“Not with a bang, but with a whimper”The Hollow Men – T.S.Eliot
The quarterback class of 2004 may well go down as the very best ever seen in the NFL. If we ignore J.P.Losman and give Matt Schaub some longevity points; the stats and accolades speak for themselves. Yes, the 2012 (Luck, RG3, Tannehill, Wilson, Foles, Cousins), the 2017 (Mahomes, Watson, Taysom Hill) and in particular the 2018 (Mayfield, Darnold, Allen, Jackson) may eventually surpass them, but for now,’04 is the gold standard. Look, STATS!
|Name||Superbowls (win/loss)||Games||Record||Cmp %||Yards||TD’s||INT’s||Pro Bowls|
Unfortunately, the end of this golden age of golden armed golden oldies is coming to an end. As we watch the younger generation begin to flourish, we also get to see the slightly painful and avoidably weird conclusion of two of the 2004 draft class’s headliners careers.
The world watched while Eli Manning was slowly transformed from a two-time Superbowl winner into an unreliable back-up that had everyone holding their breath whenever he didn’t hand it off and prematurely began debating his Hall of Fame resume before he had even retired proper. When every throw you make in training camp is analysed and your name isn’t Tim Tebow, then you might well be in hot water. Manning was done in New York before his heir apparent walked in and gave Big Blue another talking point to focus on.
For the first time in 16 seasons Philip Rivers is not a Charger and his muted exit from the team he never missed a start for is typical of the odd and generally uncaring nature of the Chargers and their apparent lack of reverence for their legends. He moved his entire family across the country before LA would admit they didn’t want him anymore and despite a stellar statistical stint in the powder blue and yellow, Rivers didn’t ever experience any true success with the Bolts. Yes, his career is not over – but at age 38 and showing obvious signs of decline (allowances have been made for the holey sponges that LA plugged into their O-line in place of real humans) in his pocket awareness and ability to lead his talented receiving corps into space, his options would appear limited. He has a certain amount of appeal to a Tampa Bay team that would be able to give him an even more talented cast of skill players (but no run game), a Colts team that pass protects better than most and who are looking to plug the Luck sized hole our beloved Andy left in the Lucas Oil front door and even to a Titans team that may be quarterback-less come May (see my previous article). My honest opinion? We’ve seen the best of Philip Rivers throwing the ball, but the best of Phillip Rivers “mic’d up” is still to come as Corey Davies repeatedly drops curl routes whilst looking terrified of being whipped with a bolo tie and when he screams politely worded abuse at Josh Allen as he sacks him for the 10th time that half (“gosh darn nuggety slobberknocker y’all need to back off” etc).
So, the last great hope for another Championship lies in Pittsburgh and the slowly healing elbow of Ben Roethlisberger. But are the Steelers ready to support the last push for Big Ben? The supporting cast is a development project with big play potential. I dove into the Conner/Snell conundrum and the WR depth in past articles, and it seems like a late round tight end will be on his way to the Steel city in 2020, so the answer would appear to be yes. Is Smith-Schuster an elite receiver that can win games for you? Possibly. Can James Conner stay healthy for a whole season? Probably not. But the bigger question that rears its ugly head is:
Can Ben still go?
Important point number one; he’s injured. As far as we know, he’s still deep in recovery mode. He didn’t require Tommy John surgery on his injured elbow; which would or could have ruled him out for a full year. But it’s noteworthy that he was reporting elbow pain a full game before he was pulled against Seattle and that unlike previous injuries, he was reacting differently (according to a conversation between Ben and the team doctor on the sideline).
Ben had surgery on his elbow to reattach tendons on September 23 and the team seemed confident that he would be ready to roll in 2020.
