Hebda: Cherish Roethlisberger if he returns to play in 2021-22

Jacob Hebda | Staff Writer

Jan. 28, 2021

Super Bowl LV is officially set. Kansas City and Tampa Bay are slated to battle on Feb. 7.

Patrick Mahomes’ Chiefs find themselves on the doorstep of a second consecutive championship. They would be the first team to accomplish that since the Patriots won back-to-back in 2003-04 and 2004-05.

Speaking of that legendary New England team, their former quarterback is hoping to win his seventh Super Bowl, albeit for the Buccaneers this time.

Every Super Bowl is heavily anticipated, but some years even more so. This is one of those instances, as the NFL will witness its brightest star of the past two decades facing off with the future of the league.

Per tradition though, the penultimate week of the season will feature no competitive action other than the generally unnoticed Pro Bowl. This season, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there isn’t even a customary Pro Bowl.

So, with what is essentially a two-week lull for the NFL, this seems like a proper time to evaluate Pittsburgh’s own football team.

With a record six Super Bowls for the Steelers, the city’s fans are accustomed to winning. In recent years though, those expectations have undeniably diminished.

In what has become a disturbing trend, Mike Tomlin’s team experienced another late season collapse. A historic 11-0 start was quickly blemished by three consecutive losses. Then, in a playoff game where they were widely favored, the Steelers fell to Cleveland, 48-37.

Now, Pittsburgh is at a crossroads. With the roster aging earlier than hoped, especially on offense, the championship window may be closed.

It’s unfamiliar territory for the storied franchise. When a future Hall of Famer leads your offense for 17 years, as Ben Roethlisberger has, a Super Bowl always seems within reach.

That mission remains the same now, though the prospects for the 2021 season are far murkier than in years past.

The Steelers looked elite at various points early in the season, but their eventual implosion raises legitimate concerns about the future.

A return from Ben, which seems likely, would be the best path to a postseason berth. Despite stumbling down the stretch, Roethlisberger still showed glimpses of his former self. No game better encapsulates his erratic play than the playoff loss against Cleveland, in which he threw four interceptions and four touchdowns.

Bringing Ben back would come at a cost though. $41.25 million, to be exact. That’s good for the most expensive salary cap hit in the NFL.

If Roethlisberger retires, the Steelers would save money, but it also dampens postseason aspirations. They would still owe him $22.5 million, too.

The remaining roster features a decent array of talent, particularly on defense. Mainstays T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Cam Heyward will lead what should be a stingy group.

Offensively, the receiving duo of Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool is a bright spot. Beyond those two though, the prospects are questionable.

A once-dominant offensive line has finally succumbed to age. Former All-Pros Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro, as well as Alejandro Villanueva, could retire.

An already vapid backfield projects to lose its top runner this offseason, James Conner.

The offensive line and run game are the only two units in particularly poor shape, but the path to repair is unclear.

Pittsburgh can draft linemen or a new running back, but there is no guarantee of immediate contribution. Adding impactful veterans via free agency is highly improbable given the cap situation. A trade would cost Pittsburgh a key player for next year or a draft pick for an eventual rebuild.

No clear solution exists, which is why it will be months before a plan truly comes into fruition.

The Roethlisberger Era could be barreling toward an ignominious conclusion, but the Steelers still have a puncher’s chance next year. Their fate next season is anyone’s guess.

Perhaps the best strategy, then, is for observers to simply appreciate what should be Roethlisberger’s last playoff push.

Few franchises are ever graced with a quarterback as accomplished as the two-time Super Bowl-winning Roethlisberger.

The list of active quarterbacks with two championship wins is brief: Brady, Roethlisberger and, if he beats Tampa on Feb. 7, Mahomes. It may be decades before another quarterback of Roethlisberger’s talent arrives in Pittsburgh.

Ben may not be the same player he once was, but he’s good enough to give his team a chance. With the clock ticking on this golden era, we should enjoy the final ride before Roethlisberger finally hangs up his cleats.