Skip navigation
Sign up to follow your favorites on all your devices.
Sign up

Steelers, Ben Roethlisberger are at a clear crossroads

Ben Roethlisberger's return to Pittsburgh was thought to be a certainty. But Mike Florio explains how it's now anything but at the moment.

When running back Jerome Bettis returned for one more year with the Steelers, it made sense. They had a team that was close to winning a Super Bowl and, in that one more year, they did.

As the Steelers and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger continue to contemplate the possibility of one more year together, here’s some free advice to both of them: Don’t do it.

The 2021 Steelers aren’t close enough to a Super Bowl to make one more year worth it. The 2021 Steelers have too many issues, thanks to the convergence of a shrinking salary cap and years of kicking the cap can.

Already faced with a minimum reckoning of $22.25 million related to past cap hocus-pocus played with Roethlisberger’s contract, the Steelers need to figure out how much larger Big Ben’s cap number can be for 2021 while still having a competent team around him.

He has said, “I don’t care about my pay at all this year.” Even if he reduces his compensation from $19 million all the way to the league minimum of $1.075 million, he’d consume $23.325 million in cap space. As previously outlined, an extension that converts his pay over $1.075 million into a signing bonus allows Ben to get his $19 million while keeping the cap number at $26.73 million -- assuming a three-year extension.

The Steelers apparently are waiting to do something for one very simple reason: they don’t know what the 2021 cap number will be. Which means that they don’t know how much money they’ll need to sign their other players, or to attract free agents in whom they may be interested.

The problem for the Steelers comes from the fact that, on March 19, Roethlisberger earns a $15 million roster bonus. So the Steelers will have to move quickly with Ben’s contract, once they know what the cap will be. Chiefs owner Clark Hunt has said that may not happen until hours before all teams must be under it.

The best move, assuming the Steelers keep Roethlisberger, would be to work out in advance a series of tentative agreements based on the final cap number, with different salaries or restructurings if it’s $175 million (it can be no lower), $176 million, $177 million, $178 million, and so on, all the way to the 2020 number of $198.2 million. Then, once the cap is set, Ben’s deal gets re-done based on the predetermined revision to the contract.

That apparently hasn’t happened. Maybe it won’t. Maybe the Steelers are simply looking for the right way to move on from Roethlisberger, without being perceived as the villain.

Indeed, if they agree with the objective assessment that a Super Bowl run is unlikely in 2021 (given the presence of teams like the Chiefs, Bills, Ravens, and -- yes -- Browns), it makes plenty of sense to remove the Band-Aid in one motion and begin figuring out the post-Ben future of the franchise.

Whatever the plan, they’ll need a good one. With Lamar Jackson, Joe Burrow, and Baker Mayfield in the AFC North, the Steelers could quickly get lost in the dust in their division if they try to go forward with Mason Rudolph or Dwayne Haskins or whoever they manage to find in free agency.

Regardless, a decision to keep Roethlisberger could lead to regret. Even if he stays healthy all year long, it could be a long year for a Steelers team that will look a lot different than it did in 2020, due to the current shrinking of the cap and the past cap liberties the Steelers had taken. Maybe it makes more sense to see what Rudolph and/or Haskins can do in 2021, and then to look for the next Ben in the 2022 draft, if necessary.