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Point-Counterpoint: Now is the time for the Steelers to move on from Ben Roethlisberger

Should the Pittsburgh Steelers move on from Ben Roethlisberger? We debate in this edition of point-counterpoint.

Indianapolis Colts v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

Welcome to the point-counterpoint, where two BTSC writers will take a topic and debate which side is right. Today, the debate is between K.T. Smith (CHISAP) and Geoffrey Benedict on whether the Steelers should move on from Ben Roethlisberger, or not.

“My heart’s for my family, Joe. My brains are for business. This is business.” — Jimmy Johnston, “Cinderella Man”

The above quote, delivered impeccably by the actor Bruce McGill as boxing promoter Jimmy Johnston in the 2005 film “Cinderella Man,” adequately summarizes my feelings about Ben Roethlisberger’s status in Pittsburgh. As a lifelong Steelers fan who endured the 25-year title drought from 1980-2004, I will always be grateful to Roethlisberger for bringing us those fifth and sixth Lombardi trophies. He is a first-ballot Hall of Famer once he is eligible for Canton and, with apologies to Terry Bradshaw, the best quarterback ever to don the black-and-gold.

But, as we contemplate the 2021 season, this is no time for sentimentality. Roethlisberger has one year remaining on a contract that will cost the Steelers $41 million against the salary cap. That’s the biggest cap hit of any quarterback in the league. The Steelers are projected to be $21 million over the cap with just 35 players under contract. Roethlisberger’s salary will count as 40% of their total. At age 39, he has limited mobility, diminished deep-ball capability and a lukewarm (at best) willingness to embrace new concepts or ideas in the offense. While he can still play the position, he is nowhere near the quarterback he once was. He is also 0-3 in his last three playoff contests, including this season’s embarrassment against Cleveland. All of this makes it difficult to justify the Steelers investing that much trying to squeeze from him whatever juice remains. They should put sentimentality aside and bid adieu, as graciously as possible, to their franchise QB.

For the record, I don’t expect them to do so. I think they will bring Roethlisberger back for one last title-chase. I also think this is a mistake. Granted, they can’t simply part ways with Roethlisberger and save $41 million. A slew of contract restructures have pushed over $20 million of his salary and bonuses off until next season. So, no matter what, they are on the hook for that money. Bringing him back at the full $41 million, however, will make things worse. It will be almost impossible to re-sign any of their impending free agents, including Juju Smith-Schuster, Bud Dupree, Mike Hilton, James Conner and Alejandro Villanueva. They may also have to cut or trade veterans like Joe Haden and David DeCastro just to become cap-compliant. Under those circumstances, is it worth retaining an expensive 39 year-old for one last hurrah?

The $20 million-and-change they would save by moving on from Roethlisberger could be used to extend T.J. Watt, sign one of their own free agents or perhaps lure an impact player from another franchise (an offensive tackle would be nice). The Steelers need as much money as possible to secure the roster. Absent that $20+ million, they are facing a total gut-job.

Of course, releasing Roethlisberger means the Steelers would need a new starting quarterback. I have not been a huge fan of Mason Rudolph but what I saw from him in the season finale at Cleveland made me reconsider. I am not opposed to giving Rudolph an opportunity next season to win the long-term starting job. With Rudolph entering the final year of his rookie contract, the Steelers would get to evaluate him on the cheap in 2021 before having to make a decision. If he plays well, they can extend him. If he fails, things will likely have gone south as a whole, in which case they can use their high draft pick to select Roethlisberger’s successor.

No matter who plays quarterback, the Steelers must make other changes on offense as well. The line needs an impact player or two, which hopefully they can find in the draft. They need to upgrade the running back position, as neither James Conner nor Benny Snell Jr. have proven they can be a feature-back. They also need to overhaul the scheme. The recent news that they will move on from offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner is welcome in that regard. Fichtner’s failure to invest in the run game while structuring the scheme almost entirely around Roethisberger’s ability to throw quick passes out of static sets was too simple on opposing defenses. Whomever becomes the new OC as nothing has been made offical, putting defenses in conflict by using more pre-snap movement, being more multiple, stretching the field and developing a play-action passing game are all imperatives.

With Fichtner gone, it’s a perfect opportunity to switch quarterbacks. Roethlisberger has demonstrated a stubbornness in adapting to change. How do the Steelers evolve, then, with him still on board? The last thing a new OC would want is to fight for control of the offense with a set-in-his-ways veteran playing out the final year of his contract. Who is the better QB to pair with a new coordinator — Rudolph or Roethlisberger? The answer is clear. And it saves the franchise $20 million in the process.

