In a lot of ways, what the Pittsburgh Steelers and General Manager Kevin Colbert are in the process of doing now is a high stakes version of putting together a puzzle. In the end, all of the pieces have to be assembled, the pieces have to fit, and there cannot be any pieces missing if the final product is to portray the desired picture.
In putting together the puzzle that's to become the 2021 Steelers, the biggest piece remains a question mark, its availability remains an unknown. The clock is ticking on the deadline for a resolution, and while we're told work has been done on arriving at a solution, we're also being told there still is much work to be done.
During a normal year, this time in the NFL calendar would have Colbert meeting with the media in advance of the Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. But there has been nothing "normal" about the NFL or life in general since March 2019 because of COVID-19. Colbert still met with the media on Wednesday, but it was via Zoom instead of in person, and there isn't even going to be a Scouting Combine in Indianapolis this year, at least not in the typical form.
"As far as the Combine, the Combine is still up for discussion," said Colbert. "I'm actually on a Combine committee. We are trying to move closer to what we will be able to do when and where. As we stand right now, it will be a medical-only for select players, and that process will hopefully get finalized in the next week or so."
Back to the Steelers' puzzle. The name of that biggest piece is Ben Roethlisberger, and he's the biggest and most important piece because he is the starting quarterback and has been since 2004 in addition to his contract occupying the largest slice of the pie that is the team's 2021 salary cap.
Where we are today is pretty much where we were about three weeks ago when Steelers President Art Rooney II said Colbert and Coach Mike Tomlin had spoken to Roethlisberger, that Roethlisberger expressed an interest in playing the 2021 season, that the Steelers had "left that door open," and that Roethlisberger had been told "we couldn't have him back under the current contract, and so I think he understands we have some work to do there. We'll have more conversations, and we'll have more conversations internally, we'll have more conversations with Ben, and obviously we'll have to know what the cap number is at some point to really finalize some of those decisions."
When asked on Wednesday for an update on the Roethlisberger situation, Colbert said, "As we sit here today, Ben is a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers. He met with Art Rooney II, he met with Coach Tomlin, he met with me shortly after the season ended. He reiterated to us that he wants to continue to play, and we told him quite frankly we have to look at this current situation. Art addressed that with Ben's current cap number, some adjustment will have to be made. And we aren't negotiating as we sit here (today) to answer this question. Ben Roethlisberger is on the team. Ben Roethlisberger did a lot of really good things last year, and we anticipate he could still do some good things moving forward. Hopefully, there is a way we could try and figure out how to do what's best for the organization and how to do what's best for Ben. And hopefully, he will be able to do that and feel the same way we do. But there's a lot of work that needs to be done. Not only with Ben, but just with the whole unrestricted free agent class and our whole cap situation as well."
Some might view Colbert's answer as double-speak, a dodge of a significant issue that already has been resolved. But going back to something else Rooney said in late January in combination with Colbert's answer to a follow-up question paints a different picture. It's a picture of a very complex, multi-faceted issue where so many aspects are interrelated.
First, this from Rooney: "You know, we've got to look at the whole roster, obviously, in the context of this year's salary cap and make decisions on it. But I would just say that we're going to try and build a championship team to go into next year. Whether we can do that or not remains to be seen, but we're not going to sit here and say, 'OK, we're three years away.' I mean, we're just not going to look at it that way. We're going to put the best team on the field that we can next year and do our best to compete to No. 1, win our division, and then move on (from there)."
From that, it's clear the Steelers have no interest in a rebuild, and so with a goal of trying to "put the best team on the field" that they can, finding a way to bring Roethlisberger back would seem to be very much in play. But it's not as simple as that, because of the salary cap ramifications, because of the 19 unrestricted free agents, because of the reality that bringing back a 39-year-old quarterback has no chance to succeed if too many of the supporting cast are JV.
"When we met previously," said Colbert, "we all agreed that we will get together again at some point once we get further down the road and have a better understanding about what free agency is and what the cap might be. And from a personnel standpoint, we will have a better idea about what type of players will be available to us in free agency and how we might want to address either keeping our own or adding someone, and we will have a much better feel — we are getting a much better feel — for the draft class. So, all that comes together collectively, and we can have a better idea about what our team will be in 2021 and how can Ben be a part of it and make that group as good as it can be. So, it is an ongoing process that doesn't just involve him, but involves the players around him … What kind of team can he anticipate being around him if we decide we can move forward together?"
The more Colbert was asked about the situation and the more he talked about it, the deciding factor in whether Roethlisberger is the starting quarterback in 2021 seemed to settle more on the financial impact of his contract on the salary cap than any decline in performance significant enough for the team to look to move on.
"Going back on Ben's 2020 season, he really did do some special things," said Colbert. "In the beginning of the year, we talked about watching what he was doing because he was doing some incredible things as we were building that 11-0 record. A lot of that was him performing at crucial times in games. Down the stretch, we didn't play as good around him. We didn't play as good on defense, obviously we have talked about the running game failing us at a time of the year where the running game is critical. Can he still do some special things? Absolutely. Did he do that to his expectations? I think he would be the first to tell you, no. Ben cares about one thing. He cares about winning a Super Bowl. He is no different than us. When it doesn't happen, he is never going to be satisfied. Whatever team we come up with in 2021, it will be a team that we hope we are not talking about losing a first-round playoff game."