How much can a 38-year-old quarterback mean to a team’s success after a season in which elbow injury sidelined him for all but two games?
The Pittsburgh Steelers, and those willing to bet on the recovery of both the team and Ben Roethlisberger in 2020, are about to find out.
Roethlisberger, a two-time Super Bowl-winning QB who has won more than twice as many games as he’s lost over 16 seasons, suffered the injury in the first half of the Steelers’ second game last September.
Using two young, inexperienced quarterbacks who struggled in his place, Pittsburgh flirted with the playoffs before losing its final three games to finish 8-8 and out of the postseason for the second straight year.
Now the big question for the Steelers, the sportsbooks, and bettors is just how healthy Roethlisberger’s right arm will be this September and what the impact of the injury and time off will be.
Steelers’ odds grow a bit worse from last year
FOX Bet lists the Steelers’ odds of winning Super Bowl LV in Tampa at 20/1, while FanDuel and Kambi-supported sites like DraftKings and BetRivers have them at 22/1. That places them as the ninth or 10th most likely team to hoist the Lombardi Trophy, according to the online sportsbooks.
That’s only a bit worse than before the 2019 season started, when Roethlisberger was coming off a year in which he led the NFL in passing yards. The Steelers were pegged at 18/1 by FanDuel before their opener last year.
The sites list the Steelers at 10/1 or close to it to win the AFC in 2020, behind only the Chiefs, Ravens, and Patriots.
They are considerable underdogs vs. the Ravens, however, for the AFC North division title. FOX Bet has the Steelers at +225 compared to the Raven’s -167, and the five sites using Kambi’s odds have Pittsburgh +275, with Baltimore -177.
You can also use the Kambi sites (which also include Unibet, Parx, and Play SugarHouse) to bet already on the season wins total. They list the o/u at 9 for the Steelers, with a price of -104 to take the over and -188 to bet under.
GM thinks Roethlisberger might be better than before
Complicating things for everyone from coach Mike Tomlin to the $20 recreational gambler is that so little is known about Big Ben’s recovery. The Steelers have not even disclosed the exact nature of the future Hall of Famer’s injury, other than pointing to his elbow.
The most notable thing Roethlisberger did for months following Sept. 23 surgery was to stand on the sidelines as a large man with a heavy coat and massive beard, bringing to mind an 1840s fur trapper when the TV cameras caught a glimpse of him.
Then the Steelers released a video Feb. 22 of him flinging a football in a gym. Even though he said in an interview that it could be three months yet before he received full medical clearance, things began looking up.
Although it is expected No. 7 will be eased in during training camp and heavily rested during preseason games, Tomlin has stated he has “no hesitation” about him being ready for the season opener.
General Manager Kevin Colbert has even speculated that missing nearly a full season could work to the advantage of Roethlisberger, by providing welcome time off at his mature age from the NFL’s rigors. Roethlisberger had told teammates even prior to the injury during the second game that the elbow had been feeling sore.
“Physically, he should be better. The arm, who knows? His arm might be stronger coming out of surgery,” Colbert said in February at the NFL scouting combine. “I think the possibility is real that he could be a better football player coming out of this surgery, just as much as he might be a more regressed football player.”
Big Ben hopes to build on impressive track record
The Steelers have made the playoffs 10 of 16 years during Roethlisberger’s tenure, including four of five before last season. The only time before last year that they missed the postseason twice in a row since he entered the league in 2004 was in 2012-13.
While his QB statistics have been solid — he is eighth all-time in career passing yards and ninth in TD passes — they have not been at the level of peers such as Tom Brady and Drew Brees. His Hall of Fame credentials come more from being very good and highly successful for a long time, including those Super Bowl wins that capped off the 2005 and 2008 seasons.
In 2020 he will not have All Pro-caliber offensive performers (i.e., Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell) around him as he did during some of his best years. Young players expected to be emerging stars — running back James Conner and wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster — took a step backward with injuries last year.
The Steelers, who have no first-round pick in this year’s draft, are expected to invest heavily in supplementing offensive positions with their draft selections.
Defense, as is customary, could be a big help
The one thing the Steelers will have to help Roethlisberger and anyone betting on them, however, is a defense reminiscent of the fierce and stingy Troy Polamalu-James Harrison squads they relied on in those last two Super Bowls.
While the Steelers were only 27th in scoring offense last year, they were fifth in scoring defense, and it dramatically improved after trading away their 2020 first-round draft pick for safety Minkah Fitzpatrick following Roethlisberger’s injury. They were third in passing yards allowed (compared to 31st in passing yards on offense).
It all adds up to an intriguing decision for bettors: Take a chance on the Steelers now at those Super Bowl odds of 20/1 or longer, and if Roethlisberger returns to anything approaching his peak, it could bring a handsome payoff next February.
And if he somehow ends up for the first time as league MVP — FanDuel has him at 32/1 and FOX Bet at 45/1 for that — the chances are that much more likely the investment will have been worth it.
But of course, with an aging quarterback’s recovery from elbow injury, as with much of life, there is no sure thing. That’s the only thing you can say with certainty here.
Photo by Philip G. Pavely / USA Today Sports