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Even before his 2019 season ended abruptly as the result of a significant elbow injury, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger looked tired, defeated and old. Older than he is (37), and older than fellow grizzled quarterbacks like Tom Brady (42) and Drew Brees (41).
Roethlisberger doesn’t appear to have a health regimen like Brady’s. His career sack rate (6.5 percent) is almost double that of Brees, and higher than the likes of oft-roughed-up quarterbacks Matthew Stafford, Philip Rivers and Andrew Luck.
He’s been bruised and battered, and he’s less supported from a personnel standpoint now than he was in his prime.
We’re working with a small sample from 2018, but before getting hurt two games into the 2019 season, Big Ben was the NFL‘s third-lowest-rated qualified passer. He attempted 11 deep passes in those two losses to the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks, but he completed just one of those 11 throws.
And that wasn’t just about the elbow. In 2018, Roethlisberger was one of 23 quarterbacks to attempt 75 or more passes that traveled 15-plus yards, but only he, Josh Allen, Josh Rosen and Mitchell Trubisky completed fewer than 40 percent of said throws.
Now, a year later, coming off surgery to reattach three tendons in the elbow on his throwing arm, how could anyone expect Roethlisberger to suddenly reverse the downward trajectory of his career? He hasn’t been a triple-digit-rated passer since 2014, he hasn’t been a Pro Bowler since 2017, and between 2015 and 2018, only Rivers and Jameis Winston threw more interceptions than the two-time Super Bowl champion.
The two-year, $68 million contract extension the Steelers gave Roethlisberger last offseason was a huge mistake. According to Spotrac, even if the team were to trade or release him this offseason, they’d be on the hook for a $25 million salary-cap hit.
But that’s a sunk cost now, and there’s no reason to pay Roethlisberger anything beyond that if he’s not going to help you win championships.
Pittsburgh is a fringe contender, but not exactly because of its quarterback. The defense is loaded with so much talent that the 2019 Steelers almost snuck into the playoffs with Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges under center.
There are probably some within the organization, and maybe even some fans, who secretly wish Roethlisberger would retire—a move which would immediately create cap space for a team that is projected by Spotrac to enter the offseason with literally no money to spend.
Big Ben has openly mulled over retirement in the past, and he himself suggested that he might not “have it anymore” back in 2017. But there’s been no indication he’s considering walking away this offseason, and doing so wouldn’t make much sense for an injured player with that much money on the table.
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But the Steelers still have some control here. Regardless of what he’s owed, the simple reality is that by releasing or trading Roethlisberger this offseason, Pittsburgh would free up $8.5 million.
They could then appropriate that money for Roethlisberger’s replacement. And this is a hell of a year to be on the market for a signal-caller.
The Steelers could try to trade for Cam Newton, who would cost less than $20 million as a bridge in 2020, and then use their second-round draft pick on a potential long-term option like Utah State’s Jordan Love, Georgia’s Jake Fromm, Washington’s Jacob Eason or Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts.
Newton is also worn down and coming off an injury, but the 2015 MVP is seven years younger than Roethlisberger, and the two have fairly similar attributes and playing styles.
Alternatively, Brady, Brees, Dak Prescott, Rivers, Teddy Bridgewater, Ryan Tannehill, Winston and Marcus Mariota are all scheduled to become unrestricted free agents next month.
You can make the argument that Brady’s declining now, too, and that he’d be too expensive with Roethlisberger still on the books. Same logic applies to Brees, who has said it’ll be the New Orleans Saints or bust in 2020, and Rivers is just as old and also in decline. Meanwhile, Prescott is almost certain to at least get the franchise tag from the Dallas Cowboys.
But what about Bridgewater? He’ll become available if Brees returns. He’s 27, he’s got a Pro Bowl on his resume, and he won all five of his starts in place of an injured Brees in 2019.
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Then there’s Tannehill, who could get away from the Tennessee Titans if Tennessee reels in a bigger name like Brady. The 2012 top-10 pick is six years younger than Big Ben, and he made the Pro Bowl as the league’s highest-rated qualified passer in a breakout 2019 campaign.
Winston is an interception machine, but he also passed for over 5,000 yards and led the NFC with 33 touchdown throws with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2019. The 26-year-old’s future appears to be completely up in the air at the moment.
And Mariota is a wild card, but the 2015 No. 2 overall pick is also only 26, and he’d likely come a lot cheaper than the rest of those guys because he was benched for Tannehill in 2019.
There’s risk associated with trading in your future Hall of Fame quarterback for a dude like Newton, Bridgewater, Tannehill, Winston or Mariota, but the cost is almost nil financially, and you get a hell of a lot younger at the game’s most important position.
And again, none of those guys would have to carry the Steelers on their shoulders. This is a team that registered an NFL-best 38 takeaways while surrendering just 4.7 yards per play—tied for lowest in the league—and ranking third in DVOA (defense-adjusted valued over average) at Football Outsiders last season.
At this point, all of the aforementioned quarterbacks arguably have higher ceilings than Roethlisberger, and none are substantially more likely to become liabilities than a quarterback who led the NFL in interceptions in 2018.
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Pittsburgh would just have to double down with Love, Fromm, Eason, Hurts or even Bryce Perkins from Virginia or Steven Montez from Colorado in the draft. And suddenly, the organization would have two quality options with growth potential at a reasonable cost.
The spoiler here, of course, is that the Steelers won’t do it. They’ll stubbornly and pridefully stick with their washed-up quarterback, partly because they’re still not ready to let go of a franchise legend who is obviously popular with the fanbase, and partly because they’d be too embarrassed to admit that 2019 contract extension was an error.
And that’s a shame.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012. Follow him on Twitter. Or don’t. It’s entirely your choice.