(Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
Ben Roethlisberger turns 39 in March and will be heading into the final year of his contract in 2021. He also has a hefty cap hit of $41.25 million in 2021, which is not ideal for an aging and declining quarterback. If Roethlisberger were to retire or be cut, the Steelers would save $19 million and have $22.25 million in dead money.
The Steelers are projected to be $21 million over the cap in 2021 if the cap floor is at $175 million because of lost revenue due to the COVID-19 pandemic. So saving $19 million might not be a lot considering their cap situation, but it's at least something.
Part ways with a couple of veterans and restructure some contracts, and the Steelers could possibly bring back a player like Bud Dupree or JuJu Smith-Schuster. The Steelers could also extend Roethlisberger's contract to lower his cap hit, but it really wouldn't make sense to kick the can down the road when Roethlisberger realistically will only play one more season. The Steelers are dealing with a $41.25 million cap hit right now with Roethlisberger because of restructuring contracts in past years.
The Steelers also parted ways with offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner yesterday by not renewing his contract. Fichtner has been with the organization since 2007 and was Roethlisberger's quarterback coach from 2010-19. Fichtner was hired as the offensive coordinator in 2018 and was the quarterbacks coach as well up until this past season when Matt Canada took over the responsibility.
Fichtner was Roethlisberger's hand-picked offensive coordinator, and who knows if he would want to learn a new system under a new offensive coordinator when he'll be 39 years old in 2021. The Steelers could promote Canada to the offensive coordinator position, at least Roethlisberger has some familiarity there, but Canada interviewed for the Miami Dolphins' offensive coordinator position yesterday, so he might not even be available.
Along with Fichtner being let go, the Steelers didn't renew the contracts of offensive line coach Shaun Sarrett and defensive backs coach Tom Bradley. Tight ends coach James Daniel also retired yesterday after being with the organization for 17 years. The Steelers have 19 players who are set to become unrestricted free agents this offseason.
It's going to look like a completely new Steelers team in 2021. Two of Roethlisberger's close teammates and friends -- center Maurkice Pouncey might retire and left tackle Alejandro Villanueva might not be signed back or could retire as well. David Decastro turned 31 last week and might only have a year or two left.
Mike Tomlin gave a vague answer during his season-ending press conference when asked if Roethlisberger would return in 2021.
“I don’t have a clear assessment of the overall depth of the cap ramifications, but I think it’s reasonable to assume there’s a chance he’ll be back, certainly,” Tomlin said. “We haven’t made any decisions about any personnel along those lines.”
Roethlisberger is one of the most competitive athletes out there and I'm sure he doesn't want his last moment in the NFL to be the embarrassing 48-37 loss to the Cleveland Browns in the wild-card game. But given the circumstances, Roethlisberger should retire, and if not, the Steelers should force him to retire. They might have already started that process by getting rid of Fichtner.
Roethlisberger has earned $251,224,382 million in his 17-year career in the NFL and that's not accounting endorsements. He has won two Super Bowls and holds pretty much all the Steelers' quarterback records. He's a sure-fire Hall of Famer. He has nothing else left to prove.
Maybe Roethlisberger wants to play one more year and try to get Pouncey a ring. Other than the money and not having the wild-card loss to Cleveland as the last moment, that's the only other motivation I could see him having.
If Pouncey ends up retiring, it wouldn't be surprising at all if Roethlisberger goes out with him. Roethlisberger and Pouncey have always said they'll hang it up at the same time whenever one decides to retire.
However, if Roethlisberger insists on playing another year, the Steelers would then have to make a tough decision. In his last six games of the season, Roethlisberger played only one good half, and that was the 17-point second-half comeback against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 16 to win, 28-24. Roethlisberger threw for 501 yards and threw four touchdowns against the Browns in the wild-card game, but he also threw four interceptions, three of which came in the first half. And a good amount of his yards in the second half against the Browns were garbage yards, as Cleveland was pretty much playing a prevent defense.
Roethlisberger had a 22-4 touchdown-interception ratio in his first nine games this season. In the final seven games, he had a 15-10 touchdown-interception ratio. He threw at least one interception in six of the last seven games. He had a 100 quarterback rating or better eight times this season, but seven of them occurred in the first nine games.
Roethlisberger's deep ball struggled all year and he looked like a worn-out quarterback down the stretch. Yeah, he played a great second half against the Colts, but that was an anomaly. It didn't look like the same Roethlisberger out there. How many times this year did you say that's just "Ben being Ben" after avoiding pressure and making a throw downfield on the run? It was very few times. His lack of mobility was more evident this year than ever, which is to be expected since he's 38 years old and he won't be getting any younger.
The Steelers forced Troy Polamalu to retire in 2015 against his wishes. I don't see how they can't do the same to Roethlisberger. Yeah, it's obviously a tough decision. Roethlisberger has done so much for the franchise and you would want for him to go out on his own. But it's a business at the end of the day and it might be best for both sides to mutually part ways and look toward the future.
The Steelers might have to deal with Mason Rudolph as the starter for a year or sign a veteran free-agent quarterback. The Steelers might have a losing season as they did in 2003, which allowed them to draft Roethlisberger at No. 11 overall.
The Steelers have the No. 24 pick in this year's draft, so I don't know if they can get a future franchise quarterback at that spot. However, they can always trade up. The Steelers did it in 2019 by trading up 10 spots to get Devin Bush at 10th overall, but they would have to really like a quarterback prospect to do so.
The most likely scenario is to see what Rudolph or a veteran quarterback can do as the starter in 2021, and if they have a 5-11 or 6-10 season, that puts them in a position to get their next franchise quarterback in the 2022 NFL Draft. Steelers fans might have to endure a lot of suffering in 2021 to get to that point, but it could pay off in the long run.