Salary Cap Hasn’t Really Dinged the Steelers

NFL dynasties were supposed to end with the arrival of free agency and the salary cap.

Supposedly, teams would never be able to afford all the stars they’d need to keep a dynasty together, so instead we’d see a never-ending revolving door of Super Bowl champs. As one team was gutted by free agency, the next team on the rise would step up, only to repeat the process.

During the 1990s, that argument seemed to make some sense as the Cowboys and 49ers went for broke, then went bust as the ran up against the salary cap. The Steelers couldn’t be called a dynasty, but they followed a similar pattern as quarterback Neil O’Donnell, linebackers Kevin Greene, Greg Lloyd and Chad Brown and wide receiver Yancey Thigpen all left in free agency. The result? The team dipped to its worst stretch of the past 20 years in the late 1990s.

But as we know now, that’s not really what ended up happening. The Patriots haven’t really had a problem keeping the core of their team together during a very successful run during the first decade of the new century. And now the Steelers have made it to three Super Bowls in six years with a team that has the same stars.

But while we may all know that, it is still remarkable how much of the core from Pittsburgh’s 2005 team is still together. As crazy as it may seem, over the six-year span from the 2005 Super Bowl champs to last year’s Super Bowl losers, Pittsburgh managed to keep nearly as many starters as the 70′s Steelers did from their first title in 1974 to their final one in 1979.

If you look back at the 70s Steelers, 11 starters from the 1974 squad were still starting in 1979. That’s using the widest definition of starter possible — Larry Brown moved from tight end to right tackle, but he counts. L.C. Greenwood was a part-time starter, but he counts. Another four 1979 starters were backups on the 1974 teams.

Here’s the breakdown of the 1974 and 1979 teams compared.

Pos 1974 1979 How ’79 player acquired
QB Terry Bradshaw Terry Bradshaw Same
RB Rocky Bleier Rocky Bleier Same
FB Franco Harris Franco Harris Same
WR Frank Lewis John Stallworth Backup in 74
WR Ron Shanklin Lynn Swann Backup in 74
TE Larry Brown Bennie Cunningham Drafted in 76
LT Jon Kolb Jon Kolb Same
LG Sam Davis Sam Davis Same
C Ray Mansfield Mike Webster Backup in 74
RG Gerry Mullins Gerry Mullins Same
RT Gordon Gravelle Larry Brown Played TE in 74
Defensive Starters Defensive Starters
LDE L.C. Greenwood L.C. Greenwood Same
LDT Joe Greene Joe Greene Same
RDT Ernie Holmes Gary Dunn Drafted in 76
RDE Dwight White John Banaszak Signed in 75
LLB Jack Ham Jack Ham Same
MLB Jack Lambert Jack Lambert Same
RLB Andy Russell Dirt Winston Drafted in 77
LCB J.T. Thomas Ron Johnson Drafted in 78
RCB Mel Blount Mel Blount Same
SS Mike Wagner Donnie Shell Backup in 74
FS Glen Edwards J.T. Thomas CB in 74
Special Teams Starters Special Teams Starters
K Roy Gerela Matt Bahr Drafted in 79
P Bobby Walden Craig Colquitt Drafted in 78
PR Lynn Swann Theo Bell Drafted in 76
KR Steve Davis Larry Anderson Drafted in 78

Now, the 2010 Steelers had nine starters who were also starters on the 2005 Super Bowl champs (seven if you don’t want to count special teams players, and admittedly Jeff Reed is a tenuous match). Another four 2010 starters were backups on the 2005 team. That’s not as many as the ’70s Steelers, but it’s not far off. And it seems to be proof that nowadays, the salary cap isn’t a detriment to keeping a team together. In the Steelers’ case, seven of the starters from the 2005 Steelers who weren’t around in 2010 had retired. Only Chris Hope (who left for the Titans in free agency) and Alan Faneca (who left for the Jets in free agency) could be considered players who left despite the Steelers’ desire to keep them around. Normal attrition led to some roster changeover, but it’s hard to say that free agency really affected the Steelers in any significant fashion.

In other words, if you bought a jersey of your favorite Steeler back in 2004 or 2005, there was a decent chance that you wouldn’t look out of place wearing it to a game this season.

