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How Can the Steelers Fix Their Ben Roethlisberger Problem?

Pittsburgh owner Art Rooney said Wednesday that he hopes to have Roethlisberger back in the fold for 2021. But it’s clear the team can’t move forward with the QB’s massive current deal. How can the Steelers massage the books? And if they can’t, what are their other options?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“As we sit here today, Ben [Roethlisberger] is a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers,” Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert told reporters last week. “He reiterated to us that he wants to continue to play. We told him we have to look at this current situation.”

Yikes. That’s some pretty big it’s not me, it’s you energy. “As we sit here today” is intentional phrasing. Colbert’s words echo a sentiment expressed by Rams general manager Les Snead last month, when Snead said quarterback Jared Goff was a member of the Rams “at this moment.” Four days later, Snead traded Goff to the Lions.

After a week of questions about Roethlsberger, Steelers owner Art Rooney decided to quiet the noise by releasing a statement on Wednesday:

“Ben Roethlisberger and I met yesterday morning and we had a productive meeting,” Rooney wrote. “We were able to discuss a lot of things that relate to where we are and where we want to go. Ben assured me that he is committed to coming back to help us win, and I told Ben that we would like to have him back to help us win a championship. We both understand the next step is to work out Ben’s contract situation.”

That situation presents a challenge for the Steelers. If he and Pittsburgh make no alterations to his contract, he will have the biggest cap hit in the NFL this season. He will turn 39 in March and will be the second-oldest quarterback in the NFL after Tom Brady (assuming Drew Brees retires). Last season, Roethlisberger posted his worst Pro Football Focus grade since 2008, and his yards per attempt was the lowest of his career for any season in which he played at least three games. Given that decline, the Steelers are now facing a few important questions. Will they bring Ben back? Is Roethlisberger even good enough to help Pittsburgh contend in 2021? And what could they do if they decide to move on? Let’s read between the lines and look at the Steelers’ options in this “current situation.”

Roethlisberger returns (and probably takes a heavy discount).

Roethlisberger returning on his current deal would present a huge financial problem for Pittsburgh. Roethlisberger’s $41 million cap hit would be the largest in the league in 2021, and the Steelers are already projected to be about $19 million over the cap. Pittsburgh has shown before that cap numbers can be fake: In fact, the team has restructured or revised Roethlisberger’s contract three times in the past nine years to create space. (Accounting is the eighth wonder of the world.) But the difference this time is that regular accounting wizardry might not be enough. The Steelers might need Roethlisberger to take a pay cut.

The QB reportedly sounds game: “I don’t care bout my pay at all this year!” Roethlisberger texted to Ed Bouchette of The Athletic last month. But it’s one thing to say that, and it’s another thing to willingly hand over $18 million of the $19 million you’re supposed to make in cash this season. Even when you tell someone “I don’t care what we order for dinner tonight,” you do still care. You’re merely suggesting that you are flexible—but some things are still off the table. Roethlisberger’s meeting with Rooney likely touched on this point, because the Steelers would really benefit from trimming Roethlisberger’s cap number as much as possible.

Pittsburgh’s offseason to-do list is longer than a CVS receipt. The team is already over the cap and has a staggering 24 players, or roughly half the team, hitting free agency. The Steelers have little chance of keeping some big names. Receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster will probably not return after failing to fill the post–Antonio Brown void and then being outplayed by younger receivers Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool in 2020. Running back James Conner wasn’t good or healthy enough to justify a new deal. Pittsburgh will have to replace three of its five offensive linemen, with left tackle Alejandro Villanueva and left guard Matt Feiler hitting the open market and longtime center Maurkice Pouncey retiring. And that’s just the offense.

Defensive end Bud Dupree, who had about as many sacks in his past two seasons as he did in his first four, will also almost certainly leave. And the little money the Steelers can scrounge together will have to go toward pass rusher T.J. Watt and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. Both of those deals will likely be the largest at those respective positions, meaning those contracts could push out smaller but still significant contributors like cornerbacks Cameron Sutton and Mike Hilton.

