The Pittsburgh Steelers organization is about to wade into uncharted territory. The franchise sits on the precipice of a significant rebuild.
The Steelers have experienced decades of success with six Super Bowl victories between 1974 and 2008, and they've made 31 playoff appearances and won 24 division titles during a 49-year span. The team missed the playoffs for a stretch of four consecutive seasons only once during that time (1985-88).
No one can replicate what this franchise has done for an extended time, not even the Steelers.
Pittsburgh has strained the limits of what it could accomplish as its current setup attempted to win big this season. An 11-0 start made selling out for this season look like the right idea—until it wasn't. The Steelers lost five of their last six games and needed an improbable second-half comeback in Week 16 against the Indianapolis Colts to not drop all of them.
Now, the organization enters an offseason where its two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback is more of a burden than a benefit. The team has no long-term plan at quarterback. Financial restraints extend beyond Ben Roethlisberger's status. Plus, multiple key contributors are set to become free agents.
While the Steelers have a solid core to build around in outside linebacker T.J. Watt, inside linebacker Devin Bush (once healthy), wide receiver Chase Claypool, safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and defensive linemen Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, plenty of work needs to be done to renovate an aging and decaying roster, especially on the offensive side of the ball.
The sight of Roethlisberger sitting on the bench long after Sunday's embarrassing 48-37 loss to the Cleveland Browns with tears rolling down his face could become symbolic of what the Steelers must endure over the next few years.
Roethlisberger turns 39 in March. He didn't perform particularly well this season after needing surgery to repair the elbow on his throwing arm last offseason. Retirement could be on the way.
"It's going to start between me and God," Roethlisberger told reporters after his four-interception performance. "Lot of praying. And a lot of talking with my family. I still have a year left on my contract. I hope the Steelers want me back if that's the way we go."
According to a report from ESPN's Adam Schefter in December, the Steelers' all-time leading passer told others he wanted to continue playing next season. Maybe things have changed in the subsequent month based on how Pittsburgh finished its season.
"We didn't do enough," head coach Mike Tomlin told the media when asked about his team's late-season collapse. "We didn't position them in enough good circumstances. We didn't make enough plays, particularly in the critical moments. We were a group that died on the vine."
Whether the six-time Pro Bowl gunslinger steps away or not, the Steelers are in a pinch. The organization is a projected $21.9 million over the proposed $175 million salary cap for the 2021 campaign (depending on the league's profit margin during the pandemic), per Spotrac.
|Teams with Least Salary-Cap Space (2021)|
|Team||Projected Cap Space|
|28.||Pittsburgh Steelers||minus-$21.9 million|
|29.||Green Bay Packers||minus-$24.4 million|
|30.||Atlanta Falcons||minus-$32.2 million|
|31.||Philadelphia Eagles||minus-$74.1 million|
|32.||New Orleans Saints||minus-$99.8 million|
Roethlisberger counts for $41.3 million himself if the team chooses to give it one more shot with its current core, albeit in a reduced fashion since the quarterback's retention severely limits the organization's flexibility with other players and potential moves.
If Roethlisberger is released before a March roster bonus is due or he retires, the organization is still on the hook for $22.3 million in dead-cap space after restructuring his contract last offseason. A move away from the team's long-term starter would save Pittsburgh $19 million, but even that decision doesn't put it entirely in the clear.
The team can continue to rework current deals, but all that does is kick the can down the road. Eventually, the Steelers must address their unfavorable financial standing.
Pittsburgh may decide to move another aging veteran. Like his batterymate, center Maurkice Pouncey has one year remaining on his current deal. The lineman's cap hit for next season stands at $14.5 million. The Steelers can recoup $8 million with his release.
A Pouncey-Roethlisberger retirement package could take the team's ledger from the red into the black. The two sat alongside one another on the bench after the game, and it looked like the end of the line for both.
"I love that guy," Roethlisberger said of Pouncey. "He is one of the best competitors and teammates I've ever had. It's been so much fun to share a football field with him. I hate that it ended the way it did. I just wanted to apologize to him that I wanted to win it for him."
Still, those aren't easy decisions when it comes to franchise-defining performers. Furthermore, they're not easily replaceable.
The Steelers don't have an heir apparent to Roethlisberger. Mason Rudolph isn't the answer after multiple ineffective starts during his three-year career. The team doesn't have the money to sign a starting-caliber free agent. It must look into every trade or draft possibility to acquire a long-term option at the game's most important position whether the veteran returns next season or not.
Whoever starts behind center must deal with three potential changes along Pittsburgh's offensive front. As stated, Pouncey's future with the organization remains in doubt. If the nine-time Pro Bowl selection moves on, J.C. Hassenauer (an exclusive rights free agent) could take over snapping duties after starting four games during the regular season, though he'd be a downgrade.
Both left guard Matt Feiler and left tackle Alejandro Villanueva are set to enter free agency. Kevin Dotson should step right in at guard. This year's 135th overall draft pick showed a lot of promise in his first season. A blindside protector will be far more difficult to find. The Steelers don't have anyone on the roster who can step in tomorrow and take over at left tackle. Aside from quarterback, left tackle should be general manager Kevin Colbert's top offseason priority if Villanueva doesn't re-sign on a relatively cheap veteran deal.
The offensive line's performance declined in general over the last two seasons, but the group could struggle even more depending on what occurs over the next few months.
That's only the starting point of potential free agents Pittsburgh probably won't be able to sign because of financial restraints.
The idea that Bud Dupree returns at anywhere near this year's franchise-tag number ($15.8 million) isn't going to happen. The edge defender can test the market and get something close to his market value after two excellent seasons.
Nose tackle may need to be addressed again after Pittsburgh lost Javon Hargrave in free agency last year since Tyson Alualu turns 34 in May and isn't under contract. Chris Wormley is a pending free agent as well.
Pittsburgh's secondary could use some retooling. Cornerback Joe Haden turns 32 in three months and carries a $15.6 million salary-cap hit into next season. He can be released to save the Steelers $12.6 million. That money should be put toward re-signing cornerbacks Cameron Sutton and Mike Hilton, who are also free agents.
Inside linebacker Vince Williams could be a salary-cap casualty as well. The 31-year-old defender's release can save Pittsburgh another $4 million. Robert Spillane (another exclusive rights free agent) can start next to Bush.
Back on offense, the quarterback and his protectors may be prioritized, but JuJu Smith-Schuster probably walks in free agency. Pittsburgh still has Claypool, Diontae Johnson and James Washington. Still, Smith-Schuster led the team with 13 receptions for 157 yards during Sunday's implosion. Someone must take over the slot.
While the running game provided next to nothing, James Conner's potential departure in free agency creates another void. Running back may not be a priority, but Pittsburgh must improve upon its 32nd-ranked rushing attack—which is yet another concern.
So much needs to be accomplished in a short amount of time, and Colbert has limited assets at his disposal. A difficult offseason lies ahead for an organization that's used to operating at a Super Bowl standard. No one in the locker room even knows if they'll be a part of the Steelers next season.
"It's totally possible that I could be gone next year. I don't know what to expect," Heyward told reporters when asked if the team could look completely different next season. "We are in uncharted territory, to say the least, and changes have to be made."