Offseason Maneuvers Part 2: The Disastrous 10 Days Before the Draft

Overall Grade for Steelers’ Image Protection for the 10 days before the draft: F

After an unusually strong effort in free agency, the Steelers appeared prime to make another Super Bowl run entering the 2010 NFL Draft.

Yes, there remained an ongoing investigation of standout quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who had been accused of rape while “hooking up” with a college coed in a rural Georgia bar.

However, the sensationalist coverage but yet extensive details provided by media on the encounter made it appear highly unlikely that Roethlisberger would be arrested for rape or face any criminal charges.

Then, on the eve before the Baldwin (Ga.) County DA was slated to announce findings from the Roethlisberger investigation, the Steelers pulled a shocking late-night trade that had many Pittsburgh fans more enraged at their front office than any time I can remember.

The Steelers traded their top offensive playmaker Santonio Holmes to the New York Jets for a throw-away, fifth-round draft pick.

Holmes was the Steelers’ top offensive player throughout the 2008 NFL playoffs, on the final drive of Super Bowl XLIII and in the team’s three historic victories over Baltimore that season. Without Holmes, the 2008 Steelers do not win their division, conference or the Super Bowl.

Holmes followed up his Super Bowl brilliance by recording 79 catches for a team-high 1,248 yards in 2009. That marked the most receiving yards by any Steeler receiver since Hines Ward in 2002. At this point of his young career, Holmes is clearly a player who is still improving each season.

While he has never been an Eagle Scout since his impoverished background in the working-class football factory of Belle Glade, Fla., Holmes was even more of a loose cannon this offseason.

An Orlando college student claimed Holmes physically assaulted her in a nightclub. Holmes denied those claims. After investigation, the police elected not to press charges.

Holmes, whose agent should never allow him personal access to a computer again, Tweeted on his Twitter page one day that it was time to “Wake and Bake,” slang for smoking marijuana to start a morning. He also had 4:20 — another indirect marijuana reference — as the constant time on the cellphone he was shown holding on his personal Web site.

Marijuana is on the NFL controlled substance list and few were surprised when the NFL announced that Holmes had failed a drug test in violation of its testing program, automatically triggering a four-game suspension for Holmes to start the 2010 season.

Now, I could care less what people decide to do with their own body. Furthermore, from a physiological standpoint, I would actually prefer my star receiver smoke weed instead of drink hard liquor or beer if he felt compelled to do one of the two most popular vices.

Holmes, however, idiotically made his pot use public even though it (A) is illegal in all cases in the state of Florida and (B) is in clear violation of the league’s drug policy.

Moreover, Holmes pulled all these antics while reports of the Roethlisberger allegation were dominating the sport news cycle, which then led to media types and NFL fans to associate bad behavior with the normally “high-character” Pittsburgh Steelers.

There is no doubt in my mind that the Steelers panicked in quickly unloading Holmes to make an “image” statement before the Georgia DA announcement. Absurdly, the Steelers did not even call every team in the league to gauge interest.

Moreover, leaks about Holmes’ upcoming suspension had spread, but specific details and amount of games had not. Finally, Holmes’ trade value would have been much greater after Anquan Boldin (who was clearly the top receiver on the trading block) had been traded and probably after the 2010 NFL Draft, which was not particularly strong at receiver.

The Steelers could have and absolutely should have received more in trade compensation for a player the caliber of Holmes even with his suspension and off-field problems.

Actually, they should never have traded him at all if winning a Super Bowl this fall was upper management’s primary goal instead of preserving a marketing image. Having Holmes for 3/4th of the regular season and in the playoffs made Pittsburgh a strong Super Bowl contender as he was Roethlisberger’s favorite target when plays broke down and/or in crunchtime. He will be greatly missed in the playoffs, assuming Pittsburgh is fortunate enough to end up in the postseason.

In addition to his suspension, some Steeler fans claimed Holmes was trouble in the locker room after his trade. However, there were never any leaks about internal-team problems with Holmes while he was in Pittsburgh and there almost certainly would have been if he had problems in interacting with multiple teammates.

Moreover, some fans tried to rationalize the trade by pointing out that Holmes is slated to become an unrestricted free agent after 2010 and that the Steelers were highly unlikely to offer him a long-term extension.

However, that argument, too, was weak, since Holmes will remain the property of the Jets after this fall unless a new CBA is reached that grants fourth- and fifth-year players the right to become unrestricted free agents again.

Owners, though, have the upper-hand in negotiations and my guess is a new CBA will not be reached until shortly before the 2011 season, with no unrestricted free agency for fourth- and fifth-year players until after the 2011 season. In that case, all the Jets will have to do is tender Holmes a 1-year offer and the level of that tender would determine draft-pick compensation another team must provide to sign Holmes.

As dumb as the Holmes trade was, at least the Steelers have a deep and solid enough receiving corps to hopefully absorb much of his production.

However, image projection by Art Rooney II reached a new level of absurdity when he essentially threw Roethlisberger under the bus by saying that he would be punished by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell under the NFL Code of Conduct Policy and the Steelers would support this before Goodell had rendered any decision.

Just to make sure Roethlisberger or the NFLPA did not publicly complain, the Steelers floated rumors to the press that they were considering trading their franchise quarterback, whose trade value was at an all-time low.

Note: No player in the history of American team sports had ever been suspended before or since by a league commissioner when that player was not (A) either arrested for an alleged crime or (B) found to have violated a specific rule of that sport (e.g., gambling, steroids, etc.).

At least 29 NFL players were arrested this offseason, but only San Diego receiver Vincent Jackson was suspended by Goodell under the Code of Coduct Policy after Jackson was arrested for his second DUI within two years.

If Roethlisberger had been a member of the Cowboys, Raiders or probably just about any other franchise, Goodell would not have dared suspended him. Otherwise, the team, player and the NFLPA might have challenged such an absurd, arbitrary ruling without causation.

But the Steelers’ front office has been close to Goodell since helping him become commissioner, which ranks right up there with passing over Dan Marino in the 1984 NFL Draft, cutting Johnny Unitas from training camp, and giving up on Len Dawson too quickly among the dumbest managerial decisions ever by the Steelers.

Thus, after a tremendous effort in free agency that left the Steelers as one of the oldest teams in the NFL but a championship-caliber squad for 2010, Pittsburgh’s upper management essentially pissed away their Super Bowl chances this fall over 10 days to try and preserve an image of moral superiority.

Rest assured it was not Kevin Colbert or Mike Tomlin who said, “yeah, let’s trade away our top offensive weapon to get another fifth-round pick who may not make the team!” Moreover, I do not buy the notion that upper management supported the excessive Roethlisberger suspension to “send him a message” or keep him from becoming a “runaway freight train” as some fans believe.

No, they supported the suspension, because protecting the Steelers’ image was more important to Art Rooney II than winning. If Art Rooney himself  was still alive – bless his soul – I doubt the Steelers would have traded Holmes, because he left personnel decisions up to football people and often looked the other way when players strayed off the field.

Now, like the vast majority of Steeler fans, I love having the Rooney family run the Steelers. There are no better owners in pro sport or a better franchise.

It is true that Pittsburgh emphasizes character and unselfishness more than most NFL teams. However, the Steelers have never been a team full of choir boys. Please remember that former first-round draft picks Tim Worley, Eric Green, Plaxico Burress and Santonio Holmes all had well-publicized, character/attitudes issues before being drafted by the Steelers; and those pre-draft character concerns came to fruition for all four players.

Moreover, the Steelers have kept around plenty of veterans with off-field problems, such as Ernie Holmes, Terry Long, Carlton Haserlig, and Burress.

And why was Roethlisberger punished so severely by Steelers management for a baseless allegation, while two of their top figureheads in the community – Jerome Bettis and Charlie Batch – have also been accused of committing — although never charged with — sexual assault (Bettis) and rape (Batch)?

The hypocrisy and double-standards run deep. But if Pittsburgh does not make the postseason this year, Art Rooney II’s fanatical concern about his team’s good image over a 10-day period should be blamed far more than the immature antics of Roethlisberger or Holmes, or any personnel decisions by Colbert and Tomlin.

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  • Gretz

    I just can’t agree that the Steelers threw Roethlisberger under the bus, if anything, I’d say they’ve bent over backwards for the guy for this simple fact: He’s still on the team, and collecting $100 million of their money. There’s not many other professions that would allow a person to keep his job if he were twice accused of sexual assault, regardless of whether or not there were criminal charges brought forward. And this after he lied about his motorcycle usage (remember, he originally said he road choppers in large groups, and only with a helmet … not crotch rockets without a helmet). I’m more angry at Roethlisberger for continuing to put himself in these situations than I am at the Rooney’s or Roger Goodell for disciplining him. And this is coming from somebody that owns a Ben Roethlisberger jersey and thinks of him as a top-three quarterback in the NFL.

    As for Holmes, again, I’m more angry at him for putting himself in a position where such a roster move became a reality. He was already disciplined once by the team (the Giants game in ’08) and he still never got the message. And while the return is a bloodbath when you consider Holmes’ talent and ability, that’s probably the market for 12 games of a wide receiver. Randy Moss only brought a fourth-round pick in return. Anquan Boldin brought back a couple of picks, but none higher than a third-rounder.

  • Ted

    Adam, great and acurate point on Santonio’s poor trade value, although that was all the more reason not to trade him and instead keep him for a SB run in 2010. Those other stud WRs who have been traded like Moss and Boldin either quit on their teams and/or became cancers in the lockeroom. Neither held true for Holmes, who was just an idiot when he left the team.

    And BTW, he’s been an idiot since he was at Ohio State and throughout his time with the Steelers. Heck, he was facing potential charges as a rookie before fall camp.

    As for his previous discipline in 08, that was another internal decision by the Steelers that few if any other teams would have suspended a stud for a game that they lost probably due to that suspension. Incidentally, charges were ultimately dropped from that minor traffic stop that resulted in his 1-game suspension.

    I disagree with some of your points on Roethlisberger. First, as I have said before, he is an idiot sleezeball who keeps putting himself in bad situations. But rest assured, the Rooneys have only kept him around because they have $100 million invested in him, are not loaded like Dan Snyder, and know that franchise QBs rarely come around, evident by nearly 20 years of mostly poor QB play and no Super Bowl titles between Bradshaw and Big Ben.

    I am angry at him, too, for putting himself in bad situations. But it is a complete joke that he was suspended under Goodell Code of Conduct Policy when virtually no one else has been, including plenty of violent felons throughout the league.

    Why did the Steelers have to make their franchise QB the posterboy for punishment for bad behavior for the entire NFL when guys actually arrested and convicted of crimes receive no punishment?

    Actually, Roethlisberger would still be employed in about 99% of professions. Why? Because the guy has never been arrested for anything in his life. Thus, allegations against him would not be public news and employers would not learn of them unless they came from someone in their workforce, and Ben has never – to our knowledge – done anything wrong inside the Steelers’ organization. In fact, if he was not a rich, famous athlete, the allegations from Nevada would have never occurred.