PITTSBURGH — Ben Roethlisberger is still a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Yet despite optimistic overtones from both the team and its longtime franchise quarterback, Roethlisberger’s return for an 18th season hardly looks like a given.
While stressing Roethlisberger “did a lot of really good things” in 2020, general manager Kevin Colbert on Wednesday stopped short of wholeheartedly endorsing the idea of Roethlisberger being in the fold in 2021.
“We have to do what’s best for the organization, do what’s best for Ben,” Colbert said. “But there’s a lot of work that needs to be done, not only with Ben but with the whole unrestricted free agent situation.”
The Steelers have 19 players heading to free agency, including wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and outside linebacker Bud Dupree. That doesn’t include perennial Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey or tight end Vance McDonald, close friends of Roethlisberger who have retired in recent weeks.
Roethlisberger currently holds a $41.25 million salary-cap hit in 2021, the highest of any player in the league. Both sides have taken turns in recent weeks talking about the need to lower that number considerably, particularly with the Steelers facing the difficult prospect of navigating a salary cap that might be $15 million to $20 million less than in 2020 thanks to a significant decline in gate revenue due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Compliance will require restructuring some of the more cap-unfriendly contracts and potentially cutting a couple of high-priced veterans, which puts Colbert in a tight spot.
How does he improve a roster he admits wasn’t good enough to move beyond the first round of the playoffs in 2020 without having money to keep his top-end free agents, let alone land a few?
“We’re making guestimates on what we can do to put the best team together, for our sake,” Colbert said. “For Ben’s sake, what team can he anticipate being around him if we decide we can move forward together?”
That won’t be known for a while, which makes for some tricky math. Roethlisberger is due a $15 million roster bonus in mid-March, well before the draft and just three days into the league new year. Any agreement likely would have to be reached before that date, when the roster makeup for 2021 will still be in flux.
Colbert praised Roethlisberger’s performance, particularly during the team’s 11-0 start. He faltered a bit down the stretch, though Colbert placed the blame on the entire offense, particularly a running game that finished last in the league in both yards rushing and yards per carry. Fixing it is a priority regardless of who is behind center.
“We need to be able to finish and having a strong running game helps teams finish (late in the) year,” Colbert said.
He made it a point to praise Roethlisberger’s return following right elbow surgery that cost him most of 2019.
“In the beginning of the year, we talked about watching what he was doing, because he was doing some incredible feats as we were building that 11-0 record,” Colbert said. “A lot of that is performing at crucial times.”
It fell apart against the Browns. The Steelers turned it over four times in the first half while falling behind by 28 points and never recovered. That left a bitter taste in Colbert’s mouth. While Pittsburgh has reached the playoffs six times since losing to Green Bay in the Super Bowl a decade ago, the Steelers are just 3-6 in the postseason over that span.
“Any season that ends without a Super Bowl is not good enough,” Colbert said. “Whatever job I did putting together a 53-man roster in those given years was not good enough.”
Colbert is not getting worked up about his own contract, which runs through the end of May. The 64-year-old has hinted at retirement at some point but demurred when asked about his long-term status.
“Fortunately (ownership is) willing to work with me on a year-to-year basis,” he said. “Quite frankly that’s all I deserve because we have to prove ourselves each and every year.”
Colbert expressed confidence in backup quarterback Mason Rudolph, the short-term (and possibly long-term) solution if Roethlisberger retires or plays elsewhere, though he stopped short of promising to sign Rudolph to a contract extension. Rudolph’s rookie deal expires at the end of next season. Rudolph is 5-4 as a starter and played well in the 2020 regular-season finale against Cleveland while Roethlisberger sat out to rest.
“I think Mason wants to prove who he is,” Colbert said. “I know he’d like to play more.”
It could be in the preseason — which was wiped out last summer due to the pandemic — or the regular season. Or both. For a franchise among the most stable in the NFL, if not in all of pro sports, things are fluid in ways they haven’t been for quite some time.
That fluidity would seem unlikely to include free agent J.J. Watt, whose younger brothers Derek and T.J. both play for the Steelers. Colbert declined to mention the three-time Defensive Player of the Year by name when specifically asked about the team’s interest in bringing him on. He was more expansive about potentially keeping Dupree. The outside linebacker played on the franchise tag this season and collected eight sacks before tearing the ACL in his right knee on Dec. 2.
“We’d love to keep a Bud Dupree,” Colbert said. “Not just because Bud is a special player but with Bud and T.J. together, they’re a special group.”
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