NFL

Opinion: Despite noncommittal tone, Pittsburgh Steelers find themselves at Ben Roethlisberger’s mercy

Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert tried his best last week to cast doubt on the future of the team's biggest star for the better part of the past two decades. 

He gave Ben Roethlisberger – who has quarterbacked the team to three Super Bowls since being drafted in  2004 – the always-intriguing "for now," treatment when asked about the quarterback’s standing on the roster after an unsightly end to the 2020 season and Father Time breathing down his neck.

"As we sit here today, Ben is a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers," Colbert told reporters.

"He reiterated to us that he wants to continue to play, and we told him quite frankly we have to look at this current situation. … With Ben's current cap number, some adjustment will have to be made."

The end certainly is near. But the truth is, no matter how noncommittal a tone the Steelers and their GM take, the franchise finds itself at the mercy of Big Ben. 

To have any hope for a competitive 2021 season, the Steelers need Roethlisberger in more ways than one.

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has indicated he wants to return in 2021. (Photo: Charles LeClaire, USA TODAY Sports)

Roethlisberger’s $41.25 million cap hit for the 2021 season is cripplingfor a team that still needs to shave roughly $20 million in salary before the new league year begins March 17. There’s no way the Steelers can re-sign their prime pending free agents and address other needs with that massive figure weighing them down.

If they release Roethlisberger, it would translate into a $22.25 million dead cap hit. Even if he retired, which seems highly unlikely given his recent public comments, Pittsburgh would absorb that same $22.25 million cap hit. 

And so Roethlisberger, who turns 39 next week, wields an exorbitant amount of power. He has told the Steelers he intends to play in 2021, the final season of his contract.

Pittsburgh, which lacks a proven contingency plan at quarterback, couldn’t find itself in a much more undesirable position. But after years of betting on Big Ben, richly rewarding him based on his past while hoping for one last shot at glory as he aged, this is the price the Steelers must pay. Restructuring his deal last year for temporary relief is coming back to haunt them.

The Steelers’ best hope is for Roethlisberger to agree to yet another readjustment of his contract – something even owner owner Art Rooney II said would be necessary last month. But even if that happens, they will still find it hard to re-sign some of their main free agents, including linebacker Bud Dupree, left tackle Alejandro Villanueva and wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster.

Roethlisberger recently told The Athletic he doesn’t care about his pay “at all this year,” and that he wanted to help the team solve its financial quandary. The Steelers might have to tack an additional season or seasons onto his contract to soften the cap blow.

Yet then there’s the question of remaining productivity. Can they really afford to keep Roethlisberger on the roster beyond this season? He hasn't exactly aged gracefully. Tom Brady he is not, in season or out of season – Big Ben is not known for a vigorous training regimen. Lately, he and the Steelers have paid the price when it matters most.

This past season, after his team opened the year 11-0, Roethlisberger experienced a sharp drop-off in effectiveness down the stretch. His December quarterback rating plunged, as did his completion percentage and average yards per pass attempt. He threw five interceptions in December, doubling his total from the regular season's first three months, as Pittsburgh limped to the AFC North crown despite a 1-4 finish.

With no sure-fire saviors behind him at QB (Mason Rudolph, Dwayne Haskins), plus the financial ramifications, the Steelers likely have no choice but to lean on Big Ben again. Twenty-plus million is a lot of money to eat for a guy who is not on the roster. But they could struggle to surround Roethlisberger with the kind of talent that would position them to contend with the division rival Ravens and Browns– Cleveland ousting Pittsburgh in the wild-card round on a night when Big Ben was picked off four times.

The end is coming, and Roethlisberger and the Steelers have to accept it. Pittsburgh brass must handle the situation with honesty, and Big Ben must in turn provide the flexibility they need to remedy a financial mess.

Equally as important, if he’s to stick around, Roethlisberger must apply himself during this offseason like never before to ensure his team at least gets some kind of positive return for the money it's already invested.

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones and listen to the Football Jones podcast on iTunes.

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