Thursday, May 24, 2007
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Ben Roethlisberger politely passed word that he had no time for an interview yesterday after Steelers practice; he had to hurry to meet his golf partner, Mario Lemieux.
Roethlisberger will not top Lemieux on the golf course, but he might soon surpass him in another area. No athlete in the history of Pittsburgh pro sports earned more money than the Penguins' Hall of Famer. Roethlisberger could be the one to do that.
The Steelers and Roethlisberger's agent have had early talks about a contract extension for the young quarterback. While it appears nothing will be done this season, the machinery is gearing up for what should be the largest contract in the organization's history.
"We've had some discussions with them," agent Ryan Tollner said. "I'm not sure what they're planning, other than certainly they're considering they want to do a deal. If they would want to start [serious negotiations] before the season, we'd have to start soon. It'll be a complicated contract. If not before this season, we're open to discussion, but I definitely expect it to happen following this season."
Kevin Colbert, the Steelers' director of football operations, declined comment on any possible negotiations with Roethlisberger.
Roethlisberger's next deal looms large over the organization already and might be one reason they won't or can't pay six-time Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca enough to keep him here beyond the 2007 season.
Roethlisberger will enter his fourth NFL season among the lowest-paid starting quarterbacks in the NFL -- strictly in terms of salary for the 2007 season. He is set to earn a salary of $1 million this year. He has received, however, many bonuses since he was drafted in the first round in 2004, including the initial $9 million in signing and roster bonuses within the first 11 months after he was drafted.
Still, his salary this season is less than backup Charlie Batch, who will make $1,355,000. Neither Tollner nor Roethlisberger have complained about it, and the agent realizes that with three years left on the quarterback's rookie contract, an extension may be a year away.
"At this point, our approach with the Steelers has been to keep things very positive and do what's best for the team," Tollner said. "We understand they have needs and other players to do first. Ben is a team player, and his focus is winning games and whatever's best for the team in that regard."
The Steelers have an unwritten policy that they do not extend players' contracts until they reach the point where they have just one year left on the deal. They have made exceptions for quarterbacks, extending the contracts of Kordell Stewart and Tommy Maddox when they had two years left.
In fact, Stewart still holds the record for Steelers quarterbacks for signing bonuses -- $8.1 million when he extended his contract three years in 1998, when there were two years left on his old one. Even though it occurred nine years ago, that signing bonus is second in team history only to Hines Ward's $9 million in 2005 (Roethlisberger's first bonus in 2004 originally was reported at $9 million, but that included reporting bonuses, making the signing bonus closer to $7.2 million).
Roethlisberger's rookie contract, negotiated by his then-agent Leigh Steinberg, was done with the intent on both sides that it would be renegotiated after the 2008 season. The lack of serious negotiations to this point underscores that point, even if other teams have written new contracts for their franchise quarterbacks after their second or third seasons in the league.
Four examples of that are Tom Brady, who earned a new deal after his second season with the New England Patriots; Carson Palmer, whose contract was extended by the Cincinnati Bengals in his third season; Jake Plummer, restructured by the Arizona Cardinals after his third season, and Donovan McNabb, whose rookie deal was redone after his third season with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Only the Cardinals came to regret those second deals.
Roethlisberger signed his six-year contract on the eve of training camp in 2004, and it was worth $14.26 million plus an $8 million roster bonus to be paid March 5, 2009. Because he reached so many performance bonuses and incentive clauses in his first two seasons, Roethlisberger earned many more millions.
"I'm sure the Steelers have a plan," Tollner said. "We've certainly discussed it with them and tried to figure what that plan is. We've mentioned their predicament with these other contracts and are doing our best to work with them."
Tollner promised there won't be a peep of discontent this year from Roethlisberger about his contract.
"At this point, Ben is not planning anything other than being there for every workout and playing this season to the best of his ability. Our approach is to communicate behind closed doors with the team, get something done and never have public scrutiny at all."