All along, he was optimistic. If not foolishly optimistic, then at least going above and beyond to find the silver lining in what appeared to be a very dark cloud. After all, his team's 38-year-old quarterback had surgery on his throwing elbow to repair what turned out to be a couple of torn ligaments.
Maybe in the make-believe world of television, Colonel Steve Austin could emerge from the hospital after surgeons remade him as a better version of himself, but in the real world there is no such thing as a bionic limb even for the price of $6 million.
General Manager Kevin Colbert was a guy believed to be living in a dream world when he continually made the point that ligament surgery on Ben Roethlisberger's right elbow might not be the end of the Steelers' world, but today, with Roethlisberger not having missed a practice with any sort of right elbow setback or even discomfort and with Roethlisberger and his throwing arm easily passing the eye test every time the Steelers hold a training camp practice, Colbert comes across as a guy who could predict the future. Accurately predict the future.
On Feb. 13, Colbert said this about Roethlisberger: "He still is in rehab. He visits with our doctors. All signs are good at this point, and we're hopeful that he can make a complete recovery. As of right now, he's on schedule for that … We have to be realistic. He's a great quarterback who suffered a season-ending injury to his right arm. Optimistically, he's on schedule to return and we hope to return to maybe even a better Ben Roethlisberger than he was previous to the injury."
If that didn't put him far enough out on a limb, Colbert doubled down inside the Indiana Convention Center during the NFL Scouting Combine with this on Feb. 24: "What we reemphasize is we love the progress, but we don't play until September. We will continue to follow all the doctor's orders. We will continue to encourage Ben. But the thing that is exciting about it is we might have a better Ben Roethlisberger coming out of this surgery. He sat for a year, he didn't have wear and tear on his body for a year. Sure, he had a significant surgery, but we are optimistic he might be better … there's a certain amount of rust that builds up, and we have to look at it that way as well. But physically, he didn't play a season of NFL football, so physically he should be better. The arm, who knows? His arm could be stronger coming out of this surgery. You never know the extent of an injury … how long was it bothering him without him even knowing it? So now we know where it is, and we are optimistic that he might be better."
Earlier today, six months after making those statements, Colbert sat down for a Zoom call with the Pittsburgh media, and while he isn't in a position where the Steelers roster has sufficient depth everywhere, or where there are no outstanding contract negotiations hanging over the team's head, or where there isn't a potential threat of a salary cap Armageddon in 2021 tied to potential revenue losses linked to the COVID-19 pandemic, he also isn't in a position where he has to answer for being wrong about the franchise quarterback.
Roethlisberger's progress from the surgery to repair his right arm has gone as well as anyone reasonably could have expected or hoped. There have been no setbacks. He resumed throwing a football earlier than the initial prognosis indicated he would. And as Coach Mike Tomlin said last week when asked about him, "He has been given full clearance from the medical experts, so I don't look at him and distribute reps based on him coming off of an injury … It just hasn't been a lot of work as of yet for me to have a significant impression. I like his velocity. I acknowledge that I have seen his spiral tighter, but I also acknowledge it is August and we have roughly a month until we step into a stadium, so we will all keep working."
They all will keep working toward the opening of the regular season, including the 38-year-old quarterback with the surgical scar on his throwing arm.
"We had some information on how the surgery went," said Colbert today when asked why he always has taken such an optimistic tone regarding Roethlisberger. "We were confident how the rehab was going. We were encouraged by how Ben was so positive in this issue. The thing I kept saying was that we might have a better quarterback moving forward because at his age without one year of wear-and-tear on his legs and his body and with maybe a healthier arm coming out of this surgery, that this guy could actually be a better quarterback than he has been. And that's exciting.
"To this point, it's been great. Physically, he looks great," continued Colbert. "He's still working on some timing issues because he hasn't played a lot with some of the younger players. Chase Claypool, obviously because he's a rookie, but Diontae Johnson – Ben spent part of a training camp with him and some preseason work and then a game-and-a-half (of the regular season), but that's not a lot. Eric Ebron, a brand new guy. He's figuring out that timing, but physically we feel great about where he is."
IT'S UNLIKELY THE POLICY WILL CHANGE
It was in 1993, one of the first years to be governed by the NFL's new-at-the-time business model of free agency tied to a salary cap, and the Steelers made the mistake of trying to do some contract extensions with some veteran players during the regular season.
Some negotiations were unsuccessful, some other players weren't approached, and there were hard feelings all around. Because of it, Dan Rooney instituted a policy that all contract negotiations would be suspended upon the start of the regular season so all parties could focus solely on the business of winning football games.
The 2020 NFL calendar has been turned upside down by the COVID-19 pandemic, and attached to that is a financial insecurity the NFL hasn't experienced for a generation. With many Steelers players on the verge of unrestricted free agency (March 2021), Colbert was asked whether the team would compromise on its "all contract negotiations cease at the start of the regular season" mandate.
"We haven't talked about amending our policy, and that's an organizational policy that's been in place for a lot of years, and so I don't anticipate that changing," said Colbert. "We'll continue to look at situations, and if one makes sense we'll do it. I don't anticipate us changing that (policy) under the current conditions.
"We never have and never will talk about an individual negotiation. We're always looking at where we are and where we want to be, not only in 2020, but we also have to keep in mind what the future holds for us in 2021 and beyond. Quite honestly, that's a big unknown. We don't know what we're dealing with in future salary caps. We just have to be aware of that, and we also have to be aware of where we are in 2020, and if something makes sense then we'd consider it."
NEW AND IMPROVED PRACTICE SQUAD?
One of the changes implemented for the 2020 season is an expansion of a team's practice squad to 16 players, and within those 16 players there can be six veterans. And by veterans, that means individuals whose years of service previously would've rendered them ineligible for the practice now would be eligible for the practice squad. To take this to the extreme as a way of explaining the new policy, the Steelers could put Roethlisberger, a 17th-year pro, on the practice squad.
"When we got the new rules and learned that up to six veteran players can be part of your practice squad, that changed our thinking," said Colbert, "because when we look for players that we sign to futures contracts in the offseason, if they don't have practice squad eligibility we're a little reluctant to sign those types because they either make the team or they don't. With this now a possibility, we decided to look for the young veteran who, if he doesn't make your team, could be eligible for your practice squad. That was part of the reason we signed Curtis Riley and Wendell Smallwood, because they are the kind of veteran player who now is eligible for the practice squad. Not to say they're destined to be on the practice squad, but at least we have those options. It is a different world, and we tried to expand our thinking to make sure the practice squad we do come up with is the best practice squad it can be."