With or without Roethlisberger, 2021 sets up as a transition year for the Steelers. They will lose many of their core players to free agency while their opponents in the division, Baltimore, Cleveland and Cincinnati, are all improving. The defense could carry the Steelers to eight or nine wins, maybe even ten. But a championship? Unlikely. Is that worth the $20+ million they will spend to keep Roethlisberger? Is it worth the missed opportunity to properly evaluate Rudolph before having to sign him to an extension or let him walk? Is it worth another year of the 2020 offense?

Mike Tomlin likes to say the Steelers don’t live in their fears. Running it back with Ben Roethlisberger in 2021 rather than taking the bold step to cut ties, secure valuable assets and start over with someone else would be a betrayal of that credo. If Tomlin trusts his own ability as a coach, and the organization trusts the “Steeler Way,” they will have faith they can rebuild without him. Respectfully, they should move on now. It’s not the easy choice. But it’s the right one.

- K.T. Smith

The Steelers have had great players before, Ben Roethlisberger isn’t the first. He’s the best quarterback in franchise history, and that says a lot with Terry Bradshaw to compete with. He’s also on the short list of the best players in franchise history.

When we look at those players, and we look at their last few seasons, and then after they leave, it’s pretty clear that the decision to move on from an all-time great who has lost a step isn’t an easy one to make.

Stoudt, Malone, Brister, O’Donnell, Tomczak, Stewart, Maddox. You know the names, the quarterback that led the Steelers in passing from 1983 to 2003, 21 years between Bradshaw and Roethlisberger. You don’t just replace a true franchise quarterback. That doesn’t mean a team can’t have success, Every single one of those names had a season where they led the team in passing and the Steelers made the playoffs. So if you are looking for a trip to the Wild Card, or even a nice playoff win, they can get you there, if the rest of the team is in place, they can get you a playoff win.

Kevin is right, 19 million is a lot of money, that’s the amount the Steelers can save if Ben Roethlisberger walks away. It doesn’t matter if his cap hit is 41 million, the difference between having or not having Ben Roethlisberger is 19 million. What quarterbacks are valued around that 19 million mark in the NFL today?

Alex Smith: 23.5 million a year
Teddy Bridgewater: 21 million a year
Taysom Hill: 16 million a year
Jacoby Brissett: 15 million a year

Anyone think Ben Roethlisberger is worth more than those guys right now? Does he bring more value than Teddy Bridgewater or Taysom Hill? I think so.

If the Steelers get rid of Ben Roethlisberger, they can’t turn around and bring in a free agent, that would be dumb as you’d spend the same money for a worse player. That leaves the Steelers with 2 options, play someone you have right now, or draft a quarterback.

With the 24th pick in the draft there will be options for the Steelers, but what are the odds that young man with great film and numbers shooting up the draft boards is actually a good, not great, just good NFL Quarterback? You know the answer, it isn’t great.

The Steelers had a former top 10 pick lose to Mason Rudolph, Josh Dobbs and Devlin Hodges this past offseason. Dwayne Haskins was a mid-first round pick, just like Paxton Lynch was. Jordan Love (26th pick) was QB1 for a lot of draft gurus, he fell to 26 and looked awful in the training camp. The best quarterbacks in the last five years of drafts went right around the 10th spot, where the Steelers drafted Roethlisberger in 2004. The Steelers aren’t picking there. They would have to trade up.

And that brings us to the real issue. Money isn’t the only resource, drat capital matters as well. Right now the Steelers have some key needs, especially on the offensive line. Drafting a brand new quarterback and asking him to either read NFL defenses and throw the ball in 2.4 seconds or take a lot of hits is far from ideal, just look at Joe Burrow. That’s how you get a quarterback with bad habits and low confidence.

The Steelers need to invest in their offensive line, and they need to add pieces at other positions too. The Steelers are going to be losing important pieces in the next few years, and some players toward the end of their prime will be dropping off, restarting now means a rebuild.

I know we are all worried about the salary cap, but the Steelers are always in this situation, and they always make it through. They will make it through again. The best bet for the Steelers is to invest in their line, add another weapon to the offense and see if one of the young wide receivers turns into something more than they were this season.

You play out Ben Roethlisberger’s contract, giving him one last shot to lead this team to a Super Bowl, and you start fresh the year after that, with the full $41 Million off the books, and key pieces in place to help a new quarterback succeed. That 19 million dollars buys you a lot less than people think it will. T.J. Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick don’t require new deals this season, and the team has a pretty good amount of young players, the Steelers can sign a few decent free agents to fill holes, draft for some key spots and be in position to start a meaningful rebuild in 2022.

- Geoffrey Benedict

What do you think? Should the Steelers move on from Roethlisberger, or should they go for one more season in the sun before he hangs it up? Let us know in the comment section below, and be sure to stay tuned to BTSC for the latest news and notes surrounding the black and gold as they head into a crazy offseason.