Regardless of the outcome of the latest sexual assault allegations to surface against Ben Roethlisberger, the franchise quarterback's standing and reputation in the public domain is already under scrutiny, and the Steelers organization has been rocked by the scandal.
The Rooney family, owners of the Pittsburgh Steelers, have long distinguished themselves with class and dignity. They are embarrassed by Roethlisberger's alleged incident with a 20-year-old college student on March 5 in Milledgeville, Ga., not to mention previous rape allegations that surfaced last July, regardless of culpability.
In Pittsburgh, these sorts of scenarios aren't tolerated and, according to team and league sources, Dan Rooney, the U.S. ambassador to Ireland, and Art Rooney are both dismayed that Roethlisberger would again put himself in a position that could tarnish the organization. The Rooneys take any allegations of this nature very seriously, and there are several people within Pittsburgh's organization who believe another such misstep could be Roethlisberger's last as a Steeler.
"He's a great player, but no one is above the team here," a team source said. "That's the Steelers' way. Anything like this happens again, and it's over here. I've never seen the Rooneys this upset."
Roethlisberger left Georgia -- where he has an offseason home -- shortly after the allegations were made, and sources said he traveled back to Pittsburgh to meet with team officials. Roethlisberger spent considerable time with them explaining what occurred. He denies any wrongdoing, and sources close to Roethlisberger maintain that the facts will indicate no culpability.
Even so, Roethlisberger's past off-field habits have raised eyebrows within the organization before, but there is hope that this latest issue will perhaps prompt some changes.
For any young, rich, outgoing athlete -- much less a two-time Super Bowl winner -- to enjoy the spoils of his success is only natural. But with such a high profile come certain pitfalls inherent to celebrity, and overcoming them now is a must for Big Ben.
There is no imminent meeting scheduled between Roethlisberger and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, according to sources, although there very well could be down the road. The investigation in Georgia is in its early stages, and the league will wait for those proceedings to play out. Goodell, at some point, could recommend counseling for Roethlisberger, even if the outcome of this latest investigation exonerates him. Some within the Steelers front office anticipate that happening regardless.
As someone who is the face of the franchise, the expectations are high for Roethlisberger. This is especially so in Pittsburgh, a true mom-and-pop outfit in the best sense of the term and one that is intrinsically tied to the fabric of the game.
Philly firm with three
The Philadelphia Eagles' stash of starting quarterbacks continues to be a hot topic around the league, but the team's stance has not changed.
The Seattle Seahawks are among the teams to have inquired about Donovan McNabb, Kevin Kolb and Michael Vick, but those talks were exploratory, according to league sources, and have cooled, if not broken down. A Seahawks source said he expected nothing to come of them, but Seattle did look into options.
More calls will come, but as we have been reporting, the Eagles are not making attempts to deal any of them. As a team source put it, Philadelphia is not marketing any of the passers, it is not soliciting offers, and the Eagles have "not asked for anything" in return for them to this point. Many calls have come in, but the sense among some clubs that have approached the Eagles is that the price is too high.
A few NFL executives said they could not see Vick going for less than a second-round pick; it would take at least a first-round pick to put together a package for McNabb, and, in the case of Seattle, one league source maintains it would take both of their first-round picks to land Kolb. The Eagles don't have a need to deal any of them for reasons of cost or production and are looking at this as a position of strength.
If someone makes a trade offer that blows them away, it would be considered. And at some point they could make some return phone calls and engage in more meaningful trade dialogue. But that hasn't happened yet.
Ultimately, I continue to see Vick as the most likely of the three to move on -- at the right price. And, as I have been writing for a while now, his value could well be highest deeper into the offseason.
The Browns have a quarterback quandary themselves, only in this case it isn't potentially too many quality options, but rather not having any.
Brady Quinn, a first-round pick from 2007, isn't a good fit there, and the Browns have taken the temperature of the market for him recently. Given the meek level of interest, I am told by a source involved that, "Never say never, but it's unlikely" Quinn will be traded. Perhaps more demand will form at some point this offseason, and the Browns remain very much in the hunt for a quarterback of the future, even while the quarterback of the present remains in limbo.
Much like it only really makes sense to judge a draft a few years down the road, I can't help but think that come 2012 or so, there will be some buyer's remorse going around from those that splurged in free agency this year.
This free-agent class was so thin and so old, and yet a lot of guys with one question mark or another got paid big-time. We still saw a bunch of record contracts at various positions for players that, in a normal free-agent year, may have been guys still on the market to this point of the signing period. Even the best of the bunch, Julius Peppers, carried some baggage with him.
Those teams to proceed with caution and utilize some buyer beware strategies will be best poised to benefit. The 2011 class looks deep and good and young, and we have so much uncertainty about what the next labor contract will look like -- and who knows what a cap would be? -- so to jump in now could prove costly.
To me, those teams that reinvested in their own talent right away (the Eagles re-signing Leonard Weaver and Jason Avant to long-term deals, for instance) or those that showed prescience entering the marketplace (the Saints staying patient and judicious with a player like Darren Sharper) will be the big winners. Holding the line at a certain cost limit makes sense, especially under these conditions.
The Redskins deserve acute acknowledgement. After years of setting the market wildly, bidding against themselves for some players and being burned all too often, they have taken a much more healthy approach this time around. Instead of finding the players' price, and then matching or exceeding it with haste, they are determining true value within the organization, establishing a Redskins price for the players and letting those older players who do not fit leave the building without a contract.
Certainly, there will come a day where owner Daniel Snyder and coach Mike Shanahan make a splash, but as a 4-12 team with so many holes in a deep division, trying to buy your way out of it isn't a smart way to go -- especially with a shallow free-agent market. And for some teams that opted to throw money at their problems -- the Bears in particular -- I seriously question whether it will make a significant enough impact in the standings to prevent major changes to the coaching staff and front office come 2011.
It is a huge move for the franchise, bereft of an impact receiver for a long, long time. The Ravens could end up getting back a top pick should someone sign left tackle Jared Gaither, a restricted free agent, to an offer sheet, and they still have their own top picks available to move around in the draft and address other voids. (They got 28 starts out of Gaither with only a fifth-round supplemental pick used to land him; to turn that into a first-round pick at a time when the long-term verdict is out on him would be huge.)
Re-signing WR Derrick Mason came as no surprise, and they can focus on a pass rusher, tight end and corner if it makes sense in the draft. Years of stacking the offensive line with quality mid-round picks has served them well in the event Gaither moves on. They are well positioned to make a major move in the playoffs, but will need quarterback Joe Flacco to hasten his development and avoid critical red-zone mistakes.
» If I am the Buffalo Bills, lacking much firepower and in need of a way to score some points in a tough division, I'm thinking about acquiring quarterback Troy Smith from the Ravens or Tyler Thigpen from the Dolphins to help run a spread offense. The Bills are going to have to get a little gimmicky, I figure, and these two could help in the short term.
» I also tend to think safety O.J. Atogwe's future will be somewhere other than St. Louis. The Rams were open to dealing him last season right up to the trade deadline and they might be about to invest huge bucks into the top overall draft pick. If it's between paying a safety $8 million a year right now, or getting some picks to keep rebuilding, I'm taking the picks.