The Pittsburgh Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger face an uphill battle
By Martin Rogers
FOX Sports Columnist
It was exactly 80 days ago that things looked pretty darn good for the Pittsburgh Steelers. They were 11-0, flirting with perfection, possibly headed for AFC home-field advantage, with a defense good enough to make their rivals quake.
Then the Steelers lost to the Washington Football Team. Then they kept losing some more. Then it got really messy, and they looked like one of the worst teams in the league. Then they got destroyed in the playoffs by their traditional divisional victims, the Cleveland Browns.
And oh, that might be just the start of it. Talk about messy? Pittsburgh is about to experience the delights of salary-cap hell and might have checkmated itself into having just one solution.
Now, you might have picked up that aging quarterbacks seem to be having a nice time lately, but Roethlisberger isn’t Tom Brady, and at nearly 39, he represents both a major headache and a partial cure for his team of 17 years.
If he can be persuaded to indulge the Steelers' getting creative on a payment restructure, it could alleviate some of the salary-cap knots. However, that outcome locks Pittsburgh into another year of Roethlisberger as the main man, which is not something all fans regard as the best option.
"Ben Roethlisberger and I met yesterday morning, and we had a productive meeting," team owner Art Rooney wrote in a statement. "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 would point to a far greater likelihood of Roethlisberger being the 2021 starter than it seemed recently, when general manager Kevin Colbert gave the faintest show of support possible, telling reporters that Big Ben was the quarterback of choice … "as we sit here today."
Why is Pittsburgh likely to run it back with him, especially after he looked so shaky for much of the campaign – even, it should be noted, when the team was on its winning tear?
Because, in part, the Steelers probably feel they have to.
Under his current deal, Roethlisberger comes with an excruciating salary-cap hit of $41 million, the highest of any player in the league. With nearly half the roster poised to enter free agency and already $19 million over the limit, it is certain that several key contributors will move on.
Roethlisberger can do a couple of things about that. The ultimate gesture would be to take a voluntary pay cut, with a minimum salary for a veteran in his position of $1 million. Despite his telling The Athletic he doesn’t care about "my pay at all this year," that would be a stunning development, and there is no reason he should do it.
The other prevalent option would involve a longer deal, which might never happen, but it would let the Steelers balance the books better. If much of the $19 million Roethlisberger is set to receive were converted to a signing bonus, he would get the money now, and Pittsburgh’s cap would be charged in smaller, yearly increments.
But what if it comes with a footballing cost, namely a new reality more in common with the grim back end to the season, in which the team ended with a 1-5 run?
"This is a very odd place for the Steelers to be in. This is going to be maybe the first year [in memory] that the Steelers go into a season thinking they are not contending for a Super Bowl," FS1’s Nick Wright said on "First Things First." "There are certain teams that are contending every year. Their whole organizational history has been competing for championships. You can’t compete for a championship if you are willingly signing up for the worst QB in the division."
Roethlisberger is not Lamar Jackson, and that’s fine, yet he might no longer be at the level of the Cleveland Browns’ Baker Mayfield or the Cincinnati Bengals’ Joe Burrow. The upcoming season will also see a more punishing schedule, including matchups with the Kansas City Chiefs, Buffalo Bills, Green Bay Packers and Tennessee Titans – and none of the opportunities to beat up on NFC East teams that were offered last year.
The 2020 offense ran into trouble when it failed to establish a run game, and the offense revolved around Roethlisberger's getting the ball out quickly. Defenses caught on, adjusted and flipped the entire script.
The two-time Super Bowl champion isn’t getting any more mobile, and to expound the problem, his offensive line might be severely depleted in free agency, with center Maurkice Pouncey having already retired. According to former All-Pro Brandon Marshall, the best choice would be to begin what might be a painful transition away from Roethlisberger as soon as possible, either with current No. 2 Mason Rudolph or an affordable, reliable veteran.
"You cut ties with Big Ben, you double down on your defense," Marshall said. "You go find a stop-gap QB, but you got to start that transition right now."
FOX Bet lists Pittsburgh at +2500 to win the Super Bowl next season, positioning the Steelers as the 12th-favorites. At +6600, Roethlisberger is a longer price to win MVP than Drew Brees, who is all but certain to retire.
Big questions remain as to whom the Steelers can get back into uniform and at what value. T.J. Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick have played their way into the status of defensive cornerstones, and keeping them around long-term will not be cheap.
Financial gymnastics and contractual ingenuity are part of the modern NFL, allowing the smartest teams to give themselves an edge — or, sometimes, to paint themselves into a corner.
There is perhaps no better example of that than where the Steelers currently find themselves. They still have a couple of moves to try, but they are paying the price for previous machinations that they thought would lead to a run at the Super Bowl.
Now, they are stuck in an unenviable spot, with what shapes up to be a difficult season ahead. All of it is overshadowed by the reality that the most practical fix, a Roethlisberger rewrite, might not be the best one.
Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. You can subscribe to the newsletter here.