Pos 2005 2010 How ’10 starter acquired
QB Ben Roethlisberger Ben Roethlisberger Same
RB Willie Parker Rashard Mendenhall Drafted in ’08
FB/TE Dan Kreider Matt Spaeth Drafted in ’07
WR Antwaan Randle El Mike Wallace Drafted in ’09
WR Hines Ward Hines Ward Same
TE Heath Miller Heath Miller Same
LT Marvel Smith Max Starks Was starting RT in ’05
LG Alan Faneca Chris Kemoeatu Backup in ’05
C Jeff Hartings Maurkice Pouncey Drafted in ’10
RG Kendall Simmons Ramon Foster Signed in ’09
RT Max Starks Flozell Adams Signed as FA
Defensive Starters Defensive Starters
LDE Aaron Smith Aaron Smith Same
NT Casey Hampton Casey Hampton Same
RDE Kimo von Oelhoffen Brett Keisel Backup in ’05
LOLB Clark Haggans LaMarr Woodley Drafted in ’07
LILB James Farrior James Farrior Same
RILB Larry Foote Lawrence Timmons Drafted in ’07
ROLB Joey Porter James Harrison Backup in ’05
LCB Ike Taylor Ike Taylor Same
RCB Deshea Townsend Bryant McFadden Backup in ’05
SS Troy Polamalu Troy Polamalu Same
FS Chris Hope Ryan Clark Signed as FA
Special Teams Starters Special Teams Starters
K Jeff Reed Jeff Reed Same
P Chris Gardocki Daniel Sepulveda Drafted in ’07
PR Antwaan Randle El Antwaan Randle El Same
KR Quincy Morgan Emmanuel Sanders Drafted in ’10

The same test can be applied to other dynasties. Check out the 49ers, the undisputed team of the ’80s. Only five of the ’88 starters were also starters on the 1981 Super Bowl champs and only one other starter was even on the team. This is trying to give the 49ers the benefit of the doubt–the dynasty was really confirmed with the 1989 Super Bowl title.

Pos 1981 1987 How ’87 starter was acquired
QB Joe Montana Joe Montana Same
RB Ricky Patton Roger Craig Drafted in ’83
FB Earl Cooper Tom Rathman Drafted in ’86
WR Dwight Clark Jerry Rice Drafted in ’84
WR Freddie Solomon Mike Wilson Backup in ’81
TE Charle Young Ron Heller Signed in ’87
LT Dan Audick Steve Wallace Drafted in ’86
LG John Ayers Jesse Sapolu Drafted in ’83
C Fred Quillan Randy Cross Played RG in ’81
RG Randy Cross Guy McIntyre Drafted in ’84
RT Keith Fahnhorst Harris Barton Drafted in ’87
Defensive Starters Defensive Starters
LDE Jim Stuckey Larry Roberts Drafted in ’86
NT Archie Reese Michael Carter Drafted in ’84
RDE Dwaine Board Kevin Fagan Drafted in ’86
LOLB Willie Harper Charles Haley Drafted in ’86
LILB Dan Bunz Riki Ellison Drafted in ’83
RILB Jack Reynolds Mike Walter Signed in ’84
ROLB Keena Turner Keena Turner Same
LCB Ronnie Lott Tim McKyer Drafted in ’86
RCB Eric Wright Eric Wright Same
SS Carlton Williamson Don Griffin Drafted in ’86
FS Dwight Hicks Ronnie Lott Played CB in ’81
Special Teams Starters Special Teams Starters
K Ray Wersching Mike Cofer Signed in ’88
P Jim Miller Barry Helton Signed in ’84
PR Freddie Solomon John Taylor Drafted in ’86
KR Amos Lawrence Doug DuBose Signed in ’87

The Steelers have clearly made a decision that they will do everything possible to keep the current team together. At some point in the next couple of years, Pittsburgh will have to turn over a significant portion of the roster — the defense will be the oldest in the league again this year. But for now, Pittsburgh has managed to keep the core of its team together for more than half a decade. Apparently the salary cap isn’t nearly the detriment to keeping a team together that it was once believed to be.

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  • EasyLikeSundayMorning

    This is very interesting. I didn’t realize how much stability we’ve had compared to the 1970s.

    One thing that has seemed to help is the increase in revenue that Heinz Field has brought.  Since it opened in 2001, the only significant free agent losses that I can think of were Earl Holmes, Wayne Gandy, Plax, Randle El, Hope and Faneca.  During this time, we’ve signed Farrior and Clark and re-signