It was about a year ago at this time that Steelers fans, reporters that covered the team—both locally and nationally—and probably the team itself began to speculate on something quite important:
Did quarterback Ben Roethlisberger just play in his final game, which just so happened to be a depressing wildcard loss to the Browns at Heinz Field, a game that included zero fans and many tears from the big man as he sat on the bench next to his almost equally upset center, Maurkice Pouncey?
The Steelers were about to enter salary cap hell. They had many of their own free agents to try and re-sign and very little--more like less than zero--cap space to do it with.
Roethlisberger’s always enormous salary was a contributing factor in that impending cap hell, and while he could not remain with the team under his then-current deal, no re-negotiation was going to bring Pittsburgh true financial relief, at least not the kind the team needed after so many years of kicking the can down road in order to keep its stars happy and remain competitive.
Would the two sides work things out? Yes...obviously. In early March, it was announced that Roethlisberger and the team had agreed to a whole new deal, one that would require the veteran quarterback to take a $5 million pay cut and also free up approximately $15 million in cap space.
Again, it wasn’t much relief and did little to offer great optimism that so many important free agents—Bud Dupree, Mike Hilton, Matt Feiler, etc.—would be retained.
They weren’t, at least not most of the important ones. Who would start in their places? Who would start in other places, such as center (Pouncey did actually retire), left tackle and inside linebacker? Also, what about the depth? What about the offensive line, I mean, the entire thing?
The Steelers were really in a jackpot (and not the good kind).
We may not have been willing to see it at the time, but the 2021 Steelers were never going to be anything great. Again, there were just too many warts, too many holes. And while the team did address some of those in the draft, that’s all they did (they don’t call it a crapshoot for nothing). While Pittsburgh did eventually free up money to make some moves in free agency and with trades, the big moves—Trai Turner, Melvin Ingram, Joe Schobert, Ahkello Witherspoon—were kind of minor in hindsight.
It’s easy to look back on things now and see that 2021 was truly a rebuilding year for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
So why bring back Roethlisberger for one more year? He was clearly just a shelf of the player he was as recently as a few years earlier. Why not just save a few million more and start from scratch?
I’m sure a part of what went into the organization’s thinking was the idea that Roethlisberger still had some magic left in that arm of his. Also, he was surely a better option than Mason Rudolph or Dwayne Haskins—if not physically, then certainly with what he could bring to the position in terms of his experience, aura and a clutch gene.
Truthfully, while the magic in Roethlisberger’s arm was nowhere to be found in 2021, his experience, aura and clutch gene were often on display with several last-second, game-winning drives.
Those intangibles factored heavily into the team winning nine games and somehow scraping into the postseason as the seventh seed in the AFC.
But the 2021 Steelers were below average; you could see it every week with your own eyes, and if that wasn’t enough to convince you, the box score was always available as a reminder. They got into the playoffs because other, more talented teams failed to rise up at the end of the year and seize the moment.
So, again, why bring Roethlisberger back? Just so the team could sneak into the playoffs and be the Chiefs’ sacrificial lamb?
No, the Steelers brought Roethlisberger back because, in addition to being in the championship business, they’re also in the entertainment business.
The Steelers aren’t stupid. They know the optics of Roethlisberger going out the way he actually did in 2021 were way better than they would have been in 2020 with all of those tears and none of the fans around to say goodbye.
Roethlisberger got closure. The fans got closure. For that matter, the organization got some closure. That 18-year relationship was important to many people, including the folks that signed Roethlisberger’s checks.
It’s the kind of closure that Terry Bradshaw never received in 1983, as he mostly sat in the background with a bum elbow and watched Cliff Stoudt quarterback his boys during his final campaign.
Perhaps that’s why Bradshaw has never truly mended fences with the only professional football organization—and fans—he ever played for.
Back to Roethlisberger. I know it meant a lot to the fans that they got to express their love and admiration for him in 2021. I saw the emotion expressed on social media late in the year, as it became apparent that No. 7 was nearing the end. I certainly heard the emotion expressed at Heinz Field on January 3, as Roethlisberger said goodbye to so many in attendance.
Sure, sports are about winning, but they’re also about optics, emotions, memories. If all you care about is the win/loss column, that’s when sports is reduced to a simple transaction—a cold, sterile transaction.
I don’t want sports to ever become that for me.
I want to win, but I also want to be entertained, to leave with those memories.
It’s like what the wife of the Jets’ former owner once told an irate Joe Namath, who was upset about something that was said about his team: “Joseph, it’s show business.” “No, it’s football!” he retorted. “Joey,” she said with a knowing smile, “It’s show business.”
In the end, the Steelers used the 2021 season to serve two masters: on one hand, they began a massive and very crucial rebuilding of their roster; that was the football part of the plan. On the other hand, they were allowed to give perhaps the best player in the history of their franchise a memorable sendoff; that was the show business part of their plan.
Hard to argue with that.