COOK: Retire or release? Ben Roethlisberger situation feels too familiar

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)
Ben Roethlisberger's days with the Pittsburgh Steelers may be numbered.

After the 2014 season, the Steelers gave iconic safety Troy Polamalu a choice: Retire or be released.

Not much room for misinterpretation there.

It led to a predictable ugly breakup. Polamalu, then almost 34, believed he still could play. He thought long and hard about taking his release and playing a 13th NFL season with another team, perhaps following his former defensive coordinator, Dick LeBeau, to the Tennessee Titans. It took weeks before he finally and reluctantly decided to retire in early April 2015.

"If I'm in my fourth year, fifth year, even if I'm in my 10th year, I'm playing in Alaska," Polamalu said.

If the Steelers can do that to Polamalu — arguably the most popular player in franchise history not named Jack Lambert — they can do it to Ben Roethlisberger.

It has that feel, doesn't it?

Or as a wise baseball man once said, "Déjà vu all over again."

Any day is a good day when you can start with a Yogi quote, right?

Steelers comments: Steelers management has been a lot less quotable about Roethlisberger's immediate future but still has said plenty.

First, Mike Tomlin said, "It's reasonable to assume there's a chance he will be back, certainly."

Then, Art Rooney II said he would like to see Roethlisberger back but quickly added, "There's a lot of work to be done to see if that can happen."

Finally, Kevin Colbert chimed in last week with what many interpreted as a kiss of death when he said, "As we sit here today, Ben is a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers."

Got that?

Just don't ask about tomorrow because you might not like the answer.

This is what you haven't heard from Tomlin, Rooney II and Colbert:

"We'd love to have Ben back. Of course, we want him back. He's our quarterback. He's a winner. We'll make his contract work. We always can make the money work. We plan on him leading us to the Super Bowl next season."

There has been nothing even close to that.

Lack of public love: Maybe there's a good reason for the lack of public love. Maybe it's just part of reworking a new contract with Roethlisberger and lessening the damage from his enormous salary-cap hit. Maybe the Steelers really do want him back but don't want to look bad if things can't be worked out.

Or maybe the team really is ready to move on from Roethlisberger and wants to give him the chance to go out with dignity. That's why it gave Polamalu all the time in the world to make his decision. Retirement sure sounds better than being released.

But there's a big difference between Polamalu and Roethlisberger. Polamalu was done. Roethlisberger, even though he will turn 39 next Tuesday, still can play at a high level. He showed enough last season — his first after elbow surgery — to make anyone think he would give the Steelers their best chance of winning in 2021, certainly better than Mason Rudolph or Dwayne Haskins.

Contract issue? Roethlisberger has said redoing his contract will not be an issue. It remains to be seen if that is true. The Steelers might take him at his word and ask him to take a big pay cut. He might balk if they ask for too much.

Roethlisberger's camp also has said he wants to know what kind of team the Steelers will have around him. His agent, Ryan Tollner, mentioned how nice it would be to keep Maurkice Pouncey, whom Roethlisberger called "the greatest teammate and competitor I've been around." But Pouncey retired. So did Vance McDonald, another close friend of Roethlisberger. Roethlisberger's favorite receiver, JuJu Smith-Schuster, is expected to leave as a free agent. So are Al Villanueva and James Conner.

Randy Fichtner also is out as offensive coordinator. Roethlisberger loved working with him. Will Matt Canada's new offensive ideas suit him? Are they even best for Roethlisberger's skill set at this stage of his career?

Drama drags on: So the drama surrounding Roethlisberger's future drags on. The longer it goes, the less likely it seems he will play again for the Steelers.

Clearly, Roethlisberger wants to keep playing. It's hard to imagine him going to another team and starting over. I don't know that he would want to do that to his wife and three young children. They are entrenched in Pittsburgh.

But it also was hard to imagine Tom Brady leaving the New England Patriots. You might have heard he just won another Super Bowl — his seventh — with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It was hard to imagine Philip Rivers leaving the San Diego/ Los Angeles Chargers. He made it to the playoffs last season with the Indianapolis Colts before announcing his retirement a few weeks later. Long ago, Joe Montana switched teams with some success. Hall of Famers Johnny Unitas and Joe Namath weren't so fortunate.

Hoping he comes back: I'm hoping Roethlisberger is back with the Steelers.

It's been a privilege and a joy to watch him the past 17 seasons. He is the best quarterback in franchise history. I hate to be greedy, but I'd like to see him play here one more year. Maybe that's because I remember the parade of Steelers quarterbacks after Terry Bradshaw retired after the 1983 season. Watching that wasn't much fun.

It will be a really sad day if Roethlisberger retires.

It will be an even sadder day if he is released and moves on.