Home Sports Ben Roethlisberger, Drew Brees injuries mean playoff race shakeup

Ben Roethlisberger, Drew Brees injuries mean playoff race shakeup

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SportsPulse: The Saints and Steelers received devastating news on their franchise QBs. Lorenzo Reyes looks at how each team will adjust with their signal callers on the mend.
USA TODAY

Maybe this is how it ends for Ben Roethlisberger.

That’s not piling on or drudging up pessimism. It’s the nature of the violent sport that the typically rugged Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback won’t play again this season.

Roethlisberger, 37, is slated for elbow surgery this week that naturally fuels questions about his future. The final throw on Sunday against the Seahawks looked so much like hundreds, if not thousands of passes we’ve seen from this man before. Initially. He stepped up in the pocket and let it rip. Then he grimaced in pain, serving instant notice that something was seriously wrong with an arm that threw more passes for more yards than anybody in the NFL last season.

Drew Brees can relate. The iconic New Orleans Saints quarterback, defying Father Time as he plays into his 40s, felt a weird sensation during the first quarter at the L.A. Coliseum on Sunday when his throwing hand happened to clip the gloved hand of Rams D-tackle Aaron Donald as he released a pass.

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He is apparently headed for surgery to repair ligament damage in his thumb, pending a second opinion. The NFL’s all-time leader for passing yards is projected to miss at least six weeks. It may seem that the older throwers are breaking down. Or maybe freak stuff just tends to happen in football.

 “You have situations … you’re hitting your hands on stuff all the time – helmets and things,” Brees said after the Saints couldn’t score a touchdown with or without him during a 27-9 loss. “You might get jammed thumbs, jammed fingers and things where it swells up. But this felt like it was something different, that prevented me from gripping the ball.”

The injuries to two constants in the NFL not only will likely have major ramifications on the pecking order for Super Bowl contenders but also provide their signature franchises with a glimpse of what life could be like for the long term without them.

Talk about halftime adjustments. Two of the best coaches in the NFL – Mike Tomlin and Sean Payton – will be challenged to produce some of their best work yet in keeping their teams in the thick of Super dreams. It’s early, with just two weekends of the season in the books. There is a lot of football left … and a lot of other injuries to key players across the entire league that have yet to happen, but we know they are coming because they always do in this physical sport.

But the season is hardly over. Remember, the Eagles lost Carson Wentz to a knee injury in 2017 while he was having an MVP-type of season. And they still won the Super Bowl.

Yet despite the similarity of losing star quarterbacks, these are entirely different situations.

While Roethlisberger has already been declared out for the season by the Steelers, the expectation is Brees will return this season. And Payton, the Saints coach, Monday pushed back against the reports that he will miss six weeks after surgery.

 “They’re still in the midst of evaluating it,” Payton said during a conference call. “He’s had one opinion. He’s having a second opinion and as soon as we know something that we can confirm, we’ll report it. But right now, it’s kind of the (evaluation) stage we’re in.”

Asked to ponder that Brees won’t play on Sunday at Seattle, Payton added, “I’m not going to kind of wind into the hypotheticals. We’ll have a plan either way.”

While Roethlisberger has missed several games due to injuries throughout his 16-year career (but never the bulk of an entire season), Brees has been Mr. Durability. Until now, he’s missed just one game in his 19 NFL seasons due to injury. That’s a remarkable record of consistency, but now it comes to an abrupt halt. When the Saints begin practices this week at the University of Washington in preparation for Sunday’s game at Seattle, Payton is tasked to get Teddy Bridgewater ready for his first start in a meaningful game since 2015.

 Against the Rams on Sunday, Bridgewater was solid but not spectacular – and he was hampered by a poor rushing attack (2.9 yards a carry) and too many sloppy penalties from the O-line.

It was also apparent, though, that the rhythm of the offense we’ve seen hum as the symbol of the Brees-Payton chemistry was out of sync.

 “Of course, a lot changes,” Saints tackle Terron Armstead acknowledged. “The Saints offense is Drew Brees.”

