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If Ben Roethlisberger keeps playing, the Steelers will need to figure out how to reduce his $41.25 million cap number

Mike Florio and Charean Williams sift through the Steelers' decision to punt at the start of the 4th quarter and wonder if Mike Tomlin would receive more criticism if he wasn't the head coach of the Steelers.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin claimed on Wednesday that he’s not fully aware of the dynamics regarding quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s cap charge for 2021.

“I don’t have a clear assessment of the overall impact of the cap ramifications, so I might not have a direct answer to your question,” Tomlin said. “But I think it is reasonable to assume that there is a chance that he will be back, certainly. The depths of the ramifications of the cap discussions, I am not privy to as I sit here right now.”

If Tomlin is reading this, here’s the reality: Roethlisberger’s cap charge for 2021 is $41.25 million.

If Roethlisberger retires, it’s still $22.25 million. The challenge becomes, if Ben continues his career, coming up with an extension that will, as a practical matter, put the final charge somewhere between $22.25 million and $41.25 million.

The $22.75 million represents the floor, since it’s the final installment of his most recent signing bonus ($12.5 million) and his most recent restructuring bonus ($9.75 million). Roethlisberger earns a roster bonus of $15 million on the third day of the 2021 league year, along with a $4 million base salary during the regular season. The flexibility comes from reconfiguring that $19 million into amounts that apply to the current cap and to future caps.

With a minimum salary of $1.075 million for players with seven or more years of experience, the Steelers could convert $17.925 million into a signing bonus that would be spread over time. The question then becomes how much of that amount will apply to 2021, and how much will apply to future years.

For example, if the Steelers give Ben a new four-year contract with three dummy years, they can chop the $17.925 million into four equal chunks of $4.48 million each. This would drive the 2021 cap number to $26.73 million and push $13.44 million into future years. Then, if 2021 becomes his final year, the $13.44 million charge would apply in 2022.

While $26.73 million wouldn’t hurt as much as $41.25 million, it’s still a significant cap charge. And remember this: Ben would have to agree to a new deal. If he says, “I’ll just honor my contract,” the Steelers would have to figure out whether to pay him $15 million on March 19 or cut him.

Under that scenario, he would be guaranteed to owe Pittsburgh none of the $12.5 million in unearned signing bonus money.

If cut, would Ben Roethlisberger play for another team? Probably not, but we would have said the same thing about Brett Favre and Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers and Tom Brady.

So these are the options: Retire, return on the remaining deal, extend the contract to drop the cap charge, or tear up the remainder of the contract and make Ben a free agent, for the first time in his career.