Column: Did we just see the end of 3 Hall of Fame careers?

September 17, 2019

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger heads to the locker room as time runs out in a 28-26 loss to the Seattle Seahawks in an NFL football game in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Sept. 15, 2019. Roethlisberger did not play the second half of the game. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

As 42-year-old Tom Brady tossed touchdowns to the talented but increasingly embattled Antonio Brown and enjoyed an assist from perhaps the best defense he’s had in years, Father Time was busy ravaging a pair of Brady’s contemporaries — and even one of his high profile former teammates — in Week 2 of the NFL season.

It’s rare to have three slam dunk Hall of Fame careers end in the same offseason, let alone the same week, but signs point to that very possibility.

Ben Roethlisberger suffered a season-ending injury to his throwing elbow in the Pittsburgh Steelers’ home loss to the Seattle Seahawks.

Drew Brees couldn’t even grip a football after his thumb injury in the New Orleans Saints’ failed attempt at revenge over the L.A. Rams.

And Adam Vinatieri has looked like Cody Parkey’s dad in his first two games of 2019, missing three extra points and two makable field goals.

Let’s take them one by one.

Big Ben is the youngster of the group at 37, but he’s taken so many hits his body probably operates closer to 57. His mobility has ground nearly to a screeching halt, and though he’s talking a good game about returning, he’s been flirting with retirement for years now.

Even before Sunday’s season-ending injury, there were musings from Deion Sanders, of all people, that Big Ben wouldn’t finish the season. Now that he officially won’t, it’s fair to wonder if he’ll just say enough is enough after 16 seasons that included six Pro Bowls and two Super Bowl titles in three appearances.

Brees is the real wild card, here. His thumb injury is expected to keep him out only six weeks, and he’ll get at least eight to recover since the Saints have a Week 9 bye. But Teddy Bridgewater’s performance in L.A. didn’t exactly inspire confidence New Orleans can do better than break even during a slate that includes road games in Seattle and Chicago, and home dates against Dallas and a competitive Tampa Bay squad.

If the Saints have a sub-. 500 record entering the bye, it might be prudent to shut Brees down and see what they have in Taysom Hill, especially if Atlanta grabs hold of the division by a significant margin. Head coach Sean Payton keeps comparing Hill to Steve Young — and it’s time to find out how apt that comparison is, because Bridgewater sure doesn’t look like the long-term answer as the heir apparent to Brees.

Furthermore, it’s unclear how much the 40-year-old Brees even has left in the tank. His regression may not be a future development as much as a past and present one. If the best case scenario of Bridgewater or Hill taking over and New Orleans playing at an even higher level plays out, it at least implies Brees will never see the field again.

Could Brees play elsewhere in 2020? Possibly. But given what he means to New Orleans and vice versa, he’d probably retire rather than suit up for another team.

As for Vinatieri, it’s a modern marvel that he’s even still playing at age 46. I know kickers generally have a longer shelf life, but if Vinatieri calls it quits now, during his 24th season, he will have spent more than half his life in the NFL.

But alas, it looks like he’ll play at least another week.

Only George Blanda and Morten Andersen retired at ages older than Vinatieri, who is such a legendary player at a totally underappreciated position, he’s the only kicker considered a stone cold lock for the notoriously anti-special teams Pro Football Hall of Fame.

But even if his struggles don’t continue, they happened. As the adage goes, once you start thinking about retirement, you’re already there — which is why Roethlisberger and Vinatieri are probably the most likely to be done sooner rather than later.

This much we know: Not every Hall of Fame career gets a Hall of Fame ending. For every Michael Jordan game-winner over Bryon Russell or John Elway back-to-back Super Bowl swan song, there’s Brett Favre’s finish with the Vikings and Dan Marino’s playoff pummeling in Jacksonville — both so brutal, retirement was the only logical follow up.

If this is the end of the line for Roethlisberger, Brees and Vinatieri, they leave in the uniforms in which they’ve played the most in their careers, without ignominy or debilitating injury — a respectable finish for those who spent decades playing a gladiator sport.

Except for Brady. He seems destined to play another 10 years and win five more Super Bowls. Damn it.

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