The Steelers need to avoid going the Joe Flacco-Ravens route when agreeing to a new contract with quarterback Ben Roethlisbeger.
By Ed Bouchette / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
There long has been a debate as to how paying a great quarterback an inordinate amount of money can detract from a team's ability to attract or keep enough talent to compete for a Super Bowl.
That debate will start anew now that Ben Roethlisberger's contract extension or non-extension becomes an issue.
Do big quarterback contracts prevent teams from fielding good talent elsewhere? That theory would not seem to hold true this year.
Look at the top two seeds in the AFC, Denver with Peyton Manning and New England with Tom Brady. Or tell that to the New Orleans Saints, where Drew Brees has led them again into the playoffs. Or to the Green Bay Packers, which won another division title behind Aaron Rodgers and may have advanced further if he weren't hurt during the season. San Diego last week won a playoff game with Philip Rivers
Four of those quarterbacks are among the best-paid in the NFL. And for all of the talk that Brady took a hometown discount, he also will be 37 when they kick off next season, and that contract will pay him $57 million guaranteed over five years. He'll be paid $15 million in 2017, when he is 40. Some hometown discount.
You can pay your elite quarterback and have your Super Bowl, too. They are not mutually exclusive.
Roethlisberger earns less than Joe Flacco, Matt Ryan, Jay Cutler, Matt Stafford, Matt Schaub, Rivers and Tony Romo, who combined have one less Lombardi Trophy and two fewer Super Bowl visits than Roethlisberger.
He deserves to climb above many of those. But listening to Steelers President Art Rooney II talk the other day, it sounds as if Roethlisberger will continue to draw his pay from his current contract and not an extension any time soon.
Let's go over Rooney's comment again:
"I certainly expect that at some point we will do a contract, whether it's this season , or after next season  or after the season after that , but I think Ben will be playing here beyond the current contract."
Rooney went on to say that while they have extended a few quarterbacks contracts when they had two years still to run, that wasn't "set in stone" as a policy.
This possibility was forseen in November and written about on my blog and in this space. We'll review how it might work.
They signed Roethlisberger in 2008 for eight years at $102 million. He has two years left on that deal with salaries due of $12.1 million and $11.6 million. Forget the salary cap figures because that's just a reflection of the bonuses they have paid him and also the restructuring they did almost annually with his contract to help them under the salary cap (he received no less or more money, they were merely bookkeeping moves).
Those salaries are comparatively low to many of the contracts NFL quarterbacks have signed recently.
Romo, who has never played in 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 does not look like he's getting there anytime soon, signed a five-year extension with Atlanta worth $103.75 million. Cutler, who also has never been to a Super Bowl, just signed a deal through 2021 for $126 million, although just $38 million of that is guaranteed.
Roethlisberger could reasonably be looking at an average of $20 million a year on a new contract, howeverlong it might be. That makes his annual salaries two great bargains through 2015. If they cannot come to terms on an extension next year, Roethlisberger will play in 2014 at $12.1 million. If they cannot come to terms on an extension after that season, Roethlisberger will play in 2015 for $11.6 million.
That brings us to 2016, when his contract will expire if he does not sign a new one.
Roethlisberger would become an unrestricted free agent if not signed by March 2016. But the Steelers would have two options before then, sign him to a long-term deal or make him their franchise player.
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.
It also worked out pretty well for the Baltimore Ravens when, in the final season of his contract, Joe Flacco led them to a Super Bowl victory last season. It cost the Ravens dearly when they signed Flacco to a six-year, $120 million deal this year, but they kept the quarterback they deemed to be their franchise player.
There is that average of $20 million a year again. Maybe by 2016 the average will climb toperhaps $25 million. But by then, Roethlisberger will be 34 and might be in position to do the kind of "hometown discount" that Brady did in his mid-30s with the Patriots.
Would Roethlisberger be upset if they do not sign him to an extension after this season? Maybe. Would it affect his play? No. He still would be paid handsomely over the next two seasons, he also still would be playing for his next contract, just as Brees and Flacco did.
The Steelers have no good option behind Roethlisberger. Bruce Gradkowski is only one year younger and while he may be a good backup, he does not have a long history as a starter. They also are not counting on Landry Jones.
Taking Rooney at his word, the Steelers want to sign Roethlisberger beyond his current contract. There's no reason to doubt that. But they also appear in no rush to do that in 2014.
Where do Steelers stand?
Rooney may be in favor of expanding the playoffs - which now has six teams from each 16-team conference - as NFL commissioner Roger Goodell would like to do.
The Steelers president also favors changing the instant replay system but not necessarily to include different kinds of plays under its umbrella.
Dan Rooney always has been against both expanding the playoffs and adding games to the 16-game regular season. He believes either water down the regular season.
His son does not want to seed teams -- one proposal -- based on their won-lost record if that includes division winners, who automatically get their first playoff game at home.
"To me, it kind of depends on what comes along with the package," Art Rooney said. "One thing I would be adamantly opposed to is changing the division system that we have. I think teams competing for the division title is something that adds to the rivalries we have. I know that has been discussed, but if that were part of the package I would be opposed to it.
"Beyond that, I think it is something we should look at it. I can't say right now whether I think it is a great idea or not, but it's certainly worthy of some consideration and again, seeing how it impacts other things we do, in terms of offseason calendars and preseason, Thursday night games and all the different things people want to talk about. I think there are a lot of pieces to the puzzle that have to be discussed."
And replay? He sounds as if he's in favor of moving it to the NFL offices in New York, where all replay decisions could be made. The NHL does it this way.
"I would like a system that doesn't take as long. If that's the college system or the NHL system, those are things we have to look at," he said. "But I do think we need to speed up the process, particularly for the fans who are sitting there in the stadium and sitting through all this stuff. It just takes too long and I really think we have too many replays."
However, he does not favor expanding the use of replay.
"While we might need to open up more of the kinds of plays that are eligible to be replayed, I don't necessarily want to see more replays per game."
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