“Once Ben returns to Pittsburgh, he immediately will begin working with the Steelers’ medical staff on his rehabilitation, and he is expected to make a full recovery and return to the field for the 2020 NFL season.” (Burt Lauten – Steelers spokesperson)
Important point number two; Ben has been fairly injury prone over his 16-year career but has never missed more than four consecutive games due to injury. As you can see below, the legend of Big Ben is centred around getting hit – a lot – and getting back up again.
|Sept 9, 2019||Right elbow injury|
|Dec 9, 2018||Chest Rib Fracture|
|Oct 16, 2016||Knee Meniscus Tear|
|Jan 9, 2016||Shoulder A/C Joint Sprain|
|Nov 29, 2015||Head Cranial Concussion Grade 1|
|Nov 8, 2015||Pedal Foot Sprain|
|Sep 27, 2015||Knee MCL Sprain Grade 2|
|Sep 29, 2013||Hand Finger Dislocation|
|Nov 12, 2012||Chest Rib Separation|
|Nov 12, 2012||Shoulder S/C Joint Separation|
|Aug 4, 2012||Pedal Ankle Sprain/Pull Unspecified Grade 1|
|Dec 8, 2011||Pedal Ankle Sprain/Pull Unspecified Grade 1|
|Nov 13, 2011||Hand Thumb Fracture|
|Oct 2, 2011||Pedal Foot Sprain|
|Dec 5, 2010||Head Nose Fracture|
|Nov 28, 2010||Pedal Foot Fracture|
|Nov 22, 2009||Head Cranial Concussion Grade 1|
|Aug 20, 2009||Pedal Achilles Pull Grade 1|
|Oct 22, 2006||Head Cranial Concussion Grade 1|
During this long career of being beaten up and sacked, Big Ben has managed to accumulate a large number of accolades and wins, whilst playing as a top-ten quarterback through nearly every year. Here’s a quick glimpse of just how good the Steelers have had it:
- Two-time Super Bowl champion
- Six-time Pro Bowler
- Passing yards leader in 2014 and 2018
- Offensive Rookie of the Year 2004
- 56,545 yards, 363 touchdowns and 191 interceptions.
- Over 5000 yards and 30 TD’s in the playoffs
But, after the most significant layoff of his career, can a quarterback entering his 38th year on this planet step back up to the elite level he showed in 2018 – where he led the league in passing yards, completions and threw 34 touchdowns.
His surrounding cast is bursting with potential, but is somewhat lacking in experience. Juju Smith-Schuster and James Conner provide the relative experience in the skill positions (see my previous articles), with Diontae Johnson, James Washington and Benny Snell ready to contribute with splash plays. The offensive line are also returning the majority of their starters, who suffered from bad quarterbacking in 2019, but were one of the top offensive lines in the NFL one season before and who should resume their high ranking play in 2020.
So, the players around number seven could provide the spark needed for a great run in 2020, and toss in a veteran wide receiver (Anderson, Thomas, Pascal et al), possibly a tight end that can be a more consistent presence in the passing game (draft) and even a dynamic running back that could be a change of pace to Benny Snell when James Conner gets injured (draft or Matt Breida, Jordan Howard, Lamar Miller anyone?)
It seems a fairly straightforward conclusion that Ben will be able to push the Steelers further than in 2019, but if you’ve been reading along with me up to this point and you’ve read my articles before (if not, then go check them out), you know the good stuff is coming. So, let me gather my watercolours and paint a couple of scenarios for you…
Ben saves the Steelers and rides into a glorious Tampa sunset
We’re in week 17 of the 20/21 season and Big Ben is sat on the sideline with Juju and Lamar Miller watching Mason Rudolph, James Conner and James Washington take charge of a 12-3 Pittsburgh team against a resurgent Cleveland Browns after Ben hit 5000 yards and 30 TD’s through 15 games, Juju racked up a league leading 1300 yards and Lamar Miller secured the Comeback Player of the Year by scoring 16 TD’s to lead the Steelers to another divisional title. The 2020 Steelers dominated throughout, winning against a Ravens team that lost Jackson in Week 6 to a ACL tear and were forced to play RGIII and Trace McSorely, a Bengals team that didn’t draft Joe Burrow and started an overwhelmed Justin Herbert and a Browns squad that started out poorly and slowly gelled as the season continued, earning a Wildcard spot by squishing Baltimore.
Fast forward a few weeks and it’s Steelers vs Patriots in an inevitable rematch of the ages. This time Big Ben takes down a struggling Jarret Stidham, as he attempts to fill in for an injured Tom Brady and the Steelers power through an overmatched Patriots defence.
One more week in the future and it’s Black and Gold vs Red and Yellow in Heinz Field. The Steelers and Chiefs provide the game of the season so far, going punch for punch until Vance McDonald catches a screen from Ben and powers through a trash talking Frank Clark to score the overtime winner to take them to the promised land.
This particular narrative has led us here. Superbowl LV. Tampa Bay. The Pittsburgh Steelers vs the hometown Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In a beautiful piece of fate, the Steelers return to the scene of their epic Superbowl win against the Cardinals.
Jameis’ LASIK surgery took his INT total from 30 to 20 and Tampa win five more games as a consequence, becoming the most lethal big strike offence in NFL history. The two top offences in the league square off in a battle for the ages, with both Winston and Ben throwing for 500+ yards, but history repeats itself for Winston in the final minute of the game, as he tosses an ill advised post route over the middle, which is jumped by Devin Bush who proceeds to run 45 yards for the game sealing pick six. Ben wins the game MVP and immediately retires during his post-game speech, leading Mason Rudolph to vomit into the empty Gatorade bucket and run screaming into the night.
The Pittsburgh Steelers – your 2021 Superbowl Champions!
The last great hope of 2004 is dashed
It all starts out so well.
With wins over Cleveland and Baltimore early, and a tasty matchup in Week 6 against a struggling Jacksonville team, the Steelers look like the black and gold of old. Ben is throwing dimes and Juju is racking up yards after the catch faster than Antonio Brown backtracks on social media.
But in a terrible five minutes in Duval, the comeback story is derailed. Juju catches a slant over the middle and takes a big shot from Miles Jack, breaking his forearm and ending his season. The very next play, James Connor slips on a cutback and is rolled up from behind, tearing his Achilles and putting him on the shelf. On the same play, David DeCastro pulls his quad, putting him out for most of the year and Maurkice Pouncey sustains a concussion.
Big Ben stages a valiant comeback, tossing passes to Washington and Johnson as best he can. But as Johnson secures a punt and tries to weave his way through defenders, he takes a blindside hit from special teams ace Dakota Allen and sustains a concussion and torn PCL.
Not securing a back up to Conner and co seems like a big mistake at this point, as Benny Snell struggles to make a significant impact with the two best run blockers on the team sidelined, and a collection of practice squad call ups and rookies on the outside. James Washington does his best to lead the way, but fails to crack 800 yards and gets a severe case of butterfingers in the redzone; leading the league in dropped TD’s. Colbert tries to give Ben the weapons he needs by signing Dez Bryant and Jimmy Graham in the second half of the season, but oddly enough, this does nothing to help the hapless and luckless Steelers. At one point, a pinpoint strike from Ben goes through Graham’s hands and then straight through Dez’s in the same play. This quite justifiably ends up with Colbert leaving the Steelers at the end of the season.
The Steelers lose to the Jags that week and go on a seven-game slide, finishing up the season 5-11 and bottom of the AFC North. Big Ben makes us wait, but in the end announces his retirement just after the Baltimore Ravens take home Superbowl LV in a dominant win over the Dallas Cowboys. Mason Rudolph once again runs screaming into the night.
The final member of the golden armed Class of 2004 retires and the news cycle for the next two years is filled with Manning/Rivers/Roethlisberger Hall of Fame debates.
(it’s Eli and Ben by the way – let’s be serious).
Is the most likely series of events somewhere in between these two? Most likely. But where’s the fun in that?
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Jack is an NFL nerd with a passion for player stories and watching too much draft coverage. He's a DB coach with the Exeter Demons University team in the UK and a Steelers fan.