparing for the end
For all their inconsistencies, the Steelers emerged from Week 5 sitting atop the AFC North. Their record is 3-2 for the sixth time in Roethlsiberger's 14 seasons. They were 1-4 through five games back in 2013 and still managed to finish 8-8. Their moments of instability are more stable than the Browns' moments of stability.
"I see why people are concerned, but who is good in that division?" the former GM said. "They have been fortunate enough throughout the years even when they have a down year, they go 9-7 or 8-8 and still be in the mix. That is a bad year for them, but it is a good bad year. Most teams are not capable of those. They could be a 9-7 team that is playing at home in the first round of the playoffs and all of a sudden they have it going again, and Ben has the hot hand again."
Steelers fans who suffered through the Jacksonville debacle might find that tough to believe, and there certainly is a chance that Roethlisberger has begun the type of sharp decline that other older quarterbacks have fought off through intense conditioning, nutrition and overall wellness regiments.
"There is a part of me that thinks if Ben has knocked around this retirement thing, what if his brain this past offseason was wrapped around that retirement word just a little bit more than normal where it crept in just enough to affect a level of commitment, where he started to do a few shortcuts?" one of the insiders asked. "Maybe this is what he is, then. But we don't know unless we are in his head."
There's a line of thinking that says if Roethlisberger were to suffer an injury that sidelined him at an advanced age, he might be prone to put on weight quickly and that he would never be the same. That time is not here, but the Steelers surely need to brace for the end, however it comes. They need to prepare accordingly, even if Roethlisberger pulls out of this current dive and plays a few more seasons.