By BOB LABRIOLA
Dan Rooney characterized the negotiations that resulted in an eight-year, $102 million contract extension for Ben Roethlisberger as "easy."
How could it have been anything but easy? It's always easy when one side has no real leverage.
As Director of Football Operations Kevin Colbert explained, only 27 quarterbacks in NFL history ever have won a Super Bowl, and of those 27, only seven are still active players. Ben Roethlisberger is one of the 27, one of the seven, and because he is only 26 years old on March 2 he has a real chance to become one of the nine quarterbacks in NFL history to win more than one.
That's why the Steelers had no leverage in these discussions. That's why it was in the team's best interest to get this extension done quickly.
"Being that Ben is 26 years old, he can really do some special things in his career," said Colbert. "He probably hasn't played his best football yet. Usually these guys don't peak at the age of 25 or 26. We really think that his better days are ahead of him. We will try to put the best team around him that will allow him to succeed."
In the bottom line business that is the NFL, the top quarterbacks in the league are Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, Roethlisberger and Eli Manning. Forget those other lists compiled by certain members of the media, or the self-proclaimed scouting services that have no connection with the NFL.
Those five guys are the top quarterbacks in the league because they're the ones who already have won the Super Bowl and have a chance to win more. And the teams employing those players aren't about to let one hit the open market in the prime of his career.
"We kind of understood that because this kid has done tremendous things," said Colbert. "Quarterbacks get compensated a lot so you knew that going into the 2007 season that this was going to be the time that we were going to talk to him. Then he had a special season, and he earned the big contract. The organization recognized that and was willing to compensate him for that. We always have to keep in mind the big picture, but a big part of that big picture is the quarterback. Fortunately, he is under contract for a number of years."
After Roethlisberger signed his new contract, he became the third highest-paid player in the NFL. Peyton Manning's contract averages $14 million a season; Carson Palmer is next at $13.2 million; and then comes Roethlisberger at $12.75 million.
"It's a big relief (to get this done)," said Roethlisberger. "All the questions that I have been getting for the last month hopefully can finally come to an end. Like Coach Tomlin and I said, we can put it behind us now and focus strictly on football and getting more rings and more championships for this organization."
Exactly. It wasn't as though the Roethlisberger contract wasn't going to get done, and so now that it is the Steelers can get about the business of trying to improve and fortify their roster in advance of the 2008 season.
"Obviously we did have the cap space available to do the types of things that we have done," said Colbert. "We didn't have to make any roster moves to accommodate any of the moves that happened today."
The most commonly cited areas the Steelers need to improve are the offensive line, the defensive line and backup running back; whether any of those positions can be fortified through free agency remains to be determined, but by getting the Roethlisberger extension completed the team knows where it stands from a salary cap standpoint.
"Our philosophy is always going to be to try to keep our own players," said Colbert about the Steelers' approach to free agency. "We always know where the cap is and we are aware of what we can and can't do. We have to work within those restrictions but we are never going to shortchange them either."
One area in which the Steelers might receive some salary cap relief is with the transition tag it applied to Max Starks. When the Steelers tagged Starks, they reserved the right to match any contract offer he receives on the open market, but they also were assessed $6.895 million on their cap, because that's the amount of the tender they had to extend to Starks as a transition player.
Both sides want a long-term contract, and the first year of such a deal figures to carry a cap number lower than $6.895 million.
"In our talks with Max and his representatives prior to putting the tag on him, it was mutually agreed that we want to do this thing long-term," said Colbert. "Sometimes you can't quickly get that done. He probably wants to see what else is out there for him, which is his right under the collective bargaining agreement. We are fine with that. Maybe you shop around, see what your value is, and then you get something that is more tempting than we are going to be able to do. I don't know. But he'll have that option and then we will have the option to match it, in addition to continue talking to him prior to that."
With the Roethlisberger situation settled, the Steelers will know exactly what they can and cannot do in that situation, and in an y of the others to arise during the rest of this offseason.
"It is important to be able to keep the guys that we have," said Roethlisberger. "We have a great group of guys so I'm excited about this year, the team that we have and the new guys that we will have coming in; free agents that we are going to get. It's exciting to be with the Pittsburgh Steelers this year. I'm sure that the fans and everybody else is going to be just as excited as we are."