Steelers can’t live with Ben Roethlisberger, can’t live without him

Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers are looking more and more like a couple that’s staying together for the sake of the children. Or, more accurately, the Steelers’ QB is looking like the spouse who wants to stay in the relationship but refuses to put in any of the work. (“You can’t ask me to stop spending the kids’ college fund on custom stereo speaker components, baby. That’s my hobby!”).

In a league where Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers, and Deshaun Watson sound at least curious about moving on to greener pastures, Roethlisberger plans to keep showing up for work until the Steelers deactivate his key fob. So how will the Steelers squeeze Roethlisberger’s $41 million cap number into their budget for the 2021 season? Can they win a Super Bowl with Big Ben the Knuckleballer? And if they cannot, can they find another quarterback solution in 2021?

The short answers — any way they can, probably not, and also probably not.

What the Steelers will do with Ben Roethlisberger

The Steelers could cut Roethlisberger tomorrow, eat $22 million in dead cap space (per OverTheCap.com), save $19 million, draft a QB in April, and start moving on with their lives. Yet, the Steelers are one of the most traditional organizations in the NFL, if not all of professional sports. There is no way they will unceremoniously release a future Hall of Famer who led them to a pair of Super Bowl victories.

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What’s more, even the fading Roethlisberger we saw in the second half of last season is likely to be a better option in 2021 than whoever is available with the 24th pick in the draft or on the Sam Darnold/Cam Newton/Jameis Winston/Marcus Mariota aftermarket.

So, the Pittsburgh Steelers will try to finagle Ben Roethlisberger’s contract.

Most of Big Ben’s 2021 compensation comes in the form of a $15 million roster bonus he is about to earn and $22.5 million in leftover bonus money from his 2019 extension. The Steelers will have to add a voidable year or two to Roethlisberger’s contract, convert that roster bonus and his base salary into a prorated signing bonus, and spread it across two or three years. That will take Roethlisberger’s cap hit down closer to the $30 million range this year at the expense of adding dead money in future years.

Roethlisberger and other Pittsburgh roster conundrums

With a tidal wave of money coming from the all-but-finalized television contracts, teams will have no problem extending their debt until they will be in a better position to pay it. The 2021 season is actually the worst time to be stuck with a $41 million cap hit for a rapidly-declining 39-year-old quarterback. (If you are reading this on Tuesday — happy birthday, Big Ben! Sorry we’re ripping you!).

The Pittsburgh Steelers are plausible Super Bowl contenders facing free-agent decisions on many key starters (wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster, running back James Conner, left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, edge rusher Bud Dupree, and others) during a temporary cap crunch. Roethlisberger’s return, even with a reduced cap number, will make it hard to keep last year’s 12-4 roster from being considerably nerfed.

The Steelers should have started preparing for this moment when Roethlisberger suffered his 2019 wrist injury. Instead, they traded a first-round pick for defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick (an excellent player, of course). They held onto strictly-backups Mason Rudolph and Josh Dobbs in lieu of making serious efforts to find a successor. (Paxton Lynch doesn’t count).

Now, the Pittsburgh Steelers are damned to fading Wild Card quasi-contention if they do extend Roethlisberger’s contract and damned to the same fate if they don’t.

The 2021 Ben Roethlisberger Scenarios

What will 2021 look like for the Steelers and QB Ben Roethlisberger? Let’s explore some possibilities.

The Tom Brady Scenario

Roethlisberger goes full TB12 Method on the NFL, proves that he is not nearly as washed up as he looked last year, and leads the Steelers to the Super Bowl. T.J. Watt, Fitzpatrick, and the Steelers’ defense provide the sort of boost the Tampa Bay Buccaneers got from their sack-happy defense. Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson, and maybe Smith-Schuster make the most of every Big Ben off-speed pitch.

The Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns punch each other out in the AFC North, and the Kansas City Chiefs suffer a hangover, straightening the path to the Super Bowl.

Yes, a lot has to go right here. The Brady scenario is not entirely implausible, but it is more of a wish than a plan.

The Drew Brees Scenario

The Steelers max their credit cards to keep the QB and the whole gang together. At first, it works, as their defense, skill-position talent, and offensive line allow Big Ben to play the wily old junkballer effectively. However, Roethlisberger ends the 2021 season as old and weary as Brees looked in the playoffs, causing the whole operation to fall apart and leaving the Steelers about $100 bazillion dollars in 2022 cap debt.

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The problem with the Brees scenario is that it sounds almost identical to what the Steelers experienced in 2020. They may not be embarking on a “quarterback is about to lose it” season, but on a “quarterback already lost it” season.

The Philip Rivers Scenario

Like last year’s Indianapolis Colts, the 2021 Steelers are fine. Just fine. A solid little Wild Card team. Then, Ben Roethlisberger does retire (or is shown the door), and the Steelers are forced to pay to tow some Carson Wentz-type out of another team’s driveway.

This, frankly, is the most likely scenario for the Steelers. Again, it’s probably what 2020 would have looked like without the mushy early-season schedule.

The Eli Manning Scenario

Like Eli, Roethlisberger keeps deteriorating. Like the New York Giants two-to-three years ago, the Steelers keep tripping all over themselves to accommodate him instead of ripping the Band-Aid off. The Steelers collapse into a five-win heap, awkwardly shuttling Rudolph or some fifth-round pick in for a start or two, then turning apologetically back to Roethlisberger, perhaps beyond 2021.

Depressing, right? Well, Roethlisberger’s 2020 season felt a lot like Manning’s last playoff hurrah in 2016.

The long-term Roethlisberger solution

The Pittsburgh Steelers must aggressively seek Roethlisberger’s eventual successor this offseason, even though they lack the resources to do it right.

There’s a chance that one of the “top-tier” quarterback prospects slides out of the top 10 of this year’s draft; a few Mac Jones-types are getting a little too much hype right now. The Steelers must be ready to pounce on one, even if it means trading up. Barring that, they must once again dip into the mid-round pool like they did with Rudolph, Dobbs, and Landry Jones in the past. For insight into how successful that tactic is likely to be, see Rudolph, Dobbs, and Landry Jones.

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You probably have your own head-canon about which quarterback outsider on the discount rack deserves a second chance. Yes, Winston could turn into prime Roethlisberger if he cuts his turnover rate down by about 75%. Sure, Gardner Minshew might be available for a mid-round pick and could be a game manager for the Steelers’ defense and receivers to get a playoff berth. Yes, Newton could be reinvigorated with the help of an actual receiving corps.

Iron City has a tough choice

The Steelers shouldn’t leave any QB stone unturned. They cannot lapse into “that’s not how we have traditionally done things” reasoning. And they shouldn’t let Ben Roethlisberger’s feelings get in the way. Oh, Big Ben doesn’t want to be Mentor Ben? The line for quarterbacks with bruised egos forms on the right!

The more you look at the plausible options, the more appealing the thought of releasing Roethlisberger and treating 2021 like a gap year becomes. Since that’s unlikely, Steelers fans should make the most of the fact that the team will probably still be entertaining and somewhat competitive next year. All-time greats like Roethlisberger aren’t easy to replace, and there’s some wisdom in saying goodbye a year too late instead of a year too soon.

Want more NFL news and analysis beyond the Steelers’ QB?

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