 Well now, with Brees, 40, apparently headed to rehab, Payton will have to adjust with Bridgewater – while multi-tasking Taysom Hill looms as a wild card.

Payton has been so bullish on Hill’s potential as the athletic hybrid who has had roles as a receiver and returner. On Sunday, when injuries knocked out two receivers, Hill finished the game as the third receiver. Since last season, Payton has used him as a change-up quarterback, typically in short-yardage and goal-line situations. Now could be the time to craft a larger role for Hill – although Bridgewater undoubtedly wants to seize this opportunity to cap his tremendous comeback from a 2016 knee injury seemingly threatened his career.

Given the uncertainty of how the Saints will roll without Brees, the race in the NFC has shifted. The Saints were widely projected before the season as the NFC frontrunner. Now, a case can be made for the Dallas Cowboys – while the Rams had the look on Sunday that they are deeper and better than the team that upset the Saints on the road to the last Super Bowl.

 The Steelers case has a different twist with second-year pro Mason Rudolph stepping in for Roethlisberger and seemingly positioned as heir apparent. Pittsburgh was hardly considered an AFC frontrunner – especially after the dismal season-opening loss at New England.

Roethlisberger entered this season under tremendous pressure to carry his team, challenged to transition from its Big 3 era that included Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown as his key playmakers. Bell’s run as multi-dimensional running back was over last year, when he sat out the season before bolting to the Jets as a free agent. Brown, the new Patriot, was dumped earlier this year with the trade to Oakland. That left Roethlisberger as the foundation to build a new attack, with James Conner replacing Bell and a young star in JuJu Smith-Schuster as the top receiving threat.

 During the first two games this season with Roethlisberger at the controls, the unit had none of the mojo and punch of recent years. Obviously, it was going to take time … if it ever was going to work.

 But now Roethlisberger is gone, too. When Pittsburgh drafted Rudolph from Oklahoma State in the third round last year (one round after Rudolph’s top college receiver, James Washington, was drafted by the Steelers), it seemed possible that Roethlisberger’s successor was suddenly on board.

Then again, you never know. The Steelers drafted Joshua Dobbs and Landry Jones in recent years, too, and they moved on after apprentice work as backups.

But Rudolph’s case is different because they need him now – to help salvage as a season that has started 0-2 and provide answers about whether he is indeed the quarterback of the future.

 Is this the end for Roethlisberger? It’s way too premature to draw conclusions. But it’s fair to ask, even while an increasing number of quarterbacks are bent on playing into their 40s – and in Tom Brady’s case, winning Super Bowls in their 40s.

During a training camp interview this year when I asked Roethlisberger whether he still has a year-to-year mindset when weighing retirement, his response was a bit different than it was two years ago. Obviously mindful of Rudolph’s presence, he said that he intended to finish out his contract – and pointed out that he had always honored his contracts.

 In April, Roethlisberger signed a two-year, $68 million extension that ties him to the Steelers through 2021.In a statement released Monday afternoon, Roethlisberger said he intended to see that contract through and is “completely determined to battle through this challenge and come back stronger than ever next season.”

Still, two years ago during camp, Roethlisberger told me how he was year-to-year and contemplated the long-term effects on his health – and the quality of life that he envisioned as the father able to engage with his young children.

He opted against retirement at that time because the Steelers were a legitimate Super Bowl threat that featured an offense that could score with anybody. He loved his offensive line, one of the NFL’s best. And he had monster weapons with Bell and Brown.

Now all of that is gone, including Roethlisberger … at least temporarily.

 No, this wouldn’t be the way Roethlisberger wants to go out. It’s conceivable he could make a full recovery and return with his arm as strong as ever. But not everyone rides off into the sunset like John Elway, Jerome Bettis and Michael Strahan – under ideal conditions after winning a championship. Sometimes, stuff happens and you must adjust.

Perhaps it’s not over yet. But one way or another, at the moment the Steelers and Saints are forced to adjust.

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.

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