Rooney on T.J., Ben, HOF and more

Steelers President Art Rooney II addressed a variety of topics with the media on Tuesday afternoon, chief among them the future of several key players, linebacker T.J. Watt and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

Watt is entering the final year of his rookie contract, and the hope is to sign him before the start of the regular season.

"We'd like to get T.J.'s deal done, if we can, before the start of the season," said Rooney. "That's the goal. I don't like to get into those details in terms of the discussions, but we're going to try to get it done by the start of the season if we can.

"I try not to get optimistic or pessimistic. I've seen these things go so many different ways over the years. We're just going to do our best and I think both sides want to get something done so that's always a good thing."

In Roethlisberger's case, the quarterback was signed to a new contract for 2021, and Rooney didn't rule out him being around beyond that.

"We're aware that this could be Ben's last year, and we hope it's a great one," said Rooney. "That's as far as we can go with it right now. Obviously, if this is his last year, then next year we'll be making decisions on quarterback and we'll address it as that time comes up. Yeah, it's not written in stone that this is his last year."

Rooney was asked if he sees anything different in Roethlisberger, a sense of urgency knowing that he is reaching the later part of his career.

"I think there's a sense of urgency, however you want to say it," said Rooney. "I think Ben recognizes that this at least could be his last year, and I think he wants to make sure that if it is, he goes out on a high note."

Rooney spoke to the media from Heinz Field where the Steelers are holding training camp for the second straight year because of COVID protocols. He said having camp at Heinz Field and not Saint Vincent College this year was not the team's decision, but one they had to adhere to.

"I'm not going to go into the specifics of it," said Rooney. "It certainly wasn't our decision, let's put it that way. We're not happy about it, but again, it's one of these things that, under the circumstances, we have to live with that, (though) we'd rather not. That's where we are."

At this point the Steelers and the NFL are expecting full capacity at games for 2021, beginning on Thursday night when they take on the Dallas Cowboys in the Pro Football Hall of Fame game. But with cases rising across the country, Rooney said they are keeping an eye on everything.

"I have to keep my eye on things this year, what advice is coming from the CDC and local public health," said Rooney. "It's something that you certainly can't ignore. We're keeping our fingers crossed, but so far, we're expecting to have a full stadium. Tickets have sold like it's going to be full capacity, so for now all systems are go."

The Steelers have been highly successful as far as vaccination rate among players goes, and Rooney hopes it only gets better as the regular season approaches.

"We are at a very high percentage," said Rooney. "I can't give you the exact number but we're less than a handful away from being 100 percent. And we're shooting for 100 percent. I can't really predict where we'll be in September, but we'd like to be at 100 percent.

"I think in our case, number one, we have a great trainer. John Norwig is one of the best in the league and our players trust him and he did a great job with it, as well as Coach (Mike) Tomlin, talking to the players and making sure they understood how important it was. I think it was more trusting the leadership of the team that probably made the difference here."

More from Art Rooney II:

On if he is satisfied with where the team is right now with fixing the running game:
"I would say I like the direction that we're going. Again, we have work to do, and we've got a whole preseason ahead of us here to really do that kind of work and make sure we're ready for the season, so these next few weeks are going to be important."

On if he likes the group that's assembled here or are there some areas he'd like to see shored up before you kickoff in September:
"Well, let's start with: I like the group we have and I think we have a lot of good players, talented players. Obviously, we have some young people that we're hoping are going to step up and take a big step forward this year. And some changes on the offensive line, so there are things we're keeping our eye on and we need to develop. It's good we have four preseason games this year that'll help us get through some of that."

On his thoughts on the NFL's decisions about forfeitures and heavier fines for teams that cause a game to be delayed:
"I think it's the right decision. I think we've seen that it can have a big impact if you have to move a game. It had a lot of impact on us last year, and I think the Commissioner has kind of laid out the path that we're going to play this season as scheduled and if somebody can't make it then they're going to bear the consequences. So, I'm up for that."

On what it means for the organization to play in the Hall of Fame game when you have so many guys going in the Hall:
"It's an honor, number one, to be in Canton with everything that's going on this year and to have this many guys going in in one weekend is unique. It's special. I had a chance to talk to the players Monday morning about it and just making sure they knew how special of a week this is for our franchise. We're excited about it. It's going to be a great weekend."

On what made the relationship between Bill Cowher and Troy Polamalu special:
"Any time a coach and one of his players can go in together, it's a special thing. Troy was a special player, obviously. I know Bill has a great appreciation for everything he did while he was coaching him and helped us win a Super Bowl. It's a great relationship and it's great to see them going in together."

On if he saw a change in their relationship from Troy's rookie year to after:
"Troy needed a year to develop and adjust to being in the league, and I think Bill helped him along with that and I know Troy appreciates that. That's part of their relationship."

On Bill Nunn also being a part of the group of Steelers going into the Hall of Fame:
"It's pretty special. Number one, Bill is a special person for me and just a special member of the organization for so many years. He had such a great impact on the game in terms of really bringing the African American players into the league in a way that hadn't been happening prior to his being part of the league. Just knowing all the different relationships Bill had throughout the organization down through the years, it's special and it's about time that they recognize guys like Bill for what they did."