Part 1 of this cliffhanger demonstrated how the Pittsburgh Steelers have become a second-rate power among NFL franchises.
Ten teams have been reaching the playoffs more consistently than the Steelers in recent years. The Patriots, Ravens, Packers, Falcons, Saints, Colts and Bengals all made it to the postseason at least three of the last four years while the Steelers have only made it twice.
The 49ers, Broncos and Texans have made the playoffs in each of the last two years and all have won at least one playoff game.
There’s a common theme among these teams. Their quarterbacks usually play 16 games a season.
Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t played a 16-game season since 2008, the last time the Steelers won a Super Bowl. That’s not a coincidence. For the Steelers to regain their status as a model NFL franchise, Roethlisberger needs to play every game.
The Steelers are well aware of this. One of the reasons they brought in Todd Haley as offensive coordinator was to make their offense more efficient, which theoretically would help Roethlisberger get rid of the ball quicker and reduce the number of hits he takes.
If all that ever came to fruition, it could boost the Steelers’ championship hopes more than they know.
Believe it or not, some NFL quarterbacks can be counted on to play 16 games every season.
One of the reasons Joe Flacco has led the Ravens to the playoffs in each of the first five seasons of his career is because he hasn’t missed a game.
Drew Brees and Tom Brady haven’t sat out any games because of injuries since 2009. Brees sat out the meaningless regular-season finale in 2009.
Since the Packers earned the first of their four straight playoff berths in 2009, Aaron Rodgers missed just one game because of an injury and he sat out one meaningless game.
Matt Ryan hasn’t missed a game since the Falcons became annual playoff participants in 2010.
Andy Dalton hasn’t missed a game in his two seasons, both playoff seasons for the Bengals.
Andrew Luck played all 16 games in his rookie season. His predecessor in Indianapolis, Peyton Manning, played every game for the Broncos this season and didn’t miss a game from 2002 through 2010, taking the Colts to the playoffs every one of those years. When Manning sat out all of 2011 with his neck injury, the Colts went 2-14.
Like Manning, Brady has essentially lost one season to injury, playing just one quarter before hurting his knee in 2008. That’s the only season since 2002 in which the Patriots have missed the playoffs.
The Texans made the playoffs in 2011 despite being without Matt Schaub for six games, but Schaub played all 16 games this season, and the Texans made it back to the playoffs.
The 49ers haven’t played without their starting quarterback in making the playoffs each of the last two seasons. Alex Smith played 16 games last season and nine this season, and Colin Kaepernick hasn’t missed a start since taking over for Smith this season.
Unlike Manning and Brady, Roethlisberger never has missed an entire season, but the games he’s missed and the pain he’s played through in recent seasons has either kept the Steelers out of the playoffs or hurt their chances of making a deep playoff run.
In 2009, Roethlisberger was knocked out of an overtime loss in Kansas City with a concussion and missed the next game, another overtime loss in Baltimore. The Steelers finished 9-7 that season and needed just one more win to make the playoffs. That victory might have come in Baltimore, where the Ravens needed OT to beat a Steelers team led by Dennis Dixon.
Roethlisberger was suspended for the first four games of 2010, but he played in every game in which he was eligible, and look what happened. The Steelers went to the Super Bowl.
Roethlisberger lost one game to injury in 2011 and three games to injury in 2012. In both seasons, he really wasn’t the same after coming back.
In 2011, Roethlisberger suffered a high-ankle sprain in a win over the Browns. He tried to play through it in San Francisco, but threw three interceptions in a 20-3 loss that cost the Steelers a first-round bye and a chance to bypass Tim Tebow in the playoffs. The Steelers won the one game he didn’t play, but a promising Steelers season began to unravel because of a Roethlisberger injury.
It happened again this season.
The Chiefs again proved their knack for knocking Roethlisberger out of games when Tamba Hali and Justin Houston did the Malachi Crunch on him and hurt his shoulder and ribs. The Steelers won that game, but lost five of their last seven. Four of those losses were by six points or less. A fully functional Roethlisberger might have flipped a couple of those games the Steelers’ way, and that would have been enough to get them into the playoffs.
Injuries are a part of football, but quarterback injuries should be easier to avoid with all the rules that protect quarterbacks.
Quick, identify the teams of backup quarterbacks Tyrod Taylor, Bruce Gradkowski, Ryan Mallett, Drew Stanton, Brock Osweiler, Graham Harrell and Luke McCown.
It’s not easy, is it? That’s because Taylor (Ravens), Gradkowski (Bengals), Mallett (Patriots), Stanton (Colts), Osweiler (Broncos), Harrell (Packers) and McCown (Falcons) never had to start a game in 2012.
Meanwhile, perhaps the most enduring image of the Steelers’ 2012 season is the long embrace between Roethlisberger and Charlie Batch after Batch led the Steelers to a last-second win in Baltimore.
So how can the Steelers get Roethlisberger to play full seasons like other quarterbacks?
He could use better protection. Offensive linemen Marcus Gilbert, David DeCastro and Mike Adams must prove in 2013 that they’re worthy of being early-round draft picks and the line overall has to stay healthy. Mike Tomlin has to get it right when he hires a new offensive line coach.
This isn’t all on the offensive line, however. Haley’s offense must continue to evolve and reduce the times Roethlisberger has to put himself in harm’s way.
It’s nice to know Roethlisberger can use his legs when he has to, especially after Steelers fans got a good laugh watching Brady embarrass himself trying to run with the ball in the AFC Championship Game.
Roethlisberger’s ability to run around in the pocket and keep plays alive should always be part of his game. However, he shouldn’t have to do it on every play, and those laughs at Brady’s expense would be much heartier for Steelers fans if Roethlisberger matches Brady’s three Super Bowl rings.
That will happen only if Roethlisberger stays on the field.