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Steelers are running it back with Ben Roethlisberger in 2021, but was it the right decision?

Updated: Jul 27, 2021

(Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)

Ever since the Steelers embarrassing loss to the Browns in the first round of the playoffs, many wondered if Ben Roethlisberger would be back for an 18th season. Speculation grew when Roethlisberger's close friend and teammate, Maurkice Pouncey, announced his retirement last month, and then five days later Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert gave a non-committal response when asked if Roethlisberger would be back in 2021.

It appeared that the Steelers were at a crossroads with their franchise quarterback. In late January, team president Art Rooney II said they would like Roethlisberger back for another season, but it couldn't happen with a $41.25 million cap hit. Roethlisberger also texted Ed Bouchette of The Athletic that he didn't care how much he got paid in 2021 and was willing to do whatever he can to help the team out.

After discussions with the Steelers brass in Rooney, Colbert and Mike Tomlin, the Steelers signed Roethlisberger to a new contract for 2021 on Thursday. A little over a week before, Rooney released a statement that the team and Roethlisberger agreed to a contract restructure, but it was just a matter of getting it done.

Roethlisberger was true to his word and took a $5 million pay cut. He'll make $14 million and save the team more than $15 million in salary-cap space in 2021. The new deal includes a $12.925 million signing bonus, a $1.075 million base salary and four voidable years to push a $10.36 million cap hit into 2022. The Steelers are now $3.6 million under the cap due to Roethlisberger's contract restructure, according to

"We are excited we were able to come to an agreement with Ben Roethlisberger on a new contract for him to return to the Steelers in 2021," Colbert told Teresa Varley of "We know that Ben can still play at a high level and do special things for this team. Our goal remains the same -- to put together a roster that will compete for another championship. We are happy that Ben will be one of our leaders to help us accomplish that goal."

Roethlisberger, who turned 39 years old on March 2, is thrilled to play his 18th season as a Steeler, which in all likelihood will be the final year of his career.

"It is my greatest honor to be a Pittsburgh Steeler and give my all for this organization," Roethlisberger said in a statement released by the team on Thursday. "I am grateful to be at this stage of my career and more than happy to adjust my contract in a way that best helps the team to address other players who are so vital to our success. I love this game and love to compete, and I believe in this team and my ability to deliver when called upon. It all starts with great preparation and I am ready to go."

The Steelers are running it back with Roethlisberger for one more run at a Super Bowl. He could potentially return for the 2022 season, but I would be surprised, I think this is his swan song.

Roethlisberger at least gives the Steelers a puncher's chance at being contenders for a Super Bowl, even though their roster most likely won't be as good as last year given their dire cap situation -- it's almost certain that JuJu Smith-Schuster and Bud Dupree will depart via free agency. Nevertheless, the Steelers feel like they can compete with Roethlisberger as their signal-caller.

Their only other option was Mason Rudolph or Dwayne Haskins, so you can see why they went with the future Hall of Famer even though he regressed late in the year this past season. They also had their hands tied given Roethlisberger's contract situation, as they would have $22.25 million in dead money with Roethlisberger not on the team no matter what -- retirement, release, or trade. They would have saved $19 million in cap space with Roethlisberger not on the team, but they wouldn't have a reliable quarterback.

Given the circumstances, the Steelers had no other choice but to bring Roethlisberger back for another season, and they saved $5 million in cap space in the process with Roethlisberger taking a pay cut. Roethlisberger also believes in his heart and mind that he still can play at a high level, so it's a win-win for both sides.

Many don't see it playing out well for the Steelers, however. Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk and Jason La Canfora of CBS both think the Steelers will regret bringing Roethlisberger back for another season once November arrives.

Others see it as the Steelers delaying the process to get the heir apparent to Roethlisberger. Rudolph is just simply not the answer in the long run. There are also three young talented quarterbacks in the AFC North in Lamar Jackson, Baker Mayfield and Joe Burrow, and then you have a 39-year-old Roethlisberger, which some believe is the worse quarterback in the division currently.

Former Steelers cornerback and teammate of Roethlisberger, Ike Taylor, is on record saying that a Roethlisberger return is setting the team back.

"You're setting them back a year or two or three [with a comeback]," Taylor told TMZ in February when asked about Roethlisberger's future with the team. "The reason why I think you're setting them back is because you've seen the progression in Lamar Jackson, Joe Burrow -- before he got hurt -- and Baker Mayfield. So, we're talking about three young quarterbacks in one division. Who you going to pick last?"

