Ben Roethlisberger privately has told former teammates and some within the organization that he expects this to be his final season playing quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers, league sources told ESPN on Saturday.
Roethlisberger has not made any such public proclamations, and likely won't, since he doesn't want the latter part of the season to be about him as Pittsburgh tries to make a playoff push.
But sources say he and those within the organization are now operating as if he is entering the final five games of his Hall of Fame career, with two of them fittingly coming against the Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh's opponent Sunday and in the final regular-season game.
Roethlisberger is in the final year of his contract. He is 39 years old, turns 40 in March and has seen all of his quarterback draft classmates, such as Eli Manning and Philip Rivers, move on to the next chapters of their lives. Roethlisberger's 18 seasons with one team is the most by a quarterback in NFL history.
Roethlisberger has told many that he never would want to play anywhere other than Pittsburgh. It doesn't mean he couldn't surface next season in another NFL city, but that is "highly unlikely," according to one source.
That would mean that this year is expected to cap the career of one of the Steelers' all-time greatest players. Roethlisberger will leave the franchise with more wins, touchdown passes and passing yards than any quarterback in Steelers history.
His 410 career touchdown passes entering Sunday's game are eighth most in NFL history. His 62,870 passing yards are sixth in NFL history. His 161 career wins are fifth in NFL history.
The fact that this is expected to be the final NFL season for the six-time Pro Bowler does not come as a surprise to many around the organization. They felt that last season could have been Roethlisberger's last and, in a way, the team even seemed to prepare for that, turning over much of its roster on offense this season and transitioning to the future there.
The Steelers have, on average, the youngest offensive roster in the league, with rookies manning the center and left tackle positions and playing at running back and tight end.
Though the Steelers have quarterbacks Mason Rudolph and Dwayne Haskins on their roster, there are questions about whether either will succeed Roethlisberger. After an offseason in which they were not very busy in free agency (other than in-house work), the Steelers appear set to have comfortable cap space to be aggressive in pursuing a replacement starting quarterback.
At 5-5-1, the Steelers will need one final postseason push to give Roethlisberger one more opportunity to try to add to the two Super Bowl titles that he already has helped bring to Pittsburgh.
The Steelers' home finale is Week 17 against the Cleveland Browns on Jan. 3, a game that will air on ESPN's Monday Night Football. Pittsburgh closes out the regular season in Baltimore on Jan. 9.