PITTSBURGH — To hear team president and CEO Art Rooney II tell it, the Pittsburgh Steelers are in a win-now mode.
The goal for the 2021 season is a third ring for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and a seventh for the organization.
“I would just say that we’re going to try and build a championship team to go into next year,” Rooney said in January. “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 that division and move on.”
Yet, the moves made in free agency have partially dismantled the very thing that kept them in the championship conversation a year ago. In moving on from some of their championship-caliber defensive players while retaining their aging, veteran quarterback and his favorite offensive weapon, the Steelers are sending mixed signals about their intentions for 2021.
Half of the team appears geared toward a rebuild, while the other half clings to the hope there’s one more championship run in a quarterback who hasn’t played in the Super Bowl in a decade. After the first wave of free agency, the Steelers appear on course for an identity crisis.
“You have three very young, talented quarterbacks in the division, and by keeping Ben, you’re stopping progress,” said former New York Jets general manager and ESPN analyst Mike Tannenbaum. “… When you’re paying somebody for past performance, it’s going to inhibit your ability to pay others.”
Earlier in the week on “Get Up,” Tannenbaum labeled the Steelers as one of the “losers” in free agency because they retained Roethlisberger and wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster at the expense of some defensive players. The losses of the last week combined with the retirement of center Maurkice Pouncey put a team that believes its championship window remains open in a tough spot.
“I do think it says a lot about Ben from a competitor standpoint that nobody would’ve questioned him if he went off into the sunset,” Tannenbaum said. “I just think you’re losing really key pieces that aren’t replaced overnight. I do think the defensive losses are able to be overcome.”
Overcoming those departures, though, won’t be easy.
The Steelers parted with five defensive starters from the 2020 season — a combined 3,097 snaps of experience. With the salary cap lowered by $15.7 million because of the COVID-19 pandemic and hefty contracts coming due, many of the moves were expected, but they come at a time the Steelers can’t really afford them if they’re trying to win in the immediate future.
The domino effect that landed the Steelers in this situation began with signing Roethlisberger to a two-year, $68 million contract extension in 2019. The Steelers have long restructured and extended their high-dollar players, pushing cap hits into the future, but they couldn’t have predicted a pandemic would drop the salary cap in the year their highest bill came due.
Roethlisberger was due to count $41.25 million against the cap this season, the highest in the league. A retirement or release would still leave behind $22.25 million in dead cap. Instead, the Steelers found middle ground with a reworked contract that reduced his cap hit to $25.9 million.
“The Rooney family is about loyalty, and I think over 20, 30 years, that serves them well, but I don’t think it was in their best short-term interest,” Tannenbaum said. “You’re paying somebody for their past performance. I’ve had aging quarterbacks in my career, and I think it’s one of those things, watching Ben down the stretch, looking at the numbers, it’s where the tape matches the numbers and you just see that it seems like he’s been an all-time great face of the franchise. But if I had to go win a football game, I would take Joe Burrow or Lamar Jackson or Baker Mayfield over him.”
Devoting those resources to a 39-year-old quarterback made money scarce for the 19 unrestricted free agents — many of whom were starters or promising, young talent.
Defensively, starters Mike Hilton, Bud Dupree and Tyson Alualu signed lucrative free-agent deals elsewhere in free agency. Backup linebacker and special teams ace Olasunkanmi Adeniyi joined Dupree and also signed with the Titans. Versatile offensive lineman Matt Feiler signed a three-year, $21 million contract with the Los Angeles Chargers.
Then the Steelers released veteran inside linebacker Vince Williams and cornerback Steve Nelson, saving $4 million and $8.25 million against the cap, respectively. The Nelson release was especially head-scratching, because while he freed up space, he was a solid corner opposite Joe Haden for two seasons after being given the most lucrative contract awarded by the Steelers to a free agent in the first week of the signing period.
Of the money the Steelers did spend, $8 million — though just a $2.4 million cap hit — went to Smith-Schuster. He returns on a one-year deal with four void years after it appeared he was a sure thing to leave in free agency. He gives Roethlisberger something of a security blanket for what will likely be the signal-caller’s last season, but it’s a questionable allocation of resources with a still-stocked wide receiver room and multiple holes to fill on the defense, offensive line and running back positions.
“Smith-Schuster, I think he’s a good player, a good teammate, but I think they did a remarkable job of drafting, developing and acquiring young receivers,” Tannenbaum said. “Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool. When you look at Smith-Schuster’s production — 97 catches is fantastic, but when it’s less than 9 yards.
“I’ve worked for a lot of great defensive coaches: Bill Belichick, Bill Parcells, Rex Ryan, Eric Mangini. From a defensive lens, you’re hoping the ball is being completed to a receiver that’s averaging less than 9 yards a catch.”
It’s been more than 10 years since the Steelers’ last Super Bowl appearance. They want to win another Lombardi trophy before Roethlisberger exits, but with the cap crunch and tough free-agency decisions, that seems unrealistic.