2021 is a significant year for Steelers fans for many reasons. Chief among them is their chance of success in the upcoming season, and how their veteran quarterback figures into the outcome.
The sting of a stunning playoff defeat at the hands of the rival Browns can still be felt in Pittsburgh, if only because it seems as if the gray skies have yet to part. Sure, the Steelers can point to 2021 as their chance at revenge, and they very well could achieve such satisfaction. But beyond that lies greater uncertainty that keeps the sun from poking through most days.
Ben Roethlisberger is entering what appears to potentially be his final NFL season. He and the Steelers reached an agreement that allowed Pittsburgh to keep Roethlisberger for one more year, but there's nothing guaranteed beyond that -- and the same goes for general manager Kevin Colbert.
If you're getting The Last Dance vibes, you aren't alone.
Before this paramount campaign begins, two former Steelers players and one Steelers coach will first enter the hallowed halls of Canton next month. The coach, Super Bowl XL winner Bill Cowher, was asked about his time with Roethlisberger and where he currently stands during a media session Tuesday ahead of Cowher's August induction.
What Cowher took away more than anything from Roethlisberger's career -- which came with nearly instant adversity -- was the quarterback's ever-present desire to win. Cowher believes that will carry him to significant achievement in 2021.
"He is a great competitor," Cowher said. "I'm sure he's just thriving right now with the fact everyone thinks that he's done, the Steelers are done. I used to always say to people, I'd say the greatest thing in sports is to do something nobody thinks you can do. It's one of the greatest accomplishments. And I think right now Ben is just thriving on that. He can't wait to get out there, probably (champing) at the bit to prove (it).
"I would be very surprised if he didn't have a great year this year. It's a tough division. He's a Hall of Fame player, first ballot, no question about it. He's won two Super Bowls and been to three, yet he continues to play the game with a great passion, a great competitor, and I think you'll see that this year."
Pittsburgh drafted Roethlisberger in the first round in 2004 and initially planned to let the Miami (Ohio) product learn from the sidelines behind veteran Tommy Maddox. A pair of injuries to Maddox and third-string quarterback Charlie Batch changed that plan, though, and the Steelers were forced to insert Roethlisberger into the starting lineup before the first quarter of his rookie season was over.
He responded by winning his first 14 starts and nearly leading Pittsburgh to a Super Bowl.
That Roethlisberger was different than his current form. Once an athletic and surprisingly mobile passer who was very difficult to bring down, Roethlisberger has become more of a tower in the pocket as he's grown older. Last year, he led Pittsburgh to a 12-0 start before the wheels fell off the Steelers' offense, with Roethlisberger devolving before our eyes.
Pittsburgh had made enough progress to still reach the playoffs as division champions, but a nightmarish first half in which Roethlisberger threw three of his four interceptions buried the Steelers in their wild-card meeting with Cleveland. A desperate attempt to throw the Steelers back into the game nearly worked, but in the end, the football world was left with a singular image: Roethlisberger seated on the bench, helmet on, staring blankly toward the lights atop Heinz Field.
Many wondered whether that was the last the NFL would see of Roethlisberger. Nope.
Roethlisberger returns for one more season, a campaign that begins with the preseason's Hall of Fame Game against Dallas that the veteran will most likely take in from the sideline. It won't be long before he'll be expected to continue what he began back in 2004. If it is indeed the last trip around the shield for Roethlisberger, at least one of his former coaches won't be surprised if he goes out with a bang.