On Sunday, NFL Network insider Ian Rapoport dropped quite the incendiary story, stating that Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is unhappy with the direction his team has taken and with his offensive coaching staff. Citing Steelers sources, Rapoport said that Roethlisberger will likely be asking for a trade this offseason.
Immediately, denials began flying around. Roethlisberger's agent, Ryan Tollner, said that Roethlisberger's only goal is to play out his entire career in Pittsburgh. Steelers president Art Rooney II chimed in as well, saying, "Contrary to erroneous reports, the Pittsburgh Steelers have not explored trading quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and have no plans to do so," per Marc Sessler of NFL.com.
Roethlisberger himself has come out against Rapoport's claims, calling them "B.S." and saying he'd rather retire than accept a trade that would take him out of Pittsburgh. However, Rapoport stands by his reporting, saying it's a story he's been investigating for a month and reiterating how frustrated Roethlisberger is with the decisions the Steelers powers that be have made on the offensive side of the ball.
The truth is, we won't know how this plays out until at least the start of the new league year in March. Roethlisberger could stay, or he could go—and there are compelling arguments as to why either would be in the Steelers' best interest. Here are the pros and cons of the Steelers exploring a trade for Roethlisberger.
Pro: Strike While the Iron is Hot
Right now, the Steelers have a 3-6 record. Though there are seven games left to play, if the standings don't change between now and the end of the year, that would give the Steelers the seventh overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft.
While this isn't quite the same situation the one-win Indianapolis Colts faced in 2012, when they had the first overall pick, a legendary veteran quarterback in Peyton Manning who had missed the whole season and a guaranteed shot to replace Manning in can't-miss prospect Andrew Luck, there are similarities.
Roethlisberger is currently 31 years old and will be 32 before the start of the 2014 season. However, in football years, he's even older. He's been sacked 379 times to date and is on pace for 56 on the year. He's had injuries—serious ones, including a broken rib that nearly pierced his aorta last year, foot and ankle ailments and numerous concussions. While he may believe he has five or 10 more years of football in him, his body may say otherwise.
The Steelers are likely to make a concerted effort to not let the struggles of 2013 and, to a lesser extent, 2012 repeat themselves in 2014 and beyond. If they succeed, they won't have such a high draft pick to work with in the coming years, so they may not have another opportunity to select a first-round quarterback before Roethlisberger's retirement.
Combine that with the potential for many highly touted college quarterbacks to declare for the draft this year, and it seems like a good time for Pittsburgh to find its quarterback of the future while getting something of value in return for the passer of the past.
Of course, this hinges on the majority of draft-eligible quarterbacks actually deciding to test their NFL fates. There's no reason for the Steelers to move on from Roethlisberger if other quarterback-needy teams are picking ahead of them and there are only three or four to go around.
But if they have the opportunity, it's one worth exploring.
Also worth noting is that, if this season continues as it has, someone will have to take the blame. If the Rooney family opts to relieve head coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert of their duties, those who take their places might be more inclined to move on at quarterback rather than retain Roethlisberger. Their draft positioning would only further compel this hypothetical new regime to act.
Con: Roethlisberger's Legacy
While this is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league and what Roethlisberger has done lately is simply be a quarterback on a bad football team, that doesn't mean he is to blame for the Steelers' recent woes. In fact, he is one of the lone bright spots on this struggling team.
Further, Roethlisberger's body of work is impressive. He's helped the Steelers to playoff berths in six of his 10 seasons, including three Super Bowls, two of which the Steelers won. He's also the youngest quarterback to ever win the Super Bowl, doing so at age 23.
Critics of Roethlisberger like to point out that much of Pittsburgh's success has been despite him and that the team's great defense in most of those years should be credited instead. This simply isn't true.
While the Steelers have indeed been helped out by a strong defense, Roethlisberger has made stars out of receivers like Santonio Holmes, Plaxico Burress and Mike Wallace—all of whom, curiously, didn't shine so brightly with new teams. He's handled an injury-riddled and overall underperforming offensive line in many iterations for many years. He's likely headed to Hall of Fame someday.
Though the prospect of a young, top-10 quarterback is enticing, the Steelers don't need to cut bait with Roethlisberger just yet. There are other changes the Steelers need to make to their roster. They are set at quarterback. That high draft pick they're likely to have is better spent finding someone who can actually protect him.
