Column: Ben smiles through another snub

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DEJAN KOVACEVIC, DK ON PITTSBURGH SPORTS

LATROBE, Pa. Ben Roethlisberger looks and sounds fantastic, but don’t take my word for it.

“This is the most excited I’ve been about any offense I’ve had,” Todd Haley was telling me as he walked down the winding path to Chuck Noll Field for the Steelers’ first formal practice Saturday at Saint Vincent College. “Seriously, I mean any offense.”

Wow. And what, apart from the standard summer optimism, would prompt that sentiment?

“Have you seen Ben?”

Similarly, and also before that practice, Markus Wheaton came back with this when I asked what might make the offense special this fall: “Oh, Ben will do that. Just wait.”

All right, then. So the first phase of that wait ended at 2:55 p.m. when Mike Tomlin led 89 men onto the field, to the delight of the 4,000 or so diehards delightedly sweating through a searing sun. And Roethlisberger did, indeed, deliver. He ducked and dodged effortlessly, fired bullet after bullet, showed chemistry with everyone from Antonio Brown to Justin Brown and all Lance Moores in between. It was still football in shorts — the pads are donned for the tackle variety Monday — but it was as impressive a display as one could conceive in the setting.

“He’s ready,” Tomlin would say afterward. “He’s ready to go.”

Sure is. In every way.

Let’s not sweep this under the rug, Pittsburgh: If Roethlisberger had wanted, he could have made one seriously enormous stink over Art Rooney II’s public declaration Friday that the Steelers will not try to extend the contract of their franchise quarterback. It might only have taken a certain expression on his face. Or an intonation of his voice. He could have sent out a signal that he wished he’d been treated as are most star QBs in the NFL, and he’d have had the whole city — no, the whole Nation — in an uproar. We wouldn’t just be talking about a camp distraction. We’d be talking about ripping out the foundation of the franchise.

Roethlisberger could have put himself first. And with no small justification, given his credentials.

Instead, here’s how he handled my question on the matter coming off the field Saturday …

Are you buying that Roethlisberger will just flick this aside?

I’ll be candid: I’m not.

On June 12, when I asked his thoughts on an extension the same day Maurkice Pouncey got his six years and $48 million, this was the answer: “I can only control what I control. I’m here to play football. If there’s something important that happens, then I’ll let my agents tell me. But other than that, I just have to play the game.” Unless I’m mistaken, there wasn’t anything in there about “faith” that the front office will do the right thing in 2015 or about “putting people on the field through free agency” or about being “the best team we can possibly be.” That guy on that day was hoping for an extension that would allow him to fulfill what I believe is a genuine, heartfelt wish to spend his full career in Pittsburgh.

There is no doubt in my mind Roethlisberger wanted that extension now, rather than when entering the lame-duck season of his current contract.

Hence, there’s no doubt in my mind that Roethlisberger is disappointed. Perhaps deeply so.

I’ll go further: Some of what was in Rooney’s statement was sheer malarkey. (And no, not Mike Mularkey, wiseguy.)

Rooney wrote that he met with Roethlisberger right before the Pouncey signing to explain that a Roethlisberger extension would be put off “so that we could address a number of players who were going into their last year in 2014.”

Not many among us are capologists, but it doesn’t require being Omar Khan to see that, even though Roethlisberger is making $12.1 million this season — sixth-most among all NFL QBs — he counts $18.9 million against the cap. Even if Roethlisberger had signed for terms approximating those of the Ravens’ Joe Flacco (six years, $120.6 million) or the ridiculous amount the Bears are paying Jay Cutler (seven years, $126.7 million), there’s precious little chance he’d have counted a penny more against the cap in 2014.

Now, the Steelers almost surely will have more space in 2015 because of a growing cap, as Rooney indicated in the statement. But here, too, extra cap space in 2015 has nil impact on 2014.

If you ask me, this was yet another power move by the front office. And it’s another in a series, not least of which was firing Bruce Arians a couple years ago, then instructing Roethlisberger he had to change his game, then basically ignoring his pleas to add big-time receiving help.

And in the more general sense, this was Rooney declaring that he won’t be backed against a wall to extend any player, even Roethlisberger, until that player has only one year left on a contract.

Say what you will about the merits of that mindset, but let’s at least call it what it is.

At any rate, here’s Roethlisberger again saying all the right things, doing all the right things. Just as he has in advancing his relationship with Haley to the point the two call each other “friend.” This offseason, he’s dropped some weight — he declined to tell me how much — to ensure he still has his trademark mobility at age 32, he’s emerged as a leader in every sense, and he sounds eminently determined to carry the Steelers, if need be, past the 8-8 stigma.

Right now, that matters more than anything.

“I’m looking to move. I think we all are,” Roethlisberger said when I broached 8-8. “This is a new season, a new group, a young group, a fun group, and I’m so excited to be part of it. I’m looking forward to it.”

Good for him. Better for the Steelers.