The Pittsburgh Steelers opened training camp on Friday, but quarterback Ben Roethlisberger continues to think about the future. Before hitting the practice field for the first time, Roethlisberger spoke to reporters and admitted that retirement remains on his mind.
This mirrors what was said after the Steelers fell to the eventual Super Bowl champion New England Patriots in the AFC Championship game when Roethlisberger spoke to Pittsburgh's 93.7 The Fan and freaked everyone in Pittsburgh out: "I'm going to take this offseason to evaluate, to consider all options. To consider health, and family and things like that and just kind of take some time away to evaluate next season, if there's going to be a next season."
While he didn't call it quits then and there, it now looks like a distinct possibility that Big Ben's 14th season as the Steelers' starter may be his final one in the league. In a discussion with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ed Bouchette, Roethlisberger said being away from his family has weighed heavily on his mind in the latter years of his career. "I've been blessed to do this a long time. I think it's just seeing my kids growing up, and in the offseason I love getting to spend time with them, and then I come here and football season just has to take up so much of your time," he said.
But that's not the only concern the 35-year old has; the other piece of the puzzle is one that doubtlessly concerns everyone who suits up in the NFL: Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative disease that just this week was found in the brains of 99 percent of deceased former NFL players who were tested postmortem.
Roethlisberger cited that study and added, "There's a lot of scary things, and I think my wife would be okay if I hung it up, too." But he quickly followed that up by saying, "I still love the guys, I still love the game, so it was right for me to come back and give it everything I have this year."
This season, Roethlisberger will tie Terry Bradshaw for the longest tenure of any Steelers QB. He has appeared in three Super Bowls and has won two. Though he may be in the prime of his career, surrounded by the best roster he may have ever worked with, he also suffered a litany of injuries (and thus only completing all 16 games of a regular season three times). A healthier life spent with his family could easily outweigh the allures of football, especially when considering cash earnings that are nearing $160 million and a career that has spanned a lot longer than what Roethlisberger called "the average life expectancy in the NFL."
Pittsburgh may need to start thinking about the future a few years earlier than it had anticipated. But finding a franchise-caliber quarterback is a difficult feat for any team to accomplish; even 2016's first-overall draft pick Jared Goff is still a question mark and work-in-progress for the Los Angeles Rams. Barring any kind of trade-up that the Steelers may attempt in the 2018 NFL Draft, the team isn't likely to be picking in the first half of the first round. It's entirely possible that 2013 fourth-round draft pick Landry Jones or 2017 fourth-rounder Joshua Dobbs may be forced into starting duty a season from now, depending on Roethlisberger's decision.
The good news, should the Steelers find themselves in a quarterback crisis in 2018, is that the rest of the offense is in a very good place. The offensive line is heading into the 2017 season as Pro Football Focus' third-ranked unit and should remain stable as far as its starting five are concerned, following left tackle Alejandro Villanueva coming to terms on a four-year, $24 million deal earlier in the week. Wideout Antonio Brown is likely to play out his career in Pittsburgh, and a Roethlisberger retirement could easily prompt general manager Kevin Colbert to find long-term cash for the currently franchise-tagged (and holding out) running back Le'Veon Bell in the 2018 offseason.
But the bad news is that any transition from Roethlisberger to Jones or Dobbs would be a big step backward at the quarterback position, and it may not be one that the rest of the Steelers' prodigious offense and young-and-improving defense can compensate for. It would also be expensive. Though the Steelers would not be on the hook for Roethlisberger's $12 million salaries for 2018 or 2019, nor his total of $10 million in roster bonuses, the $12.4 million in signing bonuses -- all guaranteed money -- will be on the books next year, barring legal arbitration. Though Pittsburgh can lighten the burden if Roethlisberger's retirement becomes official after June 1, spreading the dead cap cash to $6.2 million per year in each of 2018 and 2019, it's still a considerable chunk of change that the Steelers will have to absorb, thus hamstringing their ability to spend that money elsewhere.
Regardless of whether the team reaches the Super Bowl this year or falls short, the Steelers have to be prepared for what comes next. Even if Roethlisberger's talk is just that -- talk -- Pittsburgh's brass has to be on the lookout for the quarterback of the future, whenever that may come. The fact that Roethlisberger has spoken publicly twice in six months about the prospect of his retirement means that the time when he's no longer behind center for the franchise may be coming sooner than later. It's his life and he should do what's best for his family and his health. But, in Pittsburgh, life after Big Ben won't be easy.