Where Does Big Ben Fit In?
The AFC North doesn't exactly resemble the way Ben Roethlisberger left it.
Big Ben is a 2-time Super Bowl champion and 6-time Pro Bowler with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Since entering the league as a rookie in 2004, he started at least 11 games per season up until 2018.
The 2019 season was different.
After starting the first two games of 2019, Roethlisberger was sidelined due to an elbow injury, one that turned out to be more serious than he could have imagined and called for him to chronicle his road to recovery.
Still, when the Steelers began training camp a few weeks back, and official practice on Aug. 17, Big Ben was out there.
So far, so good.
But not everyone is confident in Roethlisberger's ability to regain his form, considering the landscape – at least in his division – has changed.
Count NFL insider Mike Tannenbaum in the unconvinced camp.
"I think Pittsburgh has a championship defense, but I think Baltimore is clearly ahead. And I'm just saying, if I had to take the Ben Roethlisberger at 38, who's played two games in two years, I'll take my chances with [Joe] Burrow and [Baker] Mayfield, and Pittsburgh may have the fourth-best quarterback this year in the AFC North."
In Ben's 16 seasons in Pittsburgh, the Steelers have won the division crown seven times and only finished outside of the top two three times.
The 2006 season served as the lone year that Roethlisberger finished below .500 as a starter (7-8), not counting the two games he started in 2019, both losses for Pittsburgh.
But the Steelers finished 2019 a pedestrian 8-8, while their chief rival, the Baltimore Ravens, had their greatest regular season in franchise history.
The Ravens also have the bonafide best quarterback in the division in reigning NFL MVP Lamar Jackson, a title that Roethlisberger held arguably dating back to his rookie year, depending on where Carson Palmer, Joe Flacco and Andy Dalton rank on fans' lists.
Jackson dominated the NFL in 2019, breaking the record for most rushing yards by a quarterback in a single season while throwing a league-leading 36 touchdowns and guiding the Ravens to a 14-2 record, the best record in the NFL.
Baltimore also won its second straight AFC North title this past season, going 5-1 in the division and defeating Pittsburgh twice.
And Jackson and the Ravens' dominance isn't projected to come to a halt this season, considering FOX Bet has them as the runaway favorite to win the AFC North again (-188) and gives them the second-best odds to win the Super Bowl (+650), trailing only the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs (+600).
The ascension of Baltimore isn't the only facelift that the division has undergone in Roethlisberger's absence.
The Cincinnati Bengals literally have a new face of the franchise in No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow.
And apparently, he's been tearing it up in practice.
Cincinnati finished 2-14 last season, and while Burrow isn't expected to turn the franchise around in a single season, he is the new lifeblood of the division, along with Jackson and, of course, Cleveland quarterback Baker Mayfield, the No. 1 pick from two seasons ago.
Cleveland finished 2019 at 6-10, but ahead of the 2020 season, a new-and-improved, less abrasive Mayfield seems to be on the horizon.
Reports out of Pittsburgh are that Roethlisberger is feeling rejuvenated, even asking a few of his teammates to help him get back in the swing of things.
That's good news for Steelers fans, considering the division is defined by youth at quarterback.
The average age of Jackson, Mayfield and Burrow is 23.7. Big Ben turned 38 in March.
In a few short weeks, we'll see if wisdom wins out for Roethisberger and the Steelers.