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Steelers Might Be Too Confident About Ben Roethlisberger's Age in Contract Talks

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystFebruary 12, 2015

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) passes during the first half of an NFL wildcard playoff football game against the Baltimore Ravens, Saturday, Jan. 3, 2015, in Pittsburgh. The Ravens won 30-17. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

Ben Roethlisberger was one of the NFL's best quarterbacks during the 2014 season. Every number associated with the Pittsburgh Steelers pivot reflects that undeniable truth.

His 4,972 passing yards tied New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees for the league lead. He reached that plateau while completing 67.1 percent of his throws at an average of 8.1 yards per attempt. He also finished tied for the league lead in 40-plus-yard connections (15) and threw 32 touchdowns to only nine interceptions.

He set career regular-season highs in passing yards, completions (408) and completion percentage, and his touchdown total tied his own single-season franchise record.

And he did all that for a team that won its division. Oh, and there was also a two-game stretch in November when he threw for 862 yards and 12 touchdowns.

ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo

Ben Roethlisberger: 1st QB in NFL history to throw for 12 TD in a 2-game span (via @eliassports)

Given all that, one Roethlisberger number doesn’t add up: $11.6 million. His scheduled 2015 base salary is laughable.

The dollar sign attached to his name doesn’t come close to giving Roethlisberger his proper valuation. His current 2015 base salary ranks 10th among quarterbacks, according to Spotrac, behind the RamsSam Bradford and his twice-torn ACL and the Bears’ floundering Jay Cutler.

A contract extension is a necessity for the Steelers as their quarterback enters the final year of his current deal. And it’s nearly mandatory from Roethlisberger’s perspective because playing at far below market value is never a wise life choice in football. One awkward tackle or twist can lead to dollars getting vacuumed away.

Few doubt any of the established facts here, including Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert. Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was among the media members present during a Tuesday press conference when Colbert said this:

Gerry Dulac @gerrydulac

Clarification from Steelers: Kevin Colbert said team HAS begun preliminary negotiations on a new contract for QB Ben Roethlisberger.

The concern doesn’t lie with that decision, as it’s one rooted in common-sense thinking. Instead, Colbert’s stance on Roethlisberger’s age is troubling.

Colbert said Roethlisberger will improve with the passage of time. That goes against everything we know to be true about athletes and time.

“I really think Ben is going to be a better quarterback down the road than he’s been up to this point,” Colbert said, via Dulac.

Dale Lolley @dlolley_pgh

Colbert said he feels Roethlisberger is getting better with age. Points to Brady and Manning as examples #Steelers

It’s possible Colbert is privately trying to convince himself that future will become reality and now doing it publicly as well. Hoping is really his only option.

The Steelers are $1.7 million over the projected 2015 salary cap, according to OverTheCap.com. That’s a hole they can wiggle out of by minimizing the blow from Roethlisberger’s mammoth $18.4 million cap hit.

However, that may quickly become another exercise in can-kicking, a time-honored February tradition around NFL front offices. A problem now will be resolved through Roethlisberger, who will in turn become a problem again later. Please insert another quarter in the merry-go-round.

A comparison comes to mind when looking at Roethlisberger’s current situation. Let’s take a moment to reflect on the New Orleans Saints and their similar dance with salary-cap can-kicking.

In 2012, the Saints finally agreed to an extension with quarterback Drew Brees.

At the time, he was the same age Roethlisberger will be heading into the 2015 season: a ripe and chipper 33. For normal people that is indeed youthful, but for quarterbacks it’s somewhere in the vast, mysterious space between rising and declining. At best, most quarterbacks have plateaued by that age, with some peaks far higher than others.

Brees inked a five-year contract worth $100 million. That’s a whole lot of zeros, but only $40,000 was guaranteed, and of the total base salary $49,250,000 was back-loaded into the final three years (all per Spotrac).

The Saints had created a short-term solution. Brees was paid and merrily kept on throwing, while a salary-cap conundrum was delayed.

Now Brees is one of only three players at any position in 2015 with a cap hit that exceeds $25 million. And I’m only counting New England Patriots cornerback Darrelle Revis to be generous (his cap hit is tied to a 2015 option).

Top three cap hits of 2015
PlayerBase salaryCap hit
Tony Romo$27.8 million$27.8 million
Drew Brees$18.8 million$26.4 million
Darrelle Revis$7.5 million$25 million
Source: Spotrac

That ballooning cap number has been the main villain in a salary-cap hole so deep the Saints can touch our planet’s core.

Including the Steelers, there are currently seven teams in the red for 2015, and only one has plunged past the $9 million mark. The Saints are a whopping $23.2 million over the cap, per Spotrac.

Given the age of both quarterbacks, their performance and the salary-cap hurt both teams are experiencing (though the Saints are on a different level of pain), it’s likely Roethlisberger’s new contract is structured similarly, with the true cap damage delayed. Which will feel good now and then be awful later.

The Saints are now staring down Brees’ monstrous cap number as he possibly prepares to enter his decline phase. In 2014, he posted his lowest yards per attempt in five years (7.5).

There’s no indication Roethlisberger is suddenly about to tumble off a steep cliff. But consider the tale of time told by the top 15 career passing leaders.

A quarterback’s passing yards measure effectiveness to some degree, but more importantly, compiling yards shows longevity. A passer needs plenty of both (skill and durability) to be on this list.

Top 15 all-time passing leaders
QuarterbackAge at retirement (or active age)Passing yards
Brett Favre4171,838
Peyton Manning3869,691
Dan Marino3861,361
Drew Brees3656,033
Tom Brady3753,258
John Elway3851,475
Warren Moon4449,325
Fran Tarkenton3847,003
Vinny Testaverde4446,233
Drew Bledsoe3444,611
Dan Fouts3643,040
Kerry Collins3940,922
Joe Montana3840,511
Johnny Unitas4040,239
Eli Manning3439,755
Source: Pro Football Reference

Brett Favre is among the outliers after he did the retirement dance for about half a decade before finally hanging up his cleats. You also can’t convince me Warren Moon is made of normal bones.

But of the 11 retired quarterbacks listed, six either walked away at the age of 38 or didn’t make it that far. Often the end came due to injury, like John Elway’s wonky knee forcing him to finally give in, or Joe Montana being severely slowed by an elbow injury late in his career.

Roethlisberger has remained healthy while missing only seven games over the past five seasons. Eventually, though, the abuse of suffering through six seasons when he had to absorb 40-plus sacks will add up. He’s tough and resilient, but Roethlisberger is still assembled using normal human parts (unlike Moon?). Prior to the 2014 season, he needed minor surgery to relieve discomfort in his right knee.

With the youth he’s surrounded by right now (running back Le’Veon Bell and wide receivers Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton), the Steelers will surely want to squeeze every ounce of prime production left in Roethlisberger’s arm.

A four-year extension would accomplish that while spreading out the cap hit. That’s the perk here, and it's all anyone will remember if the Steelers win another Super Bowl during Roethlisberger’s remaining years.

The drawback is being stuck with an aging, lumbering and cap-crippling quarterback under contract through his age-37 season. A quarterback who relies on his unique mobility to evade pass-rushers and improvise.

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