The most helpful thing Roethlisberger could do for the Steelers would be to return—so that the team doesn’t have to worry about the financial logistics of adding another QB—but reduce his salary enough to help with those other positions. There are two major avenues the Steelers could take to bring Roethlisberger back at a cheaper price.

The first option is signing Roethlisberger to a significantly smaller deal, which would require the QB to give back some of the $19 million he is owed this year. The minimum salary for someone with Roethlisberger’s experience is just over $1 million, and theoretically he could re-sign for that little. But we’ll see just how willing Roethlisberger is to do that.

The second option to reduce Roethlisberger’s cap hit, paradoxically, is a contract extension. The idea of extending a 39-year-old Roethlisberger sounds ludicrous, but it would really just be some financial sleight of hand. The NFL salary cap allows teams to spread the cap hit of a signing bonus across multiple years—up to five, if they so choose. So even though the player gets his entire signing bonus direct-deposited into his account immediately, teams don’t have to expense it right away.

That’s what the Steelers can do with Roethlisberger. Right now, Roethlisberger is entering the final year of a two-year, $68 million deal and is scheduled to make $19 million in cash. There is also $22.5 million of dead cap money associated with Roethlisberger from the Steelers’ past attempts at punting expenses into the future, and combining those two figures results in the $41.5 million cap hit. There is nothing Pittsburgh can do about that $22.5 million expense—it’s happening one way or the other. So the best the Steelers can do is reduce that $19 million figure.

To do that, the Steelers could sign Roethlisberger to an “extension,” which would leak into 2022. They could then convert most of the $19 million into a signing bonus and spread that cap hit across two seasons. Roethlisberger would get all of that money immediately, making him happy. The Steelers would get to push millions of dollars into 2022, making them less unhappy. It’s a win-win—or maybe a not lose–not lose.

A lot of this depends on Roethlisberger’s willingness to take a pay cut, but he’s stated he is fine with that (we’ll see whether he really meant it, or whether he’ll be all passive-aggressive when someone orders Greek food).

Pittsburgh will eventually need to find a long-term solution under center, but Roethlisberger making one last run with the team seems like the most likely solution. Colbert’s “as we sit here today” line may just be an attempt to get Roethlisberger to take a serious pay cut when they sit down for negotiations.

But this isn’t just about money. It’s also about the Steelers not having many options.

Roethlisberger doesn’t return, and the team looks within.

There’s a real case to be made that Roethlisberger is not the best quarterback for the Steelers anymore. He will turn 39 in March. He injured both knees last season, which made him play like he was 59. His deep ball is more of a shallow ball. And since Ben couldn’t throw deep or scramble last season—and since his offensive line had more holes than a beehive—the Steelers had to rejigger their entire offense to get the ball out quickly. Roethlisberger got rid of the ball in an average of 2.1 seconds last year, according to Pro Football Focus, the fastest mark on record since PFF began tracking the stat a decade ago. That worked fine over Pittsburgh’s 11-0 start, but the offense stalled once defenses realized the blueprint. Defensive linemen would jump to bat down passes. Cornerbacks didn’t respect deep routes. And the Steelers had no response (other than dropping a lot of passes, which did not help). After their 11-0 start, they finished out the season going 1-5, including their nightmare wild-card loss to the Browns.

Roethlisberger limited the offense. And backup quarterback Mason Rudolph had one of his best NFL starts in relief of Roethlisberger in Week 17, suggesting that the Steelers could benefit from a different quarterback. But there’s hardly an inspiring choice on the team’s roster.

Rudolph is under contract for one more season. Last month, the Steelers signed Dwayne Haskins, the former first-rounder out of Ohio State. Haskins was released by Washington last year after a series of issues that were punctuated by him being photographed maskless at a party while the team was in the playoff hunt. Haskins has arm strength and accuracy, but he’s not good at reading defenses on the field or leading the team off of it. Still, NFL coaches love to try to fix players, and the Steelers may hope that getting Haskins into a new environment will help him focus. But that’s not exactly an appropriate plan to replace a franchise icon. Are the Steelers really going to rely on a player who was too immature for the Washington Football Team?

