The NFL is currently the most popular sports league in U.S. history, coming off a record-breaking season in revenues and an epic Super Bowl between two storied franchises that was viewed by an estimated 111 million Americans. Yet a possible labor strife will likely result in a lockout on March 4, which could then extend into the summer and threaten the 2011 season.
Usually the blame in these pro sport labor breakdowns can be attributed to both greedy billionaire owners and millionaire players. But in this case, the owners hold most of the negotiating chips due to guaranteed TV revenues regardless if games are played. As a result, they are making absurd demands upon the players, who have careers that average less than three years and the lowest annual average salaries for professional athletes from any of the four major U.S. pro men’s team sports.
(Unfortunately such attacks on unions are now commonplace by the filthy rich who are soiling this country’s soul by attacking teachers, firefighters, all employees in the public-sector and good ole-fashion blue-collar workers, the kind who historically permeated Pittsburgh. Back to the Steelers, though.)
Some of the Steelers-related articles published since last Sunday’s Super Bowl loss to the Packers (no shame in that setback) have focused on the team’s upcoming free agents, lumping three potential free-agent types in the same category. But if no CBA is reached until July or later, there may be no unrestricted free agency before the 2011 season, with teams possibly having the right to sign any of their own players back for one year at 120 percent of their 2010 salary. Teams would also have exclusive negotiation rights for long-term deals with their players.
An agreement reached next week – while great for the game – could be disastrous for the Steelers’ 2011 title aspirations. But if Pittsburgh has the option of bringing back all their free agents for 2011, and can use the draft to provide immediate upgrades at No. 2 or No. 3 corner — and possibly at right guard — then the Steelers will be a strong contender to win another Lombardi Trophy next season, possibly even the AFC favorite.
This core group who, in the last seven years has played in four AFC Championship games and three Super Bowls (winning two), may have only one more title run in them. It will not be long before major overhauls will be needed for a defense that started eight players 29 or older at the beginning of the 2010 season.
The team has reportedly decided to use the franchise tag on LaMarr Woodley, a talented 26-year-old linebacker. But undoubtedly Pittsburgh’s most important free agent for the immediate future is Ike Taylor, a legitimate No. 1 corner who would receive outrageously high salary offers from other teams if allowed to hit the open market, particularly if there is no salary cap for 2011. However, fans of every small-market team should pray one is included in a new CBA.
Take away Taylor and I truly doubt the Steelers make the playoffs next season. Their other cornerbacks (Bryant McFadden, William Gay and Anthony Madison) may be the worst No. 2-4 corners on any team in the NFL and any decent quarterback would be able to pick them apart without Taylor shadowing their best receiver.
The Steelers have the most dominant defensive front seven in football, so could you imagine how good the league’s No. 1 defense in 2010 would have looked with a quality corner opposite Taylor? If they had one, the team would still be celebrating its seventh Super Bowl championship right now.
Until a CBA is reached, Taylor can only sign with the Steelers, and that is a good thing. I wish the Steelers would go against the norm right now and sign Taylor, a truly loyal player who might give the team a hometown discount, especially if they offer a contract with no competition from other teams.
A more likely scenario would allow veterans like Taylor to become unrestricted free agents if/when a CBA is reached. But the later that happens, the more likely the owners are to insist that fourth- and fifth-year players with expired contracts are not allowed to become unrestricted free agents until after 2011 due to the chaos that would ensue if so many players hit the open market in late summer. Instead, those players would remain restricted free agents for another year, meaning their current teams could issue one-year tenders to maintain their rights.
Through that scenario, Woodley, OT Willie Colon, TE Matt Spaeth and Gay would all remain Steelers for 2011. Woodley is a Pro Bowl-caliber linebacker and elite pass rusher, Colon was the team’s best offensive lineman in 2009 before tearing his Achilles last summer, Spaeth was a serviceable No. 2 tight end who has finally become a decent blocker (although his hands lost the regular-season game against the Jets), and Gay is clearly the team’s second best cover corner behind Taylor, although that is not much of a compliment.
The Steelers’ brass would prefer to have all four of those back for 2011, but may only want to give long-term deals to Woodley, particularly since Colon, who used his quick feet to make up for his lack of height, is returning from a major injury.
It would be wonderful if the Steelers could bring back both OT Jonathan Scott (who some team may sign to compete for a starting spot after his playoff performances) and swing OL Trai Essex. Both, though, would be free agents like Taylor and Pittsburgh would be fortunate to get one back unless there is no free agency before 2011.
Pittsburgh would also like to have free agent reserve defensive linemen Chris Hoke and Nick Eason return, although Eason (who has gone from lousy journeyman to quality reserve over the past two years) may get some attention on the open market and, depending on the draft, might not be guaranteed a roster spot with the Steelers. Hoke will retire a Steeler after the 2011 or 2012 season.
Unless the Steelers draft a running back in the first four rounds, which does not appear likely since this is a down year for RBs and Pittsburgh has much greater needs, I expect Mewelde Moore back as the No. 3 tailback (although an upgrade would be nice here).
Special-teams ace Anthony Madison will almost assuredly be in Pittsburgh’s camp regardless of what happens with a CBA, due to a lack of interest from other teams if he were allowed to become a free agent. Madison, though, would be even more likely to make the roster if they are expanded to 56 per team next year.
Regardless of what happens with the CBA, the Steelers need a new punter. Mediocre at best, I actually thought mid-year signee Jeremy Kapinos was at least as good as the often-injured Daniel Sepulveda, who is atrocious at pinning teams deep in their territory due to a lack of touch.
Sepulveda just finished his fourth season with the Steelers, but missed 26 games over that period due to injuries. Time to cut him loose.
In contrast, I would not mind having Shaun Suisham back to kick field goals and extra points, with the Steelers also keeping a kickoff specialist, who would also be groomed as the long-term answer for all kicking duties. An expanded 56-man roster would allow Pittsburgh to finally keep a kickoff specialist, along with a fullback.
The third type of free agents, third-year players who previously became restricted free agents but the NFLPA now wants to become unrestricted, are barely worth discussing. First, the owners will never allow third-year players to become unrestricted free agents, and second, because there are no decent Steelers who fall into this category. Rashard Mendenhall signed a five-year deal as the Steelers’ first-round pick in 2008, with the rest of that draft class now officially classified as horrendous.
Regardless, Steelers fans should not lose sleep if March 4 passes without a labor agreement because it may just put Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl in February. Moreover, if minicamps are canceled and training camps shortended, those are just more advantages for a well-coached, veteran, deep, top-tier Steelers squad.
Although it would have been difficult to implement for 2011, the owners will get an 18-game schedule when a CBA is reached. But there is almost no chance of that being put into place for 2011 at this point, which again is an advantage for an aging Pittsburgh squad.
By the way, for those fans still in the “Fire Bruce Arians!” camp, consider this: It would be an absurdly dumb move right now for the reasons laid out above. Teams may end up having 2-3 weeks together before games start. That is not the time to break in a new offensive coordinator with no offseason to prepare.
I thought Arians had his best year, by far, as an OC in 2010. This team finished 12th in total offense and went to the Super Bowl despite having its franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger suspended for the first four games, trading its top playermaker in Santonio Holmes (who the Steelers sure could have used against Green Bay), and losing their two starting tackles before midseason in Colon and Max Starks.
Heck, Dick LeBeau is arguably the best defensive coordinator of all-time and his defense collapsed at the end of 2009 due to the loss of just two players: Troy Polamalu and Aaron Smith. Arians deserves a lot of credit for his efforts in 2010, which is why the notion of firing him now in these uncertain times is even more ridiculous.