Pre-pandemic, it could have been reasonably conjectured that the salary cap this year would be approaching $210 million, give or take. The cap had been rising pretty consistently about $8-10 million per season for the better part of a decade before Covid-19, which caused the first year-to-year cap reduction on record.
Scaling back from a salary cap of over $198 million to about $183 million, a drop of $15 million, meant that changes to business as usual were necessary, and that affected even the top of the food chain for the Pittsburgh Steelers: franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Set to turn 39 and heading into his 18th season, the Steelers had let his cap figure balloon to over $41 million for 2021, with $19 million of that in base salary and roster bonus. Art Rooney II made it clear that was unworkable, and that it had to be adjusted in order for him to return. But as he told Steelers Nation Unite members earlier today, it was always the intention to work something out to ensure that he returns.
“We wanted Ben back, and the key to it really was to be able to restructure his contract in a way that allowed us to keep Ben and really be able to sign some other players”, he said. “Ben cooperated with that and was willing to make some changes in his contract, and that allowed us to keep him on the team for this year, which was always our goal”.
Though he was in the last year of his contract, the Steelers added four void years to his deal that allowed them to fold over his signing bonus and all but the minimum value of his base salary into a signing bonus which then spread out over the life of the five years.
But before they did that, they also got $5 million back from Roethlisberger, dropping his due compensation from $19 million to $14 million. With those two moves combined, it allowed them to shave off more than $15 million against the cap this year, though they still pushed more than $10 million into future cap years, which would accelerate into 2022 once his contract voids unless he is extended.
Roethlisberger suffered three torn tendons in his right throwing elbow early in the 2019 season, which required sophisticated surgery to repair. It was an injury and recovery which had not previously been documented in an NFL quarterback, so whether or not he would be able to return to play at a satisfactory level was conjecture.
While he and the team adjusted his game somewhat to largely remove the intermediate passing game, focusing on short quick-release passes mixed in with a healthy serving of inaccurate deep passes, he still produced the best touchdown-to-interception ratio of his career at 33-to-10.
But it took him 608 pass attempts just to produce 3803 passing yards over 15 games, posting a career-low 6.3 yards per attempt. The Steelers need a more efficient and less predictable passing game in 2021 if they are to be successful.