The Steelers will not dangle Ben Roethlisberger as trade bait after the season. That, we've been assured by the team, by Roethlisberger and by his agent, will not happen. * But will they sign him to a contract extension?
Typically, that's what they do. They have a starting quarterback with two years left on his deal and they sign him to an extension. They did it with Roethlisberger, who signed an eight-year, $102 million contract in 2008. They did it with Tommy Maddox and Kordell Stewart before him.
One quarterback they did not extend was Neil O'Donnell, who became a free agent in 1996, less than two months after he led them to Super Bowl XXX against Dallas. The Steelers made him an offer, but the New York Jets blew it away, and O'Donnell signed with them for $25 million over five years, including a $7 million signing bonus. It was more than John Elway or Dan Marino was getting paid.
Roethlisberger has two years left on his eight-year contract with salaries due of $12.1 million in 2014 and $11.6 million in 2015. That is chump change compared to some of the contracts NFL quarterbacks have signed recently.
Tony Romo, who has never been to a Super Bowl, signed with the Dallas Cowboys for six years and $108 million last spring. Matt Ryan, who also has never been to a Super Bowl and doesn't look like he's getting there anytime soon, signed a five-year extension with Atlanta worth $103.75 million.
Roethlisberger could reasonably be looking at an average of $20 million a year on a new contract. So at $23.7 million combined over the next two seasons, he's a bargain.
That brings us to 2016, when his contract will expire if he does not sign a new one before then. Roethlisberger would turn 34 on March 2, 2016, and could very well be as good or even better than now. Many quarterbacks that age are still in their prime and there's no reason to believe he will not be. He can become an unrestricted free agent and sign anywhere he wants in 2016, unless he comes to terms with the Steelers or they make him their franchise player. Who knows what it might cost them in 2016.
The New Orleans Saints allowed Drew Brees' contract to expire, then tagged him as their franchise player in 2012. They came to terms on a five-year, $100 million contract that summer. He will turn 35 in January and no one is saying he's over the hill; Brees leads the NFC with a 108.9 passer rating and has his Saints in first place in the NFC South at 7-2.
So could the Steelers treat Roethlisberger the way the Saints treated Brees over a new contract? That story made headlines in New Orleans for a while, but it looks as though it's working out for both sides.
There's no rule the Steelers must sign their quarterbacks to extensions with two years left on a deal.
It worked out well for the Baltimore Ravens, too. In the final season of his contract, Joe Flacco led them to a Super Bowl victory last season. It ultimately cost the Ravens dearly when they signed him to a six-year, $120 million contract this year, much more than what they could have signed him to in 2012.
There is that average of $20 million a year again. Maybe by 2016 the average will climb to $25 million. Either way, the Steelers have a bargain in their quarterback until then, if that's the path they take.
Would Roethlisberger be upset if they do not sign him to an extension after this season? Probably. Would it affect his play? Not likely. He still would be paid handsomely over those two seasons. He also would be playing for his next contract, just as Brees and Flacco did.
At the moment, the Steelers have no good option behind Roethlisberger. Bruce Gradkowski is only one year younger than Roethlisberger and while he may be a good backup, he does not have a strong history as a starter. They also are not counting on rookie Landry Jones to be their next starter. And the college ranks are full of Trojan horses at the position. Just ask the Oakland Raiders, who made JaMarcus Russell the first pick in the 2007 draft.
All signs point to the Steelers wanting to keep Roethlisberger long term. He may very well play his entire career with them. They have him under contract for another two years and, if they want, they can wait to explore all of their options.
Those who interviewed Dick LeBeau after practice Thursday showed extreme politeness (translation: none of them laughed) as he answered a question as to whether any kind of defense works against Detroit wide receiver Calvin Johnson.
"Get the quarterback on the ground before he can throw it," LeBeau said. "That works pretty well against all passes."
The problem for the Steelers is they rarely get to the quarterback. They have 16 sacks, a pace for 28, which would be the second fewest in a 16-game season since sacks became an official stat in 1982. They managed only 19 in 1988.
In addition, Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford has been sacked only 10 times.
"He gets rid of the ball very quickly," LeBeau said. "He will throw the ball ... a lot of times when he can't see anything but the opposing rush. That's why his sack numbers are down. He's very good with rhythm passing. He gets the ball out. He's not a rookie, either. But he will take some chances with the ball. Hopefully we can make him pay for some of those."
That's been another shortcoming of the Steelers defense; they have only five interceptions.