Pro: Salary Cap Savings
It's no secret that the Steelers have been particularly salary cap-challenged in recent years, with bloated veteran contracts and dead money clogging up their finances and preventing them from picking up free agents or paying many of their own.
Though director of football administration Omar Khan has done a good job of at least convincing players to restructure their contracts, freeing up immediate cash, it still pushes the money owed into the future.
It continues the cycle of being close to or over the cap, forcing more and more restructures while the Steelers hope that the huge jump in salary cap supposedly coming from television revenues finally happens.
The cap is not expected to be much higher than $122 million or so in 2014, which, again, means the Steelers will be in bad financial shape and will need to restructure and cut some fat in order to get comfortably under the cap. Right now, Spotrac has the Steelers' 2014 cap hit at just over $130 million, while Over the Cap has it at over $134 million.
This means the Steelers will need to shed at least $8 million and as much as $12 million just to get to the league-mandated $122 million and around $15 to $17 million in order to re-sign some of their own free agents and pay their rookie class.
|Roethlisberger's Impact on Steelers' 2014 Salary Cap|
|2014 Cap Limit (proj.)||$122,000,000|
|Steelers 2014 Cap (Spotrac)||$130,077,952|
|Steelers 2014 Cap (Over the Cap)||$134,409,847|
|Roethlisberger 2014 Cap Hit||$17,895,000|
|via Spotrac.com and OvertheCap.com|
Roethlisberger's base salary for 2014 is $12.1 million and his total cap hit, which includes a bonus of $5.79 million, is $17.895 million. His contract expires after the 2015 season, which means the Steelers will either have to extend him this offseason in order to restructure that deal, paying him less per season, or try to find a willing trade partner who will take on that money and renegotiate accordingly after the fact.
The per-season prices are rising for veteran quarterbacks, especially Super Bowl winners like Roethlisberger. A pay cut may not interest him, even at this later stage in his career. Dropping his massive salary would put the Steelers instantly under the salary cap without making any other moves; other cuts could give the team a lot of money to play with.
Further, because of the league's Collective Bargaining Agreement, rookies are cheaper to pay than ever. Luck, taken first overall in 2012, has a 2013 cap hit of just $5 million, including a base salary of $1.3 million. If the Steelers are in position to draft a starting quarterback in the first round, they could save a lot of cash and finally get themselves out of the cap mess they've been mired in for years.
Con: It's the System That's Broken, Not the Quarterback
Another main point that Rapaport made in his report is that the Steelers organization is considering wholesale changes on the offensive side of the ball.
Scapegoats will be necessary after such a disappointing season (should it not turn around), and it's right to point the fingers at Pittsburgh's offensive staff considering that's been the most problematic area for the team this year.
If Roethlisberger is as unhappy as the decision-makers, then perhaps ditching the quarterback along with the likes of offensive coordinator Todd Haley, offensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr., running backs coach Kirby Wilson and others won't be necessary.
Part of the problem in Pittsburgh has come from a change in offensive philosophy, which began with the replacement of Bruce Arians with Haley. With the Rooney family wanting its biggest investment, the expensive Roethlisberger, taking less punishment, Haley has tried to keep Roethlisberger in the pocket.
However, that has resulted in more punishment—the aforementioned 56 sacks he's on pace to take, which would be a Steelers record—and didn't keep him from missing three games with an injury last year. It has also resulted in more losses.
If Rooney told the truth in his statement, then the Steelers need to surround Roethlisberger with an offensive coaching staff that want him to do the things that have made him so highly paid and successful. They need to accept the way that he plays—sometimes reckless, sometimes brilliant, completely unique and wholly unlike the Peyton Mannings of the world—and encourage it rather than try to change it.
Yes, Roethlisberger's ability to extend plays and take advantage of the broken coverages that result opens him up to punishment. Yes, even a healthy offensive line full of top-tier players won't be able to protect a quarterback with his style on every dropback. Yes, some of those extended plays result in weird throws and interceptions.
But when he's being coached by people who actually like to see him do these things, he's the most successful. Arians might have gotten a lot of criticism for his play-calling and for "coddling" Roethlisberger instead of challenging him, but it has to be said that period was the best of Roethlisberger's career.
The Steelers would be better off canning their offensive staff than by retaining them and making Roethlisberger their sacrificial lamb instead.