Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press
It should have happened a year ago. But the Pittsburgh Steelers stubbornly clung to a declining legend in 2020, and one more season with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger resulted in an uneven, disappointing campaign.
I’m back to make the same pitch to the Steelers now that Roethlisberger is on the brink of his 39th birthday, coming off a season in which he ranked 29th among 35 qualified passers in yards per attempt and likely to be lassoed with a decayed offensive line and less support in general in 2021.
This time, though, the argument in favor of booting Big Ben is less controversial than it was in 2020.
This time, the writing might very well be on the wall after another failed Super Bowl chase despite elite defensive talent.
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“As we sit here today, Ben is a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers,” general manager Kevin Colbert said Wednesday, per ESPN.com’s Brooke Pryor. “… He reiterated to us that he wants to continue to play. We told him we have to look at this current situation.”
That’s far from a ringing endorsement from an executive who knows Big Ben posted a mere 81.9 passer rating in the final six weeks of the regular season before throwing four interceptions in an embarrassing home playoff loss to the division-rival Cleveland Browns in the Wild Card Round.
Colbert knows sledding could be tougher in 2021 without Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey, who announced his retirement last week.
“I hate to say he’s the greatest teammate and competitor I’ve ever been around, but at the end of the day that’s what it is—he’s the greatest teammate and competitor I’ve been around,” Roethlisberger said of Pouncey, according to Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “And that’s no slight to anybody else.”
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Colbert also knows Roethlisberger’s salary-cap hit for 2021—$41.3 million, according to Spotrac—could make it almost impossible for the cap-strapped Steelers to retain impending free agents such as left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, edge defender Bud Dupree, wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster or likely 2021 starting offensive linemen Matt Feiler and Zach Banner.
It might be better for Colbert and Co. to rip away this offensive core like a Band-Aid.
Pouncey is already gone. Villanueva is 32, but he’ll be expensive because he plays a premium position. And the presence of Feiler, Banner and receivers Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson and James Washington makes it easier to move on from Villanueva and Smith-Schuster.
Parting ways with Big Ben now would save the Steelers $19 million, which could help them bring back Dupree—who is clearly their second-best pass-rusher after T.J. Watt—or even chase T.J.’s brother, J.J. Watt, who hit the open market last week.
It would allow them more freedom to pursue somebody established like Corey Linsley, David Andrews or Austin Reiter to replace Pouncey, or somebody like Taylor Moton to soften the offensive line blows.
But it would also give them an opportunity to start aggressively swinging the bat in pursuit of their next franchise quarterback, and this is the right offseason to be a part of those sweepstakes.
The Steelers could make a pitch to the Houston Texans for the disgruntled Deshaun Watson. They could be in play for Dak Prescott or Jameis Winston if either becomes available in free agency, and for Derek Carr, Jimmy Garoppolo, Sam Darnold, Carson Wentz, Marcus Mariota and Teddy Bridgewater on the trade market.
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Watson and Prescott might only star in the Steelers’ pipe dreams in either scenario, but moving on from Roethlisberger should make it relatively easy to bring in at least one of those other quarterbacks and possibly several if they want an extra shot at the craps table.
And depending on what they might be able to get for Roethlisberger in a trade, they could have the draft capital to make a run at a first-round quarterback prospect like Trey Lance out of North Dakota State.
Watson, Prescott or Lance would be no-brainer replacements for Roethlisberger. But if the debate is between keeping Big Ben or winding up with Dupree, Darnold and potential first-round quarterback Mac Jones, for example, the answer should also be obvious.
Would saying goodbye hurt? Sure. Would it suck to pay Big Ben $22.3 million to play elsewhere or not at all? Absolutely. But this is a business, and that is a sunk cost.
According to Over the Cap, it’s been more than a quarter-century since a team led by a quarterback with one of the league’s three highest cap hits at his position won the Super Bowl. Right now, Roethlisberger has the highest projected cap hit in the league, according to Spotrac, and that $41.3 million figure is separated from the fourth-highest hit by a margin of nearly $7 million.
Even if Roethlisberger returns and that number drops by way of a pay cut or a restructuring, the 2020 season demonstrated that team isn’t built to win a Super Bowl as is, let alone with Big Ben another year older and Pouncey, Dupree and Smith-Schuster definitely or likely gone.
It’s time for Pittsburgh to stop delaying its future under center. Continuing to draw out the Roethlisberger era will only make it more difficult for the Steelers to reemerge as a prime contender while the defense is still dominant.
The Band-Aid has to come off, and Colbert appears to finally know it.