PITTSBURGH -- Ben Roethlisberger's public flirtation with retirement seems to have an underlying theme attached: The window won't be open forever, so win now.
But while the Pittsburgh Steelers shouldn't take Roethlisberger's remaining years for granted, the abrupt ending to the 2016 season might spark the quarterback as he navigates his mid-30s.
Leave it up to one of Big Ben's favorite players, Tom Brady, to set the blueprint.
Brady will turn 40 in August, but his play has not diminished in the slightest. During the Patriots' 25-point comeback in Super Bowl LI, Brady was delivering difficult fourth-quarter throws with conviction and velocity. Squeezing the ball into tight windows was no problem. Maybe a steep decline is inevitable in the next year or two, but Brady has done a masterful job prolonging the fall thanks to intense training regimens and even more intense dietary choices (no nightshade vegetables).
Expecting any quarterback to duplicate Brady's results at age 39 seems far-fetched.
But Roethlisberger, 34, can carve out his own late-career plan, which he appeared to be doing last offseason by shedding about 10 pounds with a cardio-heavy routine. The Steelers still believe Roethlisberger has two to three more prime years left.
Central to Roethlisberger's long-term outlook is the potential cumulative effect of injuries. Roethlisberger has played through ailments to virtually every body part. But there's hope in this area: an elite offensive line. The stout front five allowed only 17 sacks of Roethlisberger in the regular season.
Despite Roethlisberger's 456 career sacks, the Steelers' front office has prioritized protection for times like this: to ensure the quarterback is comfortable and effective for the next few years.
The humbling AFC title-game loss to New England punctuated the Steelers' need to improve defensively against top-ranked passers and offensively in red zone production. Roethlisberger's average of about one touchdown and one interception per road game dating back to mid-2015 falls on everyone. The execution near the goal line has been erratic.
Make no mistake, urgency permeates the Steelers' building. This quarterback and this offense can make another run.
If frustration from the season finale fueled Roethlisberger's big-picture evaluations about his future, perhaps that same frustration can catalyze a big 2017 by taking it out on opponents.