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Is Ben Roethlisberger’s heart still in it?

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Joe Sargent

His post-game comments seemed more sarcastic than serious, but Sunday’s five-pick performance from Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, combined with his subpar play through five games, invites one specific question regarding the current state of his career: If he wouldn’t have owed the Steelers $18.6 million in previously-paid bonus money, would he have retired after the 2016 season?

Of course, Roethlisberger also would have given up $12 million in salary for 2017. But it’s one thing to not earn money you don’t have; it’s quite another to surrender cash that’s already in the coffers. (Anyone who pays quarterly taxes can relate to that remark.)

If it’s a fair question, it’s a question that won’t be going away. If Roethlisberger retires after 2017, he’ll owe $12.4 million. If he retires after 2018, he’ll owe $6.2 million. That’s one of the basic realities of signing a five-year deal with a $31 million signing bonus. It’s not free money. It’s advance pay based on five years of service. If the guy retires before playing the full five years, the team can demand repayment.

The question becomes whether the Steelers would want the money back. On one hand, why wouldn’t they? It wasn’t earned. On the other hand, well, why wouldn’t they? It wasn’t earned.

Of course, if Roethlisberger regresses, the Steelers won’t want to chase unearned bonus money with non-guaranteed salaries of $12 million in each of the next three years. For now, his passer rating is 75.4. Over a full season, that would be his lowest since 2006.

The question then would be whether the Steelers believe they have a viable alternative. Whether or not they currently (or eventually) do in Joshua Dobbs, it’s an issue that quickly is moving toward the top of the team’s long-term to-do list.