PITTSBURGH (AP) — Ben Roethlisberger clasped hands with his wife Ashley, surrounded himself with the couple's three children and disappeared into the inner recesses of Heinz Field.
There's still at least one game left in the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback's career. And with a little luck, maybe a 12th visit to the playoffs.
Yet the outpouring of emotion in what became a three-plus-hour retirement party during a 26-14 victory over Cleveland on Monday night left very little doubt that this is the end for Roethlisberger.
The tears were real. The hugs and the chants and the tributes from the players he's shared a locker room with through the years — some of them still early in their NFL journey, some of them long-since retired — too.
For nearly two decades Roethlisberger helped provide the Steelers (8-7-1) the kind of stability and success the vast majority of the league's other 31 franchises have long craved but rarely — very rarely — enjoyed.
Maybe that's what made facing Cleveland such a fitting sendoff. The Browns famously passed on the Ohio native in the 2004 draft, opting to take tight end Kellen Winslow with the sixth overall pick, letting the Steelers grab Roethlisberger at 11.
Nearly 20 years later, the Browns are still searching for a long-term solution at the most important position in the sport. Baker Mayfield's prospects appear to be dimming by the week with his left shoulder in shreds and his future in Cleveland is murky at best.
It's a murkiness the Steelers will fling themselves into over the coming months for the first time in a generation. Maybe they'll splurge in free agency on a high-priced veteran. Maybe they'll swing a trade. Maybe they'll use their first-round pick on someone such as Pitt's Kenny Pickett. Maybe they'll turn to backup Mason Rudolph, currently the only quarterback on the roster under contract for 2022.
Pittsburgh is hoping to avoid the long search for a successor it endured after Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw's career ended in 1983. It took the Steelers 21 years to land Roethlisberger, though the franchise is in a different place now than it was when Bradshaw's right elbow finally gave out.
The group Bradshaw left behind lacked an identity. That won't be the case this time around. In outside linebacker T.J. Watt and rookie running back Najee Harris, the Steelers have two worthy heirs to the “face of the franchise” moniker Roethlisberger shouldered for so long.
Watt's four sacks against the Browns pushed his total to 21 1/2 on the season, one short of the NFL record set by Michael Strahan in 2001. Harris broke Franco Harris' club mark for yards rushing as a rookie after piling up a season-best 188 yards on Monday night, including the clinching touchdown in the last minute.
The present belongs to Roethlisberger to be sure, no matter how Sunday's visit to Baltimore goes. The future belongs to Watt and Harris, something that wasn't lost on Watt, who is on a path to be a Steeler for life after signing a massive contract in September that will carry him into his 30s.
There may come a time perhaps a decade from now when it's Watt who will fade into the ether with his family in tow and his legacy secure. Knowing that possibility made Roethlisberger's sendoff that much more poignant.
“You put so much into this, so much as there’s so much going on behind the scenes, the sacrifices, and it’s not just yourself that you feel that when people truly take them home to acknowledge it and appreciate it like tonight," Watt said.
“I don’t think people truly understand how special it was, not only for him, for us to see how well he was received and treated and how this was a really, really special place.”
One that will carry a different vibe — if not different expectations — with Roethlisberger's familiar No. 7 lost to history.
Center J.C. Hassenauer took over for injured and struggling rookie Kendrick Green and made a compelling case he deserves an extended look in 2022. With Hassenauer providing the kind of push up the middle the Steelers have lacked for much of the season, Pittsburgh racked up 190 yards on the ground, its highest single-game total in more than four years.
Maybe it's the miles on Roethlisberger's surgically repaired right arm. Maybe it's the season-long pass protection issues. Maybe it's a wide receiver group that seems to be regressing a bit, but first-year offensive coordinator Matt Canada's passing scheme leaves a lot to be desired. Roethlisberger averaged just 2.7 yards per attempt while completing 24 of 43 for 123 yards with a touchdown and an interception, a startling amount of the throws coming at or behind the line of scrimmage by design.
Punter Corliss Waitman put together a second straight solid week while filling in for inconsistent rookie Pressley Harvin III. Waitman averaged 48.8 yards on five kicks, including a 53-yard boomer out of the end zone despite being under heavy duress in the third quarter.
Wide receiver Diontae Johnson is in the midst of the finest season of his three-year career and caught Roethlisberger's 417th touchdown pass in the first half, but also had trouble hanging onto a couple of easy throws that would have produced positive yardage if he had been able to hold on.
Offensive lineman Trai Turner's status is iffy with a knee injury. Pittsburgh is hopeful several defensive starters — including linebackers Devin Bush and Joe Schobert — will come off the COVID-19 list in time to face the Ravens.
2 — the number of times in Roethlisberger's career he's gone into the final week of the season with the Steelers already eliminated (2006, 2012). For a quarterback who keeps insisting his career is not about the numbers, this one might be worth keeping in mind when his Hall of Fame discussion begins in five years.
Try to sweep Baltimore for the second straight season while hoping two-win Jacksonville, the NFL's worst team, can somehow summon the energy to beat the Colts, the only scenario in which the Steelers make the playoffs.
More AP NFL coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL