Art Rooney II beat me to the punch.
Ben Roethlisberger’s future in Pittsburgh is the story of the Steelers 2021 off season. The sequel to my piece comparing the current treatment of Ben Roethlisberger to what the Blonde Bomber endured early in his career was to carry the headline, “The Steelers Should Welcome Roethlisberger Back. But on One Condition.”
Leave it to Steelers President Art Rooney to steal my thunder as Art II declared: “We’ve been, I think, up front with Ben in letting him know that we couldn’t have him back under the current contract” and then later clarifying “We’d like to see Ben back for another year if that can work.”
So there you go. The head of the Steelers brain trust put black and white: Ben Roethlisberger’s the right man to be the Steelers signal caller for 2021, but only at the right price.
- Art Rooney II hit the nail on the head.
But since I’ve been wrong about Rooney being right before, (see Le’Veon Bell’s 2nd franchise tag) let’s give the counter argument its due.
Ben Roethlisberger at at press conference. Photo Credit: Steelers.com
Real Risks of a Roethlisberger Return
Ben Roethlisberger is turning 39. That’s geriatric in NFL years. Moreover, he had major elbow surgery in 2019.
- Father Time began to catch Ben Roethlisberger in 2020.
Ben Roethlisberger began 2020 playing better than anyone had a right to expect. Disagree? Then let me ask: Would you have gone to Vegas and wagered $100 on Ben Roethlisberger leading the NFL in release time in 2020? I wouldn’t have either.
- But Ben Roethlisberger’s mobility, once his trademark, now eludes him.
Chase Claypool can’t come down with the ball. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla
So does the deep ball. At first, it seemed like it might be a question of timing. By mid-season the goal of throwing deep to Diontae Johnson or Chase Claypool seemed to be to draw pass interference penalties. In November, the running game imploded into oblivion. Defenses answered by choking the short passing game. Roethlisberger responded by trying to go deep.
It is almost as if Roethlisberger is struggling to get comfortable with the “bionics” of his new arm, to borrow Jim Wexell’s words. When Roethlisberger gets comfortable, he recovers his greatness. After throwing 3 interceptions, Ben went 38-51-3-1 for 435 yards in the “Hindenburg Rescues the Titanic” playoff loss to the Browns.
- Those are championship passing numbers.
But who can win when their quarterback starts 9-17-66-0-3? No one.
Could Ben adequately get comfortable with the “bionics” of his new arm with a full off season of rehab and workouts with wide outs?
Now add that “If” to other “Ifs” about whether the Steelers can: Beef up the offensive line sufficiently, find a starter-capable running back, find a starter-capable tight end, keep or find corner and nickel backs, develop Alex Highsmith to replace Bud Dupree all while navigating salary cap Armageddon.
- Look at it that way, and tearing it all down and rebuilding is tempting. Very tempting.
But the Steelers would be wise to welcome Roethlisberger back. It all comes down to a simple mathematical equation.
Why Joe Greene + T.J. Watt = Welcome Roethlisberger Back
Joe Greene wore number 75 and T.J. Watt wears number 90. Put those digits together and you get 7590.
On December 10th, 1983 Terry Bradshaw threw his final touchdown to Calvin Sweeney at Shea Stadium. On September 19th, Ben Roethlisberger completed his first pass to Plaxico Burress at M&T Bank Stadium.
- 7590 days passed between those two events.
Terry Bradshaw wears a grim look during Steelers Mini Camp on May 29, 1984, at Three Rivers Stadium. (Photo Credit: Jim Fetter, The Pittsburgh Press)
Seven thousand, five hundred ninety days is a long time. Memories of Mark Malone’s 5 interception outing in Cleveland to Neil O’Donnell’s hook ups with Larry Brown in Super Bowl XXX to Kordell Stewart‘s struggles in the dark days of 1998 and 1999 make that wait seem even longer.
But 7,590 days really isn’t that long when it comes to finding a franchise quarterback. Minnesota is still waiting on the next Fran Tarkenton. Joe Burrow’s presence notwithstanding, Cincinnati still searches for the next Ken Anderson. And yes, the New York Jets are still struggling to find their next Joe Namath.
Doubts about Ben Roethlisberger’s ability to rebound are legitimate, but so were the questions about Peyton Manning and Brett Favre when they left the Colts and Packers. Under normal circumstances taking the risk of welcoming Roethlisberger back would be a no brainer for the Steelers.
But these are not normal circumstances.
Time for Ben Roethlisberger to Put His Money Where his Mouth Is
The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc with the NFL’s salary cap, which could go as low as 176 million dollars. In 2020 it was $198.2 million. The Steelers already have 203 million in salary cap liabilities for 2021 with just 35 players under contract.
- That puts them at $21 million over the cap, without drafting a player or signing a free agent.
- The Steelers could fill out their roster with undrafted rookie free agents and STILL have to cut veterans.
And that’s where Ben Roethlisberger comes in.
Jerome Bettis hurdles guard Alan Faneca evading Dewayne Robertson in the Steelers 2004 AFC Divisional playoff win. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette
Ben Roethlisberger will count $41 million against the Steelers salary cap. $22 million of that comes in bonuses from restructures, $4 million is base salary and the rest is a roster bonus due in March. The plan was to use these pages to call for Ben Roethlisberger take a pay cut to return, similar to what Jerome Bettis did in 2004 and 2005.
Fans asking or expecting players to give “hometown discounts” or take pay cuts simply isn’t realistic, which is why I’ve never done that before. And I don’t have to now, as Ben Roethlisberger told Ed Bouchette:
I want to do everything I can and made that very clear to them from the very beginning that it was my idea to basically help the team however I can this year. I don’t care about my pay at all this year.
There you have it. Ben Roethlisberger currently contributes to the Steelers salary cap problem, but he’s offering to be part the solution. There are 18 million ways he can do that. If Ben Roethlisberger were to bite the bullet and agree to play for the veteran minimum, the Steelers would get very close cap compliance.
- Sure, Kevin Colbert and Omar Khan would have work to do.
But with the stroke of a pen, Ben Roethlisberger could make a huge financial sacrifice that would transform the Steelers impending salary cap hell into a mild form of salary cap purgatory for Pittsburgh.
After publishing is initial article, Ed Bouchette warned readers that Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t offering a reverse blank check to the Steelers. That might be the case, and playing for the veteran minimum isn’t the only viable option.
But if Ben Roetlisberger truly believes he can return to championship form and truly wants to do all he can to help the Steelers do that, then he must put his money where his mouth is.