March 14, 2015: Ben Roethlisberger signed a five-year contract extension with the Steelers worth $99 million that, per ESPN, can be worth up to an additional $108 million.
“This is where I want to be,” Roethlisberger said at the time, flanked by Steelers executives, including members of the Rooney family. “It’s an incredibly fair deal for both sides, and we’re just excited to move forward and get some more Lombardi trophies in that room next year.”
January 24, 2017: Less than two years after signing that five-year deal, Roethlisberger told 93.7 The Fan that he might not be back next season.
“I’m going to take this off-season to evaluate, to consider all options,” Roethlisberger said on the Cook and Poni Show. “To consider health, and family and things like that and just kind of take some time away to evaluate next season, if there’s going to be a next season, all those things.”
“A that point in my career, at my age, I think that’s the prudent and smart thing to do every year.”
When pressed if he’s going to play at least next year, Roethlisberger said, “I’m going to take some time and evaluate with my family and just do a lot of praying about it and make sure it’s the right thing for me and my family.”
The hosts were admittedly flabbergasted. “You know, injuries are always the key…the head injuries are always a big thing,” he replied. “I’m not by any means saying that I’m not coming back or anything like that. I’m saying at this point in my career, I think it’s prudent — just like I’m sure James [Harrison] is doing and other guys who have been in this league for a long time, too — evaluate. To just make sure.
“You want to be able to leave this game walking out of it in a healthy spot. You don’t want to be quote-unquote ‘carted out.'”
While Roethlisberger has yet to be “carted out” in his career, he has been carted off, so to speak, quite a bit. He missed the regular season game with the Patriots after injuring his meniscus against the Dolphins, the 14th game he missed in his 13-year career. Leaving aside his four-game suspension in 2010, but adding in two regular season games he sat for pre-playoff rest — including Week 17’s win this year — Roethlisberger has missed one full season of his career in the NFL.
What about the money?
Roethlisberger’s extension in 2015 came with a salary of nearly $18 million in 2016 and $12 million each of the next three seasons. Per Spotrac, his $31 million signing bonus is prorated out to $6.2 million per year, with a $5 million roster bonus due in 2018 and 2019.
Based on that contract breakdown, Roethlisberger would be leaving upwards of $46 million on the table should he retire. And while his signing bonus was guaranteed, the team could seek to recoup three years’ worth of money, or $18.6 million, given he failed to fulfill even half of the agreed-upon contract.
That’s a lot of praying, Ben.
And yet, considering he’s made roughly $123 million in his career, his recent signing bonus and a nearly $7-million restructuring bonus included, Roethlisberger could surely survive.
The more important question is, can the Steelers?
If not Ben, who?
Landry Jones, Roethlisberger’s backup the last few years, is an unrestricted free agent this season, horrible timing for the team to suddenly need a quarterback. That said, Jones has shown little to indicate he’s a viable starter in the NFL. In Gregg Rosenthal’s roundup of available quarterbacks this off-season at NFL.com, Jones wasn’t in the top eight free agents, and that list included Ryan Fitzpatrick, Case Keenum and Geno Smith among other retreads and perpetual losers.
The Steelers could be forced to work a trade to find a viable replacement for Roethlisberger, but the best of that bunch might be Jimmy Garoppolo and it’s hard to imagine the Patriots trading with their toughest AFC rival.
Would the Steelers want to kick the tires on Tyrod Taylor? Could things be so dire without Ben that they’d have to give up picks to settle for a guy who can’t start for the Bills?
Or, gulp, could Tony Romo be an option? Romo seemed locked in for Denver, but only because the Broncos are in a similar situation to what the Steelers might face, in having a Super Bowl-caliber roster without a quarterback to lead them. Could there suddenly be an AFC bidding war for Romo, and is it not somewhat ironic that Roethlisberger could open a path for the oft-injured Romo, two years his elder, to lead the Steelers?
Other options in Rosenthal’s piece include AJ McCarron, but trading with the Bengals is probably harder for the Steelers than trading with the Patriots, as well as a list of mediocre signal callers who are about to get released. Jay Cutler? Colin Kaepernick? Robert Griffin? No. No. No.
These are the options, unless the Steelers want to wander back into the draft, but that’s a two or three year project, and this roster cannot wait that long.
So, what then?
Pray Roethlisberger prays and those prayers tell him to return. Pray this is just him blowing off some very public steam, and pray the team reacts accordingly and makes him feel like he’s not only wanted, but needed, in all personnel decisions. Pray that with a few upgrades in the secondary, this is a Super Bowl team next year. And who knows, pray that Tom Brady and Bill Belichick retire after this year’s Super Bowl, and the Steelers can rattle off a few more titles before Ben’s contract is up.
So, yeah. Pray.