On the day the New Orleans Saints hoped to exorcise memories of last year’s painful loss in the NFC Championship Game, the team was hit with another nightmare.
And on the afternoon when the Pittsburgh Steelers were hoping to rebound from a miserable season-opening loss to the New England Patriots, they were smacked by the worst news possible.
Quarterback Drew Brees, the NFL’s all-time leader in passing yardage, will be out for a while because of a thumb injury suffered Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams.
And Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, another generational star who has led his team since 2004, will miss the remainder of the season with a right elbow injury that will require surgery.
Multiple sources indicated Monday that Brees will have surgery to repair a torn ligament in his right thumb. He remained in Los Angeles on Sunday night so he could be examined by a prominent hand specialist.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin made the announcement on Roethlisberger on Monday, citing the results of an MRI on Big Ben’s elbow.
Let’s start with Brees. It’s expected he’ll be out a minimum of six weeks. But he could miss more time depending on the nature of his surgery. The Saints also have the option of placing him on injured reserve, which would sideline him for at least eight weeks.
When asked about the injury after the game, Brees tried to remain optimistic.
“I’m hoping it’s not too significant,” he said.
The job now belongs to veteran Teddy Bridgewater, who is the NFL’s highest paid backup ($7.25 million). But as Sunday’s loss to the Rams showed, there is big drop off in production without Brees. He completed 17-of-30 passes for 165 yards, was sacked twice and led the team to only three field goals in a 24-9 loss.
Truth is, New Orleans’ offensive line was manhandled all day by the Rams front. The Saints had just 57 yards rushing, which made throwing the ball much tougher. And when Bridgewater tried to throw, the effort was counter-punched by five holding penalties in the second half.
Brees injured himself on the second drive of the game after releasing a pass. He hit the hand of defensive tackle Aaron Donald on the follow-thru and then had his hand pressed back into his own helmet. He immediately left the game. It was clear he could not grip the ball and he emerged after halftime with his right hand and thumb taped up.
In his 14 seasons with the Saints, Brees has missed only one game – in 2015 due to a rotator cuff strain. If things don’t work out with Bridgewater, there’s always the possibility coach Sean Payton might turn to utility man Taysom Hill. After all, Payton has compared him in the past to Steve Young, the Hall of Fame quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers.
On a conference call on Monday, Payton said the Saints would be prepared for any contingency, adding they are ready to find out how well the team will respond to the injury.
“Hopefully the news is good and the length of time, if there is any, that he’s out will be shorter than longer. But that’s part of our sport,” said Payton.
As for Roethlisberger, the left the game in the second quarter of Sunday’s 28-26 loss in Pittsburgh to the Seattle Seahawks. He grabbed at his elbow after attempting a pass. Roethlisberger originally went back to the Steelers dressing room before watching the remainder of the game from the sidelines.
He was replaced by second-year player Mason Rudolph, a third-round pick in 2018.
“I am completely confident in myself, being a leader of a team, and playing games,” said Rudolph. “That’s what it all comes down to. If that’s the case, I’m ready to roll.”
Unlike Bridgewater, the young quarterback seemed able to drive his team. He completed 12-of-19 for 112 yards and two fourth-quarter touchdowns to tight end Vance McDonald.
“We like our chances,” guard David DeCastro to ESPN after the game “He’s [Rudolph] a guy who cares a lot. That means a lot in this league.”
The Steelers are now 0-2 and historically that’s meant bad news for the team. In the five times they’ve lost their first two games over the last 25 season, they’ve made the playoffs only once.
Roethlisberger, 37, did not talk about his injury after the game, but veteran Steelers watchers were quick to compare it to the elbow injury that ended Terry Bradshaw’s career when he was 35. Neither Bradshaw or Big Ben’s injury resulted from contact. Roethlisberger has never missed more than four games during any of his 15 seasons as Pittsburgh’s starter.
Roethlisberger has led the Steelers to two Super Bowl championships. He is the franchise leader in career passing yards and topped the NFL with 5,129 passing yards last season.
These losses are going to be very difficult for the Saints and Steelers to overcome. Injuries happen all the time in football, teams are constantly braced for them and have backup plans. But Brees and Roethlisberger have always been central to their team’s success and their losses will require mental toughness from their teammates.