PITTSBURGH — There are days when Ben Roethlisberger can feel every single hit he’s absorbed during a decade as one of the NFL’s most fearless quarterbacks.
And there are days when the Pittsburgh Steelers star sees the young faces surrounding him in the huddle and it seems like he can play forever.
Yet at age 32 with small flecks of gray in his stubble, Roethlisberger knows he’s in the second half of a career that already includes two Super Bowl rings.
While he understands the NFL is a business, Roethlisberger has no plans to entertain the idea of taking his business somewhere other than Pittsburgh.
Not now. Not next summer. Not ever if Roethlisberger has his way. And as far as he knows, his boss — Steelers president Art Rooney II — feels the same. Until that changes for either side, concern over his status is nothing more than misguided speculation.
“I’ve always said it’s up to the good Lord and Mr. Rooney when I’m done,” Roethlisberger told The Associated Press on Saturday.
Translation: he’s not going anywhere.
Though Roethlisberger would have liked to have a new contract in place by the time the 2014 regular season opens, he is hardly worried about his future after Rooney announced on Friday the team will wait until next spring to iron out a deal.
“To get it signed and to have that security would have been nice, but there’s other plans and I’m OK with that,” Roethlisberger said.
Roethlisberger has two seasons left on the eight-year, $102 million contract he signed in 2008. It was one of the most lucrative contracts in the league at the time.
Now the average value ranks below contemporaries such as Matthew Stafford, Tony Romo and Jay Cutler, players who have yet to make a Super Bowl much less win it twice.
Pressed on if he pays attention to how much others who have lesser resumes but higher salaries are paid, Roethlisberger says only “it’s tricky.”
Don’t get him wrong, he’s aware of what he’s accomplished. He’s also aware the Rooneys need to find a way to pay 52 other players on the roster.
“I have faith that the Steelers will do what we need to do when it’s time and that’s putting people on the field through free agency, trades, draft everything to make us the best team we can possibly be,” Roethlisberger said.
If he sounds like a grown-up, maybe that’s because he is.
The hard-partying 20-something once suspended by the NFL for violating its personal conduct policy is now a married father of two who takes his son to Pittsburgh Pirates games and is already thinking about where 1-year-old Ben Jr. and infant daughter Baylee, born in March, will one day attend school.
His priorities have changed. His drive has not.
Coming off consecutive 8-8 seasons that at times left him equal parts frustrated and mystified, he is focused but upbeat.
Whatever tension he and fiery offensive coordinator Todd Haley may have had early in Haley’s tenure has eased. A resurgent second half in 2013 certainly helped.
Emboldened by Haley to operate more freely out of the no-huddle offense, Roethlisberger threw 16 touchdowns and five interceptions while getting sacked just 11 times as the Steelers rebounded from the franchise’s worst start in four decades to go 6-2 over the final eight weeks.
Roethlisberger describes his relationship with Haley as “a partnership.” It’s not a word he would have used two years ago, but one that Roethlisberger believes should be extended to the rest of the offense, too.
During a meeting Friday night shortly after the Steelers reported for training camp at Saint Vincent College, Roethlisberger made it a point to let his teammates know he hardly views himself as a one-man show.
“I said ‘Listen, there’s going to be a lot of talk about this being Coach Haley’s offense or my offense. This is our offense,’” Roethlisberger said. “It’s not just one person. The ownership is equal for everybody.”
Even if the blame is not. It’s part of the deal when you’re the quarterback for a team that views every season that doesn’t end with a parade through downtown Pittsburgh as a disappointment.
And there are few people in the city much less the locker room who have taken the struggles of the past two years harder than Roethlisberger.
It’s why he spent the offseason working on improving his arm strength even though he is already one of the strongest quarterbacks in the league. Wide receiver Lance Moore likened Roethlisberger’s fastball to the quarterback’s innate sense of “boldness,” a brashness he has now combined with a sense of responsibility.
While Roethlisberger never met a play he didn’t like to extend, he discovered a newfound balance during the later stages of 2013.
He’s just as likely to get rid of the ball at the first possible moment rather than the last, a concession to both Haley’s timing-based short passing game and the idea that every play where he doesn’t get knocked around is another play he can tack on at the end of his career.
“He has full control over the whole team, really,” tight end Heath Miller said. “I think he doesn’t take that lightly.”
Not after watching the playoffs from home the past two seasons. Only four quarterbacks have won more than two Super Bowls. Roethlisberger and the Steelers are adamant the window for him to join that list remains wide open.
It’s why even though he laughs about his advancing age on a team in the midst of a youth movement, Roethlisberger hasn’t given much thought to his place in history.
“I hope my legacy is yet to come,” Roethlisberger said. “I hope there’s a lot to be put on that list.”