By Alan Robinson
It’s not the salary, it’s the salary cap.
That’s the bottom line and, the way the NFL operates now, it will be the bottom line for the foreseeable future.
Steelers president Art Rooney II, giving the first extensive interview of the offseason by a team official, said the team might wait until at the end of next season to give quarterback Ben Roethlisberger a new contract. He said they might even wait until his current deal concludes at the end of the 2015 season.
The last time Roethlisberger was in such a situation, with two years left on his contract in 2008, the Steelers gave him an eight-year, $102 million contract. Normally, teams often redo such contracts at about this time because such deals are almost always back-end loaded.
Here’s what Rooney said about Roethlisberger’s contract when I asked him about it:
“Let’s put it this way: We’re still at the beginning stages of evaluating where we want to go with our cap and preparing for next season. We have a lot of decisions to make. So, we’ll see. The only thing I would say about Ben and his situation is 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.”
As for typically giving the starting quarterback a new contract with two years remaining, he said. “I would say that’s not set in stone. We’ve done it in the past on a couple of occasions. But it’s not necessarily something that’s let’s say automatic. As I said before, I believe we’ll get something done when it’s appropriate for both sides. I think Ben knows it’s our intention to have him here beyond this current contract whenever we get it done.”
Much is being made about the affordability of Roethlisberger’s contract, at least salary wise — $12.1 million in 2014 and $11.6 million in 2015. If that was all the money the Steelers were absorbing in salary cap charges, it would make all the sense in the world to let his current contract run out before re-signing him — though, of course, they would risk losing him to a mega-offer if he became an unrestricted free agent, even at age 34.
One option is to let him play out his current contract, then make him their franchise player in 2016 — but that would cost an estimated $22 million not just in salary cap hit, but in pure salary.
But, again, it’s not the salary that’s the important number here. It’s the salary cap hit.
Roethlisberger has reworked his contract so many times to help the Steelers get under the cap, his salary cap hit will climb to $18,895,000 in 2014 and $18,395,000 in 2015. These are among the highest figures in the league for any player, and the Steelers cannot get around these numbers unless they somehow re-do his contract one more time.
As of right now, Roethlisberger’s salary cap hit is set to be the FIFTH highest in the NFL next season, behind only Jay Cutler, Bears ($22.5 million); Ndamukong Suh, Lions ($22,412,500); Tony Romo, Cowboys ($21,773,000); and Eli Manning, Giants ($20.45 million).
By the way, note that NONE Of those five players were on teams that made the playoffs this season (neither did No. 6 Mario Williams of the Bills, $18.8 million).
Even if the salary cap climbs as high as $130 million next season, which it probably won’t, Roethlisberger’s cap hit would be nearly 15 percent of the Steelers’ cap. This is a huge amount for a team that was so cap-strapped at the middle of this season, it reworked Ike Taylor’s contract just to create a minimal amount of cap room.
Having a single player chew up so much cap space creates problems in that teams often can’t afford to pick up the relatively affordable players who can be difference-makers (Wes Welker to the Broncos for $12 million over two years) or merely effective players at their positions. It can mean the difference between signing and playing a player who grades out in the upper half of those at his position (a linebacker who makes $3.5 million over two years, for example) or someone who’s been pulled off the street (as the Steelers did this season with linebacker Kion Wilson, who ended up starting at the beginning of the season).
Big, big salary cap hits impact the roster from top to bottom.
For example, even if the Steelers decide internally they’d like to cut oft-injured linebacker LaMarr Woodley, the $14 million cap hit they’d absorb from the dead money he’s owed, on top of Roethlisberger’s mega-sized cap hit, would severely limit their ability to sign free agents for the next two seasons.
Here’s a recent conversation I had with NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger, a Pittsburgh native and former Duke lineman:
“That kills every team, if they’ve got dead money, the cap is against them — on a very flat cap (a cap that doesn’t go up much from season to season). When you pay your quarterback a lot of money like they pay Big Ben, and you look around the league right now, every team that’s paying a quarterback $20 million or thereabouts, no of their defenses are top 10 defenses.
“You just have a lot less money to work with. You almost have to bring a player back you’re paying because you can’t afford that money to go against you.”
Drew Brees is the only exception this season, as the Saints’ defense ranked No. 6 this season.
And while the biggest salaries are supposed to go to the top players on the best teams, see if you can spot a trend on this season’s salary cap hit list:
1-Eli Manning, Giants, $20,850,000
2-Matthew Stafford, Lions $17,820,000
3-Peyton Manning, Broncos $17,500,000
4-Drew Brees, Saints, $17,400,000
5-Jared Allen, Vikings $17,063,956
6-Darrelle Revis, Buccaneers $16,000,000
7-Tamba Hall, Chiefs $15,500,000
8-Cortland Finnegan, Rams $15,000,000
9-Julius Peppers, Bears $14,383,000
10-Adrian Peterson, Vikings $13,900,000
(All salaries are from spotrac.com)
Only three players on the list (Peyton Manning, Brees, Hali) made the playoffs this season; seven of the top 10 are sitting out the postseason.
By the way, Roethlisberger was No. 13 this season at $13,595,000, but that number jumps by more than FIVE million dollars next season.
And consider this: If the Steelers decide not to re-work Roethlisberger’s contract AND to cut Woodley before June 1 (after that date, they can spread the cap charge over two seasons), they will have accounted for $33 million worth of salary cap space, or 27 percent of last season’s cap of $123 million. For TWO players, one of whom won’t even be playing for them.
And if they wait until June 1 to jettison Woodley, his cap charge of $13,590,000 for 2014 counts against them until that date, or during the very period they would be out on the market possibly seeking his replacement.
Again, it’s not the salary, it’s the salary cap charge that can be a season-wrecker. And that’s what the Steelers will be risking if they don’t work out a new contract with Roethlisberger before next season.