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Kovacevic: Big Ben's contract clock ticking

| Sunday, March 9, 2014, 10:22 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger fumbles and recovers in the second quarter against the Browns on Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013, at Heinz Field.

The prevailing sentiment around the Steelers' South Side offices holds that Ben Roethlisberger won't get a new deal this summer, that there haven't even been how-do-you-do talks toward that end and that none are expected until … hey, what's the rush?

And it's hard to fathom. Really is.

From the football standpoint, Roethlisberger has only two years left on his current contract, after which he could walk. That's unthinkable, of course. He remains a true franchise quarterback in an NFL where those no longer are a luxury, and he's able and agile enough at age 32 to have at least a handful of good years left. Maybe even a couple of his best.

From the financial standpoint, Roethlisberger would come cheaper now, theoretically in salary and for sure in cap hit. The current contract calls for a crushing cap hit of $37.29 million over the next two seasons, mostly because he's restructured each of the past three years to help management sign other players. But there's nowhere left to kick that can, and the time for a stronger supporting cast is now, not when the star is 36 or 37.

From the player's standpoint, Roethlisberger sounds genuinely happy with the Steelers, even after back-to-back 8-8 seasons. And not without cause. Fact is, he could have it pretty good in 2014. He'll enjoy more freedom with his beloved no-huddle, if Mike Tomlin's post-season words were parsed properly. He'll be in his third year of the Todd Haley offense, no longer reaching for a Rosetta Stone, no longer back-biting. He'll carry the confidence of a full never-missed-a-snap season since Art Rooney urged him to play a less reckless style. He'll have an MVP-caliber receiver in Antonio Brown, a healthier Heath Miller, a broken-in Le'Veon Bell and maybe, if you've followed the latest draft buzz, a long-desired tall target culled from the first two rounds.

From the family standpoint, if you will, Roethlisberger wants to “retire a Steeler,” to borrow his words. I believe that, too, based on some talks we had late last season. He sees himself, his legacy, his wife Ashley and two young children all linked to Pittsburgh.

Right now, Roethlisberger wants to sign with the Steelers.

Right now, the Steelers need to sign Roethlisberger.

So what exactly is the disconnect here?

Could the Steelers be trying to take advantage of his publicly declared loyalty by stringing him along?

Could they be further testing Roethlisberger's commitment?

Could they possibly think they're in command of this process?

If so on that latter count, wow ... no.

Let's reopen the case of one Drew Christopher Brees from the summer of 2012: The Saints rode their star QB to within one season of his contract expiring and, leery of long-term money for a 33-year-old, they applied the franchise tag. Brees, a pretty smart guy who was a business student at Stanford, wisely wanted no part of it. He threatened to hold out all season rather than sign the one-year offer involved. And in the end, as these things tend to unfold once the clock's ticks get louder, the athlete won out. Won huge, actually, with a five-year, $100 million extension.

Within that was an NFL-record $62.5 million in guaranteed money, including a mindboggling $37 million signing bonus -- real cash -- that had to be paid in the first six months!

New Orleans' front office had thought everything was just swell with Brees. He was a huge part of the Saints being perennial contenders and maybe just as big a part of the city, given his passionate post-Katrina charity work. What the team hadn't counted on was everything suddenly blowing up that same summer with Bountygate, Sean Payton's suspension and a mess of other turmoil.

The Saints thought they held the cards, but Brees wound up with the royal flush. They had no choice but to cave completely.

Roethlisberger will be the same age next summer as Brees was then, and he'll have a similar NFL resume. Be sure he'll get – and deserve – similar pay, as well. If Jay Cutler's getting $126.7 million, Joe Flacco $120 million and Matt Ryan $103.75 million, Roethlisberger will get a salary in the $20 million range. There might be some hometown discount, sure, because of his comfort level. But it won't – and shouldn't – be drastic.

Read between the lines of recent interviews with the front office, and you'd think the team gets that.

Kevin Colbert said this to reporters last month at the NFL combine: “We're very fortunate to have a franchise quarterback because the majority of teams in this league can't say that. We have one, and there's nobody we'd rather have than Ben. Does he have two, three, five seasons left? I don't know. Hopefully, he stays healthy and we get the maximum years out of him.”

Five sounds about right.

So why wait?

Rooney might have come closest to revealing the team's thought process in a January interview: “We've done it in the past on a couple of occasions,” he said of extending a QB with two seasons left, “but it's not necessarily something that's automatic. I believe we'll get something done when it's appropriate for both sides. I think Ben knows that it's our intention to have him here beyond his current contract.”

OK, so why wait?

Don't hold your breath for any sort of play-by-play on this front, by the way. The Steelers, Roethlisberger and his agent, Ryan Tollner, have committed to silence on any actual contract development. And trust me, they're holding to it.

Here's hoping they don't wait a year to truly test each other.

Dejan Kovacevic is a sports columnist for Trib Total Media. Reach him at dkovacevic@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic

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