How the Ben Roethlisberger and Drew Brees injuries will shake up the NFL

Oliver Connolly
<span>Photograph: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

When Jon Gruden was still an ESPN broadcaster and not a sentient meme, he would attend team practices across the league. He did so with the sole focus of studying how different teams prepared and developed their quarterbacks. Before a Colts’ Monday night game, Gruden was struck by how then-Indianapolis quarterback and future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning took each snap in practice. Curious, Gruden sidled up to the offensive coordinator Tom Moore and asked him why the Colts didn’t rotate the snaps to prepare Manning’s backup, as is custom. “Fellas, if ‘18’ goes down, we’re fucked,” Moore replied. “And we don’t practice fucked.”

There is no injury in sports as impactful as that of losing a franchise quarterback. Nowhere is that sentiment felt more today than in Pittsburgh and New Orleans. Both teams will have to do without two of the sport’s biggest stars for the foreseeable future, the soon-to-be Hall of Fame quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger and Drew Brees.

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Roethlisberger is done for the season with an elbow injury and Brees will miss a minimum of six weeks with a torn ligament in his thumb. The injuries transform the playoff picture in the AFC and NFC.

Neither team is used to this situation. Brees has missed a total of one game to injury in his entire career. Roethlisberger has been the subject of lionizing and mocking in equal measure for the propensity with which he’s spent time on the sidelines, though he has only missed 15 starts to injury despite his reputation.

Roethlisberger’s injury feels more sizable than Brees’. The Steelers sit at 0-2, with little to no chance of making the playoffs with backup quarterback Mason Rudolph – a former third-round pick – or whatever they can patch together through the free agent or trade markets. The team hasn’t played well for two weeks. JuJu Smith-Schuster aside, the offense hasn’t clicked with either Roethlisberger or Rudolph. Something feels off.

Roethlisberger is now 37 years old. He remains determined to play out the final year of his contract next season and even beyond. But this injury opens up the door to Pittsburgh’s future. If Rudolph impresses, Roethlisberger may be out.

And the Steelers feel confident they can get things going regardless of Roethlisberger’s injury. Late Monday night they dealt a bevy of draft picks to Miami for wantaway star Minkah Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick is one of the top young assets in football. He is a Swiss army knife who can align anywhere across the defensive formation, and he still has three years remaining on a fairly cheap rookie deal. He will be a perennial All-Pro, and he wanted nothing to do with Miami’s tankathon.

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The Steelers paid a big price. Whether that’s a sign of their belief in Rudolph or shows just how under-appreciated Fitzpatrick’s gifts were in Miami or the heat management is feeling in Pittsburgh is an open question. It could be a combination of all three.

Rudolph may be good! Betting on that without him ever starting a game feels like a risk.

For the Saints and Brees, this feels like a setback, not the beginning of the end. And it’s a setback the organization had prepared for. There’s a reason the team traded a third-round pick for Teddy Bridgewater in 2018, then penned the former first-rounder to the largest backup quarterback contract in the league.

Bridgewater is a legitimate starting quarterback. He was to be groomed to take over from Brees when the star finally called it a day. That Bridgewater needs to start has come earlier than the team hoped is a concern, but it’s one they’ve been ready for.

But just because a player has been prepared for a job, doesn’t mean he is ready for it. Bridgewater looked shaky against the Rams on Sunday. His offensive line, one of the best in the league in 2018, looked overmatched. And Bridgewater routinely sailed what should have been easy throws.

Perhaps he just needs time to get in sync. Or perhaps the non-injury issues that surfaced over and over again in Minnesota – pocket presence, arm strength – are more chronic than the Saints originally believed.

In his first action as a pro, Rudolph was solid if unspectacular against a frisky Seahawks defense. He finished 12-of-19 passing for 112 yards, averaging 5.9 yards per attempt, and tossing two touchdowns to one interception.

The Steelers job will likely be Rudolph’s for the remainder of the season. The replacement market is less than bare. The corpse of Eli Manning is available to any delusional bidders. Some other plausible options: Nick Mullens, 49ers; Josh McCown, Eagles; Josh Rosen, Dolphins. Mullens and McCown are required as backups to injury-prone QBs, however, and Rosen only recently arrived in Miami – though it’s not going so well.

The free-agent market is just as skimpy. Colin Kaepernick lingers out there. He is the most qualified, accomplished option on the market – by some distance. But we all know how this story ends. Spoiler: he won’t be signed.

The implications of both injuries are massive, league-wide. If Rudolph sputters out of the gate, it would open up a two-way division chase between the Ravens and Browns and clear out a spot in the AFC playoff picture for any would-be challengers.

With Brees out for a significant stretch, the balance of power in the NFC South is up for grabs. Cam Newton is either hurt or in a steep decline or both. The Falcons employ Dirk Koetter to call football plays. Which leaves Tampa, which currently tops the division despite its issues at quarterback, as the favorites in the South.

But the biggest knock-on effect is for the NFL’s head office. In just 24 days, before the conclusion of the second week of games, the NFL is down Andrew Luck (retirement), Nick Foles (broken collarbone), Sam Darnold (mono), Roethlisberger (elbow) and Brees (thumb). Big-name quarterback matchups are the lifeblood of the league.

The second Monday Night Football showpiece of the season, ESPN’s crown jewel, was a blowout featuring a so-so Cleveland team and a Jets side quarterbacked by something called Luke Falk, which sounds like a woodwind instrument.

Losing a starter does more than torpedo a franchises playoff hopes, it wrecks the league’s viewership. It makes the game less enjoyable. The league office as much as people in Pittsburgh and New Orleans will hope Bridgewater can keep the Saints afloat for a couple of months, and that Rudolph turns out to be a diamond in the rough.

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