As his draft-class mates and contemporaries continue to walk away from the game, Big Ben is still ringing in Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is entering his age-39 season in 2021, his 18th in the NFL, but the veteran signal-caller, just one year after a devastating arm injury, is not peering toward retirement.
Talking to local reporters Thursday afternoon, Steelers president Art Rooney II said that Roethlisberger wants to return to the team next season. However, Rooney said the QB will have to make significant concessions in regards to his salary and cap hit for a return to be feasible.
"I think we'd like to see Ben back for another year if that can work, but as we've said, there's a lot of work to be done to see if that can happen," Rooney said, per ESPN's Brooke Pryor. "There may need to be decisions to be made for that to happen."
In a separate interview given later to The Athletic's Ed Bouchette, Roethlisberger concurred with his boss.
"I want to do everything I can and made that very clear to them from the very beginning that it was my idea to basically help the team however I can this year," Roethlisberger told Bouchette, assuring that he approached Pittsburgh first about restructuring his deal.
Big Ben will enter 2021 with a cap number of $41.25 million, per OverTheCap.com, the highest in the league. For an aging albeit future Hall of Fame quarterback who's entering the final year of his deal -- and potentially his career -- in a cap-crunched season, that number is simply unbearable for Pittsburgh brass.
NFL Network's Mike Garafolo reported two weeks ago that there is a way to "massage" Roethlisberger's cap hit heading into 2021 -- an Drew Brees-like extension, perhaps -- and there "won't be any issues there" as Pittsburgh looks to upgrade the roster elsewhere. Rooney's and Roethlisberger's messages Thursday appear to confirm said massaging.
"I don't care 'bout my pay at all this year!" Roethlisberger told Bouchette.
Roethlisberger's agent Ryan Tollner told Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Thursday afternoon that the QB plans to meet with Rooney and coach Mike Tomlin the week after Super Bowl LV to discuss roster plans. Tollner reiterated Big Ben's contract will be a non-issue.
"Ben knows he has more left, but having key players back, like (center Maurkice) Pouncey, will be important," Tollner said, per Dulac. Ben's contract won't hold things up. We told them immediately after the season we will make any necessary adjustment to help their cap situation in 2021."
Regardless of his contract situation, Roethlisberger's status is one to monitor in the coming months. Philip Rivers, the fourth pick in the 2004 draft to Roethlisberger's 11th, just retired, and Brees, 42, is expected to in due time, as well. The Steelers meanwhile are at least planning for an uncertain future at the position, signing former first-round QB Dwayne Haskins to a futures contract this offseason to pair with Mason Rudolph behind Big Ben.
Rooney intimated another QB would enter the fray in 2021, as well, telling reporters, "I think when you look at our room, we'll have to add somebody to the room this offseason. We'll look at all the opportunities we have to do that."
In short, time is marching on, Big Ben isn't getting any younger and the Steelers are planning accordingly.
That won't stop Roethlisberger from planning his own future with the team.
"I am pretty sure I want to go one more year," the QB told Bouchette, "(because) I think I can do it and give us a real chance and winning."
Roethlisberger is coming off a Comeback Player of the Year-worthy season -- if it weren't for Alex Smith. The Steelers QB, in returning from a season-ending elbow injury, led Pittsburgh to an 11-0 start and completed 65.6 percent of his passes for 3.803 yards, 33 TDs and 10 INTs.
However, the season ended poorly for Roethlisberger, as Pittsburgh was forced to rely too heavily on his repaired right arm in its wild-card loss to the Cleveland Browns; Roethlisberger attempted a playoff-record 68 passes, completing a playoff-record 47 of them, in the defeat, a fitting end to a season in which Big Ben attempted over 600 passes for just the third time in his career, but the second time in three seasons.
Roethlisberger was seen on the sidelines following the wild-card defeat commiserating with Pouncey, who's rumored to be considering retirement, and telling him, "You're the only reason I wanted to do this, man. I feel worse for you than me." If Pouncey does exit the league, Roethlisberger will have to find a new reason to continue playing ball.
Surely, as Big Ben and Rooney illustrated Thursday, there will be fewer, or at least vastly different, financial incentives for the QB to do so in 2021.