We now know Ben Roethlisberger’s future. He’s returning in 2021 for at least one more ride. The decision, though a bit labored and drawn out, no doubt fueled by cap uncertainty, is the right one. Because there was only one reason to Old Yeller Big Ben.
To get the full Mason Rudolph experience.
Roethlisberger’s situation was a financial issue. His current contract sits at an untenable $41 million cap charge. But the path to fixing it was clear. An extension, one full of voidable years, pushes that number way down. The biggest downside to that path is the dead money it creates but as Drew Brees has done, Roethlisberger can take a paycut next season right before retiring in order for the Steelers to spread the dead money out even more. As Dave Bryan rightly put it, the true difference in cap savings between cutting Roethlisberger and extending him is a measly $4 million. Peanuts compared to a league-wide cap number that’ll come in at $180 million at minimum.
Bringing Roethlisberger back doesn’t prevent the team from drafting a quarterback either. Even making an aggressive move to trade up for say, North Dakota State’s Trey Lance. From the Steelers’ perspective, drafting a rookie quarterback and allowing him to sit for one season is still the best approach, even if that’s not ultimately how things worked out with Roethlisberger in 2004. A guy like Lance with limited college starts coming from a small school he played all of one game for in 2020 is probably best left riding the pine for a little while.
The only reason for the Steelers to cut bait would’ve been to get a fuller understanding of who Mason Rudolph is and who Mason Rudolph isn’t. Outwardly, the Steelers seem high on him. Kevin Colbert called Rudolph’s Week 17 start against the Cleveland Browns his best performance. And he’s right. The question is if their public commentary matches their internal evaluation. Maybe this is all lip service, coach speak, and they don’t view Rudolph as the guy. But this is a team who put a first-round grade on him and traded up to get him. The Steelers want to be right about their confidence in Rudolph.
Bringing Roethlisberger back negates really any chance for Rudolph to outright prove it. 2021 is the final year of his rookie contract. That means the Steelers probably enter the 2022 offseason with their top two quarterbacks walking out the door. And unless Roethlisberger suffers another serious injury or the Steelers absolutely tank this season with #7 at the helm – that’s unlikely, at worst, they’ll be a middling team who peters out in the end – Rudolph probably won’t see serious playing time. A start or two, maybe, but still not enough to get a complete evaluation with him trying to lead this team.
That’ll force Pittsburgh to make a decision. Commit to Rudolph on a multi-year deal, and quarterback contracts aren’t cheap, even for guys who aren’t very good (see Daniels, Chase) or move on from him and start the QB-hunting process all over. Had Rudolph gotten to play all of 2021, they would’ve had one season to see if he’s the guy. If he played well, the Steelers sign (or at worst, tag) him. And if he struggled, the Steelers would’ve gotten their answer and moved on. Playing Rudolph lets you know where he stands with the franchise. And it was the best, really the only, incentive to prematurely end the Roethlisberger era.
But that’s not the path the team has taken. And it’s the right call. My biggest fear was the Steelers truly believed Rudolph is a franchise quarterback and spent 2-3 years realizing he isn’t. Working out an extension with Roethlisberger is at least one signal they don’t feel that strongly about Rudolph.
My outlook for the position remains the same. Bring Roethlisberger back. This team will be worse in 2021 than 2020 but they can still compete for the AFC North and definitely make the playoffs again. Once you get into the dance, anything can happen. But the Steelers need an aggressive mentality to draft Roethlisberger’s heir. Because his replacement isn’t on an NFL roster today.