The Steelers Would Be Better Off if Ben Roethlisberger Had Retired This Offseason
The Pittsburgh Steelers willed their way to an improbable 8-8 season after Ben Roethlisberger suffered a season-ending injury during the second game of the regular season. While the Steelers just nearly missed the playoffs, calls for Mike Tomlin to be coach of the year were ringing out all over sports media and within Steelers nation.
Ben Roethlisberger has had a storied career with the Steelers with thirteen career playoff wins and two Super Bowls to his name. He has thrown for over 55,000 yards and has played all of his sixteen seasons in black and gold.
Last year, however, the Steelers proved their plans for a post-Roethlisberger life are all but certain. The team has tried to bring in a number of potential future replacements for him, including current backup Mason Rudolph. Rudolph filled in for Roethlisberger last year and was abysmal, playing so poorly that he was eventually replaced by UDFA Devlin Hodges.
Neither of the two options seem promising, which means that Steelers fans should be concerned about what life without Ben Roethlisberger will look like.
Of course, fans want to win now. And so the return of Ben Roethlisberger will be welcomed by Steelers fans as the team has a better chance to compete this year than they did last year without him.
However, for the team’s long-term competitiveness, the Steelers would have been best positioned to build for the future if Roethlisberger would have retired this year.
Firstly, it is difficult to imagine the 38-year-old quarterback will have a seamless transition back to the game. He is in the latter stages of his career, coming off a major surgery, and will have to work to get back into football shape.
Secondly, there’s no guarantee that a team with Roethlisberger will be competitive enough to do any serious damage in the AFC this year. The Ravens are a stalwart figure in the AFC North, as Lamar Jackson is only beginning to take form as one of the league’s best quarterbacks, and led Baltimore to a 14-2 record last year.
It seems highly unlikely Pittsburgh will supplant Baltimore in the division. And even with this team’s revamped defense, does anyone think the team is talented enough to make a deep playoff run?
The team has young, developing players on the offensive side of the football. This will be one of the least-talented offensive rosters Ben Roethlisberger will have played with in recent memory.
Running back James Conner and wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster, widely regarded as the team’s best offensive weapons, regressed in their third seasons in 2019. Moreover, neither James Washington or Diontae Johnson emerged as a serious threat on the other side of the offense, and certainly pale in comparison to the guy who used to play opposite Smith-Schuster.
According to PFF rankings, in 2018 the Steelers offensive line, led by Alejandro Villanueva and David DeCastro, was consistently ranked as one of the best units in the league. They were ranked third entering the season, but slipped to ninth by the end of the year. This was before Ramon Foster announced his retirement this offseason.
But let me be clear: my argument is not that the team would be more competitive with Roethlisberger than without him. That is demonstrably not the case. Nor do I believe the Steelers couldn’t be a playoff team with him under center this year. In fact, I think they will be.
My argument is that it isn’t worth it. The short-term gains the Steelers will make aren’t worth the long-term gains the team could make without Ben Roethlisberger on the roster this year. This is especially true, considering Roethlisberger likely has no more than a year or two left, and two is generous.
If Ben Roethlisberger had retired this offseason, the Steelers would have had the opportunity to continue to evaluate their options at quarterback. After trading their first-round pick for Minkah Fitzpatrick, the team likely wouldn’t have picked the heir apparent in this year’s draft.
They thought they may have done so with Mason Rudolph, but last year’s performance was an indication he might not have the talent to fill such big shoes. Giving Rudolph another year could have helped the team evaluate where they stand at quarterback.
Roethlisberger’s departure this offseason also could have meant the team could have acquired someone in free agency to “try out”. After placing the franchise tag on linebacker Bud Dupree, the team has opted to do a number of contract restructures to try to better their cap situation.
Roethlisberger’s contract takes up a significant portion of the team’s cap space, which makes it difficult to imagine a situation where the Steelers could bring in any new back-up quarterback. The Steelers have been linked to Jameis Winston by a number of prominent writers and talking heads, but most Steelers analysts have made it clear the team likely doesn’t have the cap room to sign a back-up quarterback of his stature.
Winston is one of a number of available quarterbacks (either via the trade market or the FA market) who would be an upgrade over the current back-up quarterback situation and could potentially be the heir apparent to Ben Roethlisberger, but the Steelers have such limited resources they likely can’t bring any of these players in.
Additionally, Roethlisberger is currently under contract for not only this season, but next season as well. This is concerning because the team has a plethora of players whose contracts expire in 2021: including Cameron Heyward, Alejandro Villanueva, Juju Smith-Schuster, and James Conner.
The final consideration is draft position. While I’m not arguing the Steelers should play more poorly than they otherwise would in order to accrue better draft picks, this is a counterfactual we are considering: one in which Ben Roethlisberger had retired and the team would be playing without him in 2020.
Undoubtedly, a team without him would fare worse than with him. That is important to consider because if the team is going to look to the 2021 NFL Draft to find their next franchise quarterback, they are going to need a high draft pick to find him.
The 2021 quarterback draft class is top heavy. Notably, Trevor Lawrence leads the class and would be a great fit for nearly any team. But behind him, Justin Fields stands out as the only promising option for a day-one starter. A lot could change between now and the 2021 NFL Draft, but at this point, without a top 10-15 pick, the Steelers might find themselves out of range for selecting an elite quarterback option, and that is a concern.
While Steelers fans are understandably excited that Ben Roethlisberger is returning for the 2020 season after watching such poor quarterback play last year, it might harm the Steelers long-term options at quarterback, and thus, may end up being detrimental to the team’s long-term success. Is the tradeoff worth it?