“It is good to have an end to journey towards; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” – Ernest Hemingway
As followers of the AFC North, we’re all keenly aware of who Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger is. We’ve followed his career, spent entirely in Pittsburgh, thus far. We know all about the 60,000+ career passing yards, the 156 wins against 74 losses, the 64% completion rate, the six Pro Bowl appearances and the two Super Bowl wins. We are often reminded by Steelers fans that Roethlisberger’s journey will ultimately end in Canton, OH, and those that have truly paid attention accept this. Simply put, despite some rocky moments, the guy’s earned his accolades, and if his journey truly means anything in the context of life’s generally meager accomplishments, it’s that he’s still here, in our collective faces.
And may continue to be.
Speculation regarding Roethlisberger’s future is all over the place these days, courtesy of some predictable will-he-won’t-he waffling from Roethlisberger himself, coupled with cryptic statements from the Steelers brass, most notably principal owner Art Rooney II. Roethlisberger has more-or-less indicated he wants to return for an eighteenth season and Rooney has acknowledged similar interest from the team, deferring any contract matters to Steelers GM Kevin Colbert – himself a subject of retirement rumors. It bears noting the obvious elephant in the room – Roethlisberger’s current 2021 salary cap hit of $41 million is simply unworkable under the Steelers’ current roster configuration, leaving Roethlisberger with few options to remain beyond restructuring his current deal, and even that may not be enough. Per NFL.com, “…if the Steelers do bring Roethlisberger back, he would either have to accept a pay cut to the veteran minimum, which would give him a cap hit at just over $23 million, or the two sides would have to reach a contract restructure and extension. It must be worked out before March 17” – the official start of the NFL “year” and the commencement of free agency. Roethlisberger’s supposed refusal to take a pay cut severely limits his options to return to Pittsburgh, although this sort of early posturing helps neither side in establishing any workable solutions.
The Steelers’ list of free agents is vast and financially daunting, and even if the team finagles a means for Roethlisberger to return, it means shortchanging some key areas, most notably the offensive line, which puts the 39 year-old mobility-challenged QB, already known as a bit of a hypochondriac, in real danger of injury. The Steelers don’t know who will be starting at either tackle spot or at center in 2021. Veterans such as CB Joe Haden are in marked jeopardy of being released due to the size of their current deals, and the rushing attack, already among the NFL’s worst, stand to be even more problematic with the pending departure via free agency of current starting RB James Conner. In short, this team has issues that go well beyond its signal-caller, and one guy, even an experienced veteran QB, isn’t going to be able to change much.
No one’s faulting Roethlisberger for his desire to return; given his extensive NFL service time and accomplishments, he’s perfectly entitled to make his own decisions regarding his career and when it officially ends. Given the state of the Steelers roster and salary structure, though, one has to wonder why he would want to return. The Steelers were fatally flawed last season as evidenced by theirs and Roethlisberger’s marginal play the last six weeks, and the returns for 2021’s chances for a title appear remote at best due to extensive personnel losses alone. Unless the Steelers unearth a starter in every round of this April’s draft, the 2021 version of the Steelers will be much younger, much less experienced, and most likely less talented, at least initially. The team is fond of saying they do not rebuild, but it appears they’ll have little choice. Riding their current roster stands to render them utterly mediocre for a long while, and the prospect of an aging, hobbled Roethlisberger continuing to put up 50 desperate passing attempts per game can’t fill even the most ardent fans with any confidence.
The Steelers have a couple of in-house QB options, should Roethlisberger ultimately choose to walk away. Incumbent backup QB Mason Rudolph has been in a bit of a purgatory since his starting “audition” in 2019 – he showed enough to convince the Steelers to keep him as Roethlisberger’s primary backup, yet few fans seem to have any desire to see Rudolph actually succeed Roethlisberger. Regardless, he’s stuck around long enough to deserve the opportunity, and Roethlisberger’s return stands in the way of what could be a pivotal year for Rudolph’s continued development.
So I’ll close by addressing the man whose presence salvaged a weak roster in 2004 and restored some real weight to the Steelers and their legacy: Ben, if by chance you wind up stooping so low as to actually read this, please know that despite the slings, barbs and endless jokes I’ve made about your physique, there’s nothing but respect for your journey here. I sincerely hope you’ve enjoyed it. The end of your journey doesn’t look to be nearly as fruitful, so may I suggest you accept your fate and sit down permanently. It’s not as though you have anything left to prove to anyone, except possibly yourself.
Go easy, big fella. Hope you do the right thing.