The Steelers are not in a position to draft a top-tier quarterback in this year's draft, plus it wouldn't make much sense, as they desperately need to rebuild their offensive line and get an elite running back through the draft. That's what plagued them in 2020 -- the offensive line was horrendous when it came to run blocking and the running backs were a mediocre group, which resulted in the Steelers ranking dead last in rushing yards per game (84.4) and yards per carry (3.6). Roethlisberger also attempted 608 passes last year, which was the third-most in the league. He also played one fewer game than Tom Brady and Matt Ryan who were in front of him, as he sat out the Week 17 game against the Browns since the Steelers clinched the AFC North and had nothing to play for other than playoff seeding.

The Steelers need a more balanced attack and getting younger on the offensive line and more talented, along with a bell-cow running back (Najee Harris?); it will help Roethlisberger tremendously. Roethlisberger can't just do it all on his own, and that's why he faded toward the end of the season. He shouldn't have attempted 608 passes after coming off surgery on his right elbow the year prior when he played just six quarters. They had no other option but to throw with how bad the offensive line and running backs were though.

That's why it all comes back to the running game in 2021 and helping Roethlisberger out more. Fixing the run game is new offensive coordinator Matt Canada's biggest job. Randy Fichtner was unable to figure it out and that's why his contract wasn't renewed following the 2020 season. The Steelers ranked 29th or worse in each of the three seasons that Fichtner was the offensive coordinator.

The Steelers got off to a franchise-best 11-0 start in 2020, but they collapsed down the stretch, losing five of their last six games of the season, including the 48-37 loss to the Browns in the wild-card game. Roethlisberger didn't play well either late in the season after having a stellar start to the year when some considered him a league MVP candidate.

In the first nine games, Roethlisberger had a 22-4 touchdown-interception ratio and had a quarterback rating over 100 seven times. In his last seven games of the season (including the playoff loss), Roethlisberger had a 15-10 touchdown-interception ratio and had a quarterback rating over 100 just once.

Roethlisberger's deep ball was not up to par in 2020 and he averaged just 6.3 yards per pass attempt, the lowest of his career when playing more than two games (2019 season).

The concern for some is that the Steelers will go 8-8 or 9-7 with Roethlisberger at quarterback and they wouldn't have a high enough draft pick to select a quarterback to replace him in 2022. That would just delay the process as Taylor mentions and the Steelers would be stuck with Mason Rudolph, Dwayne Haskins, or a veteran free agent as their starting quarterback in 2022 and they won't be able to draft Roethlisberger's replacement until the 2023 NFL Draft. That's why many Steelers fans and media members would have rather seen the Steelers part ways with Roethlisberger and start the rebuilding process now.

The Steelers are just not an organization that will throw in the towel and is content with rebuilding. They always believe they have a chance to contend for a Super Bowl or at least be competitive. They haven't had a losing season since 2003. However, with going 6-10 that year they were able to draft Roethlisberger at 11th overall in the 2004 NFL Draft. Getting a quarterback in the top 15 of a draft doesn't always guarantee success either, a lot of times it's just a matter of being in the right place at the right time, along with scouting and due-diligence.

I can see both sides in the debate of whether it was the right decision by the Steelers to bring Roethlisberger back for the 2021 season. As mentioned, the $22.25 million in dead money with Roethlisberger not on the team no matter what -- retirement, release, or trade -- really put the Steelers in a corner, along with Roethlisberger wanting to still play and taking a $5 million pay cut to boot.

The Steelers would have played real hardball by moving on from Roethlisberger with him still wanting to play and willing to take a $5 million pay cut. It would have been a nasty breakup if that were to occur, and the Steelers wanted no part of that, especially with all Roethlisberger has done for the organization.

By winning the AFC North in 2020, the Steelers will play a first-place schedule in 2021, and they'll have tough road games at Kansas City, Buffalo and Green Bay. The Ravens and Browns both made the playoffs this past year and the Bengals are an improving team led by Burrow.

The Steelers have the toughest schedule in the league in 2021 based on their opponents' combined record of 143-111-2 (.563) in 2020. It includes nine games against 2020 playoff teams, counting the Browns and Ravens twice.

So, what should the expectations be for the Steelers and Roethlisberger in presumably their last run together? I think they need to win at least one playoff game (maybe) for the season to be considered a success. Anything short of that would be a disappointment, especially if they go 8-8 or 9-7. You'll be for sure hearing a lot of fans criticizing the move to bring Roethlisberger back for one more season then.

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