Commentary

Big Ben on shaky ground with Rooneys

Steelers willing to suspend QB for his off-field conduct, even if losses result

Originally Published: April 15, 2010
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Pittsburgh Steelers president Art Rooney II, angry about recent off-field problems involving his players, made it clear Thursday afternoon that the organization is ready to discipline quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

Reading between the lines, you can deduce that Roethlisberger is probably heading toward a suspension, possibly two to four games. Commissioner Roger Goodell is reviewing how Roethlisberger violated the league's player conduct policy with two incidents involving women. Although neither incident led to criminal charges, Roethlisberger clearly has put his Steelers career in jeopardy because of his off-field behavior.

Roethlisberger has two strikes against him in the eyes of Steelers ownership. The next off-field incident will be strike three, likely leading to a trade or release.

That point was made clear Sunday night when the Steelers dumped wide receiver Santonio Holmes, Roethlisberger's best young wide receiver. Once the Steelers found out Holmes violated the substance abuse policy, the Steelers considered that offense his third strike. Holmes also has a domestic violence incident and a marijuana charge in his past. According to sources, the Rooney family gathered a few front-office people and doled out the phone numbers for 28 teams -- every NFL team except those in the AFC North. Those involved were ordered to call those teams and ask if any were willing to give the Steelers a draft choice for Holmes.

Had the New York Jets not stepped up and offered a fifth-round choice, Holmes reportedly would have been cut.

If there's another negative Roethlisberger incident, expect the quarterback to be gone, too.

A former district attorney, Rooney was succinct in describing how the Steelers are handling their star quarterback. First, they are willing to suspend him for a number of games even if it means opening the season with a loss or two. The Steelers were willing to weaken the offense by getting rid of Holmes, making an example of him. They are equally willing to go without Roethlisberger for an unlimited number of games. But like a good attorney, Rooney is building a case against him.

Even though there is no salary cap, Roethlisberger has $12.8 million of signing bonus proration still attached to his contract. If he were to be released for cause, the Steelers would have the chance to recoup some of that money. Holmes had only $890,000 remaining, a number that wasn't large enough to affect the organization. Dumping Holmes -- though difficult from the personnel sense -- was easy. But the Roethlisberger situation goes beyond money. The Rooney family realizes the quarterback's value to the team, but is not willing to suffer another embarrassment.

Roethlisberger has been allowed to rejoin the team in offseason workouts. In past years, he attended the mandatory offseason sessions but skipped a lot of the voluntary work. The Rooneys are giving him a chance to win back his teammates. Later, they will see if he can win back some of the lost fans. That's why trading him now -- which according to sources was one many options discussed internally -- isn't an option.

For now, Roethlisberger has one more chance. How he handles it will determine whether or not he completes the final six years of a contract that runs through 2015.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer