Letting go of Ben Roethlisberger era is right move for Steelers — and their QBs | Opinion

PITTSBURGH — Things looked and felt quite different for the Pittsburgh Steelers on Tuesday as they kicked off their first practice of the offseason. Gone was the towering figure of No. 7 – quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who retired this winter after a Hall of Fame-worthy career that featured two Super Bowl victories and a slew of individual accolades.

For 18 seasons, no matter what holes or questions loomed over other areas of the roster, the Steelers knew what they had in their quarterback. They counted on Big Ben to help compensate for deficiencies and use his instincts and experience to position them for success.

But now begins a brand-new, uncertainty-filled era in which Mitch Trubisky, Mason Rudolph and Kenny Pickett all hope to vie for the starting job. As they got to work Tuesday, everyone from offensive and defensive linemen to wide receivers, defensive backs and coach Mike Tomlin couldn’t help but notice the oddity of the moment.

“It is weird,” Tomlin said. “But, it’s ever-changing in this business. It’s weird to be out here without (now-retired general manager) Kevin Colbert in an official capacity as well. But that’s the nature of this thing. The wheels keep turning.”

Roethlisberger retired leaving a pair of massive shoes. But Tomlin has made things very clear when advising the trio of passers on what to do about filling them.

Don’t. Ignore them. There’s no point.

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The job of playing quarterback in the NFL is hard enough as is. Setting out to duplicate the feats of one of the best to ever play the position can prove mentally debilitating.

“Be themselves,” Tomlin said when asked about his words of wisdom for the passers. “Be their best selves. That’s going to be required. But be themselves.”

The simple counsel has brought relief.

“I agree with that 100%,” Rudolph said. “Nobody can be that guy. (Roethlisberger) was a great player for us for a long time. Nobody is trying to fill his shoes. We’re just trying to maximize our own potential, and to do anything else other than that would be silly.”

Rudolph, more than his counterparts, has a clear understanding of the difficulties of trying to replace Big Ben. The former third-round pick out of Oklahoma State made 10 up-and-down starts in place of Roethlisberger the last three seasons, posting a 5-4-1 record while throwing 16 touchdowns and 11 interceptions and fumbling five times.

But Steelers brass thought it wise to look for additional options, so they signed Trubisky – who failed to live up to the expectations the Chicago Bears had when drafting him second overall out of North Carolina in 2017 – to a two-year, $14.2 million contract this spring. And then they used their first-round pick (20th overall) to draft Pickett out of Pitt.

Rudolph said he didn’t view the additions of Trubisky and Pickett as disappointing. And Trubisky – who spent the first day of the draft meeting Steelers fans while helping host a local charity event – said he didn’t view that potentially awkward development as a surprise.

Each quarterback knows they have questions to answer. And they know nothing has changed as far as Tomlin’s expectations for them. He describes the situation as “three dogs, one bone” and expects all three to fight for the job.

“You’re just not going to replace a Hall of Famer,” said Trubisky, who upon arriving in Pittsburgh received a dinner invitation from Roethlisberger and his wife, and spent that time “picking his brain” about the responsibility that comes with the job.

“You have to take it one day at a time and I’m just trying to be me, but you have a huge respect for those that came before you,” Trubisky said. “I have the ultimate respect for Ben and what he’s done here: Hall of Famer, two super Bowls. And that’s what we’re trying to do here: win another Super Bowl, and that starts with trying to get better every day.”

Rudolph believes his familiarity with the system and his teammates could serve him well in this three-way fight. When calling plays, he rarely had to look at his wristband upon getting the call from his offensive coordinator. His comfort and fluency was evident. But he’s not foolish enough to underestimate either competitor, especially not Trubisky, who has 50 regular-season starts and two playoff starts under his belt.

But he believes he will receive a fair shot at the job.

“I can’t control what goes on on the second floor, but I’ve been told that,” Rudolph said. “Everything is still in front of me. … I’m excited to do my best to compete to be the guy.”

Trubisky got the first nod both in individual and unit drills on Tuesday. But he said he will not read anything into that because he expects Rudolph and Pickett to receive first-team reps on other days.

“I’m just out there, I go where they tell me and we’re just competing,” Trubisky said. “Whoever goes out there first, I take my reps and we’re all getting better, doing our best work and competing.”

Pickett didn’t speak to reporters on Tuesday. He spent the day following Trubisky and Rudolph in the positional rotation. He’s behind each from an understanding standpoint. But he did flash at times, particularly on a play where he improvised, breaking the pocket and rolling to his left, then motioning for tight end Zach Gentry to alter his designed in-breaking route and get upfield to where Pickett dropped a sideline pass over the defender for a completion.

The pass drew praise from veteran teammates, Trubisky and Rudolph included.

But Tomlin and his assistants weren’t sitting there with a tally sheet for highlights and lowlights. No one lost context of the moment. It was simply a nice play on the first day of practice, with many lessons, and many ups and downs to follow.

“We’re just working right now, teaching and learning,” Tomlin said. “There will be time for that, but nobody is going to win a job or lose a job out here – in shorts – in May.”

Settling on Roethlisberger’s replacement – scratch that. Settling on the Steelers’ next starting quarterback will take time, and as Tomlin and his assistants begin the process of developing and evaluating, Trubisky, Rudolph and Pickett’s best chances to win the job hinges on their ability to focus on lacing up their own cleats, not those left behind by Big Ben.

Follow USA TODAY Sports' Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Pittsburgh Steelers' QB competition: Moving on from Ben Roethlisberger