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Thursday, June 27, 2019

Steelers are taking a big risk with Ben Roethlisberger contract extension

Ben Roethlisberger

The Pittsburgh Steelers are extending Ben Roethlisberger’s contract, one year before the current deal was set to expire. Roethlisberger, who just turned 37, has openly pondered retirement in the past and said he does not know how long he will play. He’s now the last man standing in Pittsburgh, with Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell gone.

Pittsburgh is putting faith that Big Ben will age like Tom Brady and Drew Brees have recently, because this year was already under contract and the extension applies to age 38 and 39. While it is true that rule changes have helped stave off Father Time, I would be hesitant to view this situation as identical for several reasons. Roethlisberger is not Brady in terms of the extreme diet and focus on his body. He’s had more injuries over the course of his career and taken more hits than both Brady and Brees, and he’s a different body type.

But just as importantly, Roethlisberger has had it really good in terms of offensive teammates. It’s hard to separate out the full contribution of a quarterback from all of his offensive teammates and scheme, but comparatively, we can say that Roethlisberger has had “A” level help on offense and the Steelers have put up “B” level results.

Let’s put his offensive teammates in some historical perspective. Here is a list of guys that are, in my estimation, the top 25 quarterbacks from ages 32 to 36, accounting for Hall of Famers who were still doing it through age 36, and others that had good production in their mid-30s. This shows how many offensive teammates they played with at those ages that were Pro Bowlers and/or First-Team All-Pros. That final number is the quarterback’s league-adjusted net yards per passing attempt (ANYA). A score of 100 is average, higher is better, and MVP candidates tend to be above 120.

Roethlisberger is behind only Trent Green in terms of average number of All-Pro and Pro Bowl teammates through his mid-thirties. Green did not age gracefully as his offensive scheme and talented teammates declined, and retired before his 38th birthday. Roethlisberger more than doubles most of the other good quarterbacks in their mid-30s in terms of top teammates, yet his efficiency numbers are middle of the pack compared to that group. If you want to compare him to Brees and Brady, then it’s fair to note that those two have had more talent (as measured by Pro Bowl teammates) in their late-30s than in their mid-30s, and that has helped them stay productive. Roethlisberger has had more All-Pro teammates in the last five years (nine seasons) than Brees and Brady did combined from ages 32 to 36, yet those two put up higher efficiency numbers over those same ages.

I am going to go out on a limb and say that it is unlikely that Roethlisberger’s situation is better at age 38 and 39 than it was in the past few years. Not only are Brown and Bell gone, but the offensive line, which has been a stable force with several top players, will be aging. By 2020, all four of the main cogs — David DeCastro, Alejandro Villanueva, Maurkice Pouncey, and Ramon Foster — on the offensive line who have started 241 games over the last four seasons collectively will be over the age of 30. Pittsburgh’s offensive line consistency has been a big factor in the recent offensive run, but they will be one of the oldest position groups in short order.

There have been 50 teams that have had five offensive starters named to the Pro Bowl, excluding the quarterback, since the AFL-NFL merger. Pittsburgh in the last two seasons comprises two of them. The average quarterback playing with five-plus Pro Bowlers on offense put up a league-adjusted ANYA score of 120. Roethlisberger is below that, at 111 and 112 over the last two years, and is in the bottom 12 out of those 50 seasons by pass efficiency for each. (Dieter Brock, who started his first ever NFL game at age 34 with the 1985 Rams, had a league average score of 100 for the lowest among this group).

Most of the elite quarterbacks, when playing with a top 5 percent group of offensive players, put up near-MVP level numbers. We have not seen that consistently from Roethlisberger over the last two years, as he will have great games but is near league average in throwing interceptions and has not been as consistent in putting up big numbers.

You can pay one of the best three to five quarterbacks in the league the top money. You can afford to go cheap and get a younger quarterback and let the offensive core bolster him (see Dallas for an example). What you cannot afford to do is pay an average to slightly above average starter a salary equal to the best in the game. I would question whether choosing to do so for Roethlisberger at age 38 and 39 is a good move. That’s especially true because they did not have to pay him. 2019 is a big risk variable year in Pittsburgh. There have been big changes. Because he was under contract, the Steelers could have waited to see how things went this season for Roethlisberger with Brown removed from the mix. Now, Pittsburgh is paying Ben for future years, and they better hope it does indeed turn out like Brady and Brees and not like, well, just about every other quarterback in history.



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