Rudolph is deeply unsatisfying in his own right. He has neither remarkable physical talent nor Roethlisberger’s résumé. It’s hard to imagine either player taking the 2021 Steelers—who will be less talented than last season’s team—and elevating them beyond what they achieved in 2020. As slow and decrepit as Roethlisberger has looked the past few years, he’s probably the best option for this team in Week 1.

Unless the Steelers want to look outside the organization.

The Steelers look outside the organization.

More quarterbacks are available this offseason—either via trade, free agency, or the draft—than in any other year in recent memory. Carson Wentz has gone to Indy and Matt Stafford to the Rams, but there are two other quarterbacks who could still be dealt, at least five veterans who may be available in free agency, and as many as five passers who could be drafted in the first round.

But the Steelers don’t make splashy moves. Pittsburgh is a methodical organization, which is a polite way of calling them boring. When the Steelers traded for Dolphins defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick in September 2019, it was the first time they were without a first-round pick since Lyndon B. Johnson was president. The Steelers just aren’t a team that makes big moves or gives up future picks. It’s why they’ve had sustained excellence for so long. But they might be in position to break those rules.

“I think when you look at our room, we obviously are going to have to add somebody to the room here this offseason,” Rooney told reporters last month. “So we’ll look at all the opportunities we have to do that.”

The Steelers don’t have the assets to trade for Deshaun Watson, so the most attainable young option may be New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold. Darnold has all the playmaking ability, arm strength, and intangibles to take over the Steelers. Some Pittsburgh fans may gag when they hear that, as the Jets rank last or second to last in the holy trinity of points, yards, and first downs since Darnold entered the NFL. Yikes. But while Darnold has not impressed, who really does impress while with the Jets? If the Steelers organization prides itself on anything, it’s being the opposite of the Jets. That includes creating the scaffolding to develop a young quarterback, whereas the Jets build their teams like unstable Jenga towers.

If the Jets draft a quarterback with the no. 2 pick, Darnold will be available. The Steelers have the 24th pick in this year’s draft and could probably swap it for Darnold, who they’d then owe just $5 million in 2021 and roughly $20 million in 2022. If he plays like even an average quarterback, he would be well worth that money. Darnold may not have Roethlisberger’s experience, but he is more mobile, has better arm strength, and would allow the offense to play a deeper downfield game and focus less on getting the ball out quickly. Going with Darnold could very well be a better plan than rolling the dice with Roethlisberger for another season—and if Ben retired, it would be cheaper, too.

If not Darnold, there’s always free agency. But the pool this year is pretty meh. The best quarterbacks who’ll likely be available are Mitchell Trubisky, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Andy Dalton, Cam Newton, and Tyrod Taylor. And bringing in one of those veterans may require more money than the Steelers could pay.

The Steelers could also look at the draft. With the no. 24 pick, the team is out of the running for Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, Ohio State’s Justin Fields, or BYU’s Zach Wilson. North Dakota State’s Trey Lance and Alabama’s Mac Jones may be more attainable, but the Steelers would likely have to trade up to get them, which is a very un-Steelers-like thing to do. Realistically, Pittsburgh is probably looking at rolling the dice on Florida’s Kyle Trask or a mid-round prospect like Georgia’s Jamie Newman. But few of those players would be immediately ready to start.

Part of the problem with projecting Pittsburgh’s long-term future is that, for the first time in years, the future of the team’s key decision-makers is in doubt. Colbert has been the Steelers GM for two decades, but his contract expires after this year’s draft. Head coach Mike Tomlin is under contract through this season, and then there is a mutual option between Tomlin and the team for 2022. For an organization that has had three head coaches since Watergate, this is uncharted territory. And while Roethlisberger may be on the way out, that could be just the beginning of the changes in Pittsburgh. As we sit here today, the Steelers aren’t sitting so pretty.