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Antonio Brown’s extension a clear message to Ben Roethlisberger: We’re not done yet

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When the Steelers extended receiver Antonio Brown’s contract through 2021, they bolstered the team’s future. More than that, though, they fortified the here-and-now, and sent a message to their quarterback: don’t retire just yet, we have more to accomplish first.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Cleveland Browns Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

The time is now.

With the rapid signing of wide receiver Antonio Brown, that’s the signal the Steelers are sending. Maybe to the fans, definitely to the NFL.

Quite possibly, the message is also intended for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who publicly hemmed and hawed about his own future two days after his team was entirely outgunned and out-coached by the eventual Super Bowl champions, the New England Patriots. He’s been mum on the subject since.

The signing came mere hours after the team announced they had placed the Franchise tag on Le’Veon Bell, effectively locking him in for the 2017 season.

Perhaps this is the way the front office extends the carrot to Roethlisberger: look, Ben: we’ve secured your two best weapons. There’s a solid chance Martavis Bryant comes back this year. You have a historically talented offensive line. You get a young, talented defense that’s on the rise. Please, Ben. Please give us another year or two, because with you we are so close to that seventh championship.

That’s the honest truth. But for all the hype that surrounds Le’Veon Bell’s meteoric rise to the very pinnacle of the NFL — despite his own, periodic stupidity — the reality is Brown and Roethlisberger each play a roughly equal-sized role to Bell in making this offense what it is. They are the three dynamic cogs that drive this beast, and all three are necessary.

All that running room Bell gets comes, largely, from Brown’s ability to get “open” even when blanketed by the best corners in the business. Second-year slot receiver Eli Rogers found all sorts of room in the short to intermediate middle because Brown constantly commands both a cornerback and a safety if teams want to have any shot at containing him.

Brown makes some of his best plays when the defense begins selling out to Bell’s threat and ability to run, rolling a safety up to the line. There’s not a coach out there who wouldn’t salivate at the thought of Antonio Brown on their team, slicing through the middle of a defense with a single safety as the only backstop. That room comes from Bell’s freakish patience, waiting like a spooked cobra, looking for just the perfect moment to strike.

When you add Roethlisberger to that mix, you simply augment the other two. He adds yet another layer of complexity to an already-complicated offense, and he commands it with authority. He brings Bell and Brown up, and they elevate him in turn.

All of that is obvious. What’s not so clear is how much longer General Manager Kevin Colbert can keep the band together. Several years ago, he essentially paid for one last shot with an aging-but-outstanding defense with two years of breaking even rather than excelling. His mastery of personnel kept the team afloat long enough to rebuild the nucleus for one final shot as Roethlisberger’s career heads quickly toward its twilight. As empty as Ben’s veiled threat to retire may ultimately prove to be, it shone an enormous spotlight on the fact that his career is, indeed, waning. It told the world that his time at the helm of this dynamic offense is wearing perilously thin.

Message received, loud and clear.

Just sign on the dotted line, Mr. Brown, aaaaaand...

Done.

Just like that, Colbert sent up a Bat Signal of his own, beckoning to his aging quarterback: we aren’t done yet. We have more to accomplish, and we need you. And make no mistake: Antonio Brown is Roethlisberger’s Batmobile. He is Ben’s go-anywhere, do-anything, kick-ass-and-take-names-and-look-awesome-doing-it vehicle. Weapons of that caliber come with a cost, and this one may end up being a few more years of “meh” a little way down the road.

But, when you have the choice between fading quietly into the night, or rushing headlong toward immortality in the shiniest, most bad-ass car imaginable, you don the suit and pay for that one last spin in the Batmobile before you hang up the cape. At least, that seems to be what the Steelers are hoping for.

There’s still no word from Roethlisberger on his future. But signing Brown to the richest wide receiver contract ever is no Hail Mary. It’s Colbert and head coach Mike Tomlin’s way of saying, we’re doing our part to equip you for this. Just trust us for one more go-around. There is no longer time to plan for the future. Now — right now — is the future Colbert and Tomlin have been planning for all along. This team is a role player or two away from being more talented than any Steelers squad since the 1970s, largely due to all Brown has done, but they have been playing Russian Roulette with their future Hall-of-Fame quarterback’s expiration date. When you reach the moment when the future has already arrived, there is no time like the present to push like hell.

One. Last. Time.