Even if retirement isn't imminent, the Steelers have to start planning beyond Big Ben
Just as Pittsburgh Steelers fans were starting to move past the team's 36-17 trouncing by the New England Patriots in Sunday's AFC Championship, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hinted in a radio interview Tuesday that they may need to start preparing for a much bigger loss in the near future.
At first, Roethlisberger's remark that he needed to take the offseason to "evaluate all options" seemed like a common refrain for any 13-year veteran just two days into his recovery from the painful ravages of an extended NFL season. But it's one line in particular from that statement that will likely now become the biggest topic in Pittsburgh sports from now until the Penguins' opening playoff round:
"To consider health, and family and things like that and just kind of take some time away to evaluate next season, if there’s going to be a next season.”
Before fans in the Steel City start jumping off various Mt. Washington overlooks, let's take a look at why that evaluation will likely take about five minutes for Roethlisberger to make.
Based on the contract extension that Roethlisberger signed in March 2015, he's set to make $12.2 million in 2017 and $17 million in each of the final two years of his contract, which expires after the 2019 season. In addition, he's also already received a $6.2 million signing bonus for each of the next three years, a total of $18.6 million that he would likely have to pay back if he retires in the offseason.
While it makes sense that the father of three young kids would start valuing his long-term health differently at this stage of his life, it seems hard to believe that someone who has played the game the way he has (for a team that was one game away from making it to his fourth Super Bowl) would leave that much money and a shot at a third Super Bowl ring on the table.
So what's the point of him hinting that there might not be a next season? Perhaps it's as simple as it seems. His body hurts, he's angry how the season ended, and the prospect of doing it again next year isn't too appealing at this very moment. Given a few weeks at home to decompress, that could all fade away.
Maybe it's a subtle push to the Steelers to quickly figure out their backup QB situation. Roethlisberger has missed six games in the past two years due to injury, four of which were started by current backup Landry Jones. It's an understatement to say that Jones has not achieved Big Ben levels of success, but he would also be the most stable current short-term option should the Steelers need to replace Roethlisberger in the offseason. Jones is also an unrestricted free agent. If the team wasn't looking at drafting a possible long-term successor at the end of the first-round in April, this might just be its franchise player's way of suggesting it do so.
Perhaps it's an ego thing. It's not that Roethlisberger is underappreciated by Steelers fans, but threatening to go away is certainly one way of trying to get people to realize your value while you're still there. (See Favre, Brett.)
While Roethlisberger has certainly been far from perfect off the field (Sports Illustrated writer S.L. Price wrote a fantastic feature on this several weeks ago) during portions of his 13 seasons with the Steelers, the stability that he's provided for the team at its most important position can't be overstated.
In the 185 regular-season games in which Roethlisberger has played during that time, the Steelers are 124-61. They have made the playoffs nine times in his 13 seasons and have never had a losing year during his tenure, one which includes five AFC title game appearances, three trips to the Super Bowl and two rings. While that fails to take into account the coaching as well as the other players on both sides of the ball who contributed to those achievements, it certainly serves as a testament to the massive advantage of entering every season (barring injury or suspension) knowing that you have no question marks at QB.
It's a luxury that the Steelers have had for more than a decade and one that head coach Mike Tomlin has never been without. It's one that the four teams in Sunday's conference championships all know very well -- and a major reason why the teams regularly at the opposite spectrum of the NFL often find themselves there.
And even if Roethlisberger plays out the rest of his contract and continues to do so at a high level, it's a luxury that the Steelers are going to eventually be without. It's now just a matter of whether that day comes in three months, three years or somewhere in between. If Roethlisberger is clearly starting to think about it, the Steelers front office probably should, too.