Ben Roethlisberger's plan for the 2021 season has been one of the main questions surrounding the Steelers since Pittsburgh's wild-card playoff loss to the Browns. While he had previously stated he wanted to at least honor the final year of his contract, Roethlisberger was non-committal when asked about the 2021 season immediately following Pittsburgh's season-ending loss to Cleveland.
While he still has not officially made a decision on the 2021 season, there is "optimism within the organization" that Roethlisberger will return, according to NFL Network's Mike Garofolo. Garofolo's report appears to indicate that, if Roethlisberger wants to play another season, the Steelers will welcome him back with open arms.
"I hope the Steelers want me back if that's the way we go," Roethlisberger said after throwing for 501 yards with four touchdowns and four interceptions in the Steelers' 48-37 loss to the Browns.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said this week that it is "reasonable to assume" that there is a chance that Roethlisberger will at least honor the remainder of his contract. Tomlin lauded Roethlisberger's performance in 2020 that came following a season that saw him miss 14 games after undergoing major elbow surgery.
"With the uncertainly coming off of injury, and particularly not having an opportunity to perform in preseason games and so forth, there really was a high level of concern about his health and his ability to perform," Tomlin said, via Steelers.com's Teresa Varley. "I can't say enough about his efforts. I can't say enough about the efforts of our medical staff and our rehabilitation staff that worked hand in hand with him to get him to that process and get him to stadiums this year.
"I was more than pleased with the performance of his health and his ability to stay up. In terms of the quality of his play and our play, we'll begin to assess that in the upcoming days, but in terms of him responding to the challenges that he specifically came into the season ready to face, spectacular."
If Roethlisberger returns for an 18th season, he will play for a new offensive coordinator. Randy Fichtner was one of three assistants whose contracts were not renewed by the team. Roethlisberger may also lose soon-to-be free agents JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner. Alejandro Villanueva, his starting left tackle since 2015, may also depart this offseason.
Big Ben will likely have to adjust his salary if the Steelers want to try to re-sign Smith-Schuster. While Roethlisberger's 2021 salary is $19 million, his $41 million cap hit would significantly hinder Pittsburgh's ability to sign any of its 26 free agents. The Steelers also have to find a way to extend the contracts of defensive stars T.J. Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick. Pittsburgh picked up Watt's fifth-year option last offseason, while Fitzpatrick is entering the final year of his rookie contract.
While he and Pittsburgh's offense faded down the stretch, Roethlisberger had a mostly successful season. He finished the season with 33 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions while helping lead the Steelers to an 11-0 start. But dropped passes by his receivers, injuries to key players on defense, and a 32nd-ranked rushing attack each contributed to the Steelers' 1-5 finish to the season.
The 2020 season marked the fourth consecutive year that saw the Steelers stumble in December. The 2017 Steelers suffered a controversial loss to the Patriots before falling to the Jaguars in the playoffs. The '18 team started 7-2-1 before losing four of its final six games to miss the playoffs. The '19 team was 8-5 and inside the playoff picture before dropping the final three games. Pittsburgh's recent lack of late-season success is one of the things Tomlin said he would work to correct during the offseason.
Roethlisberger and Pittsburgh have just over two months to come to a decision, as Roethlisberger's roster bonus is due on March 19. Regardless, there's a good chance that the Steelers select a quarterback with the 24th overall pick, especially if Alabama's Mac Jones is still on the board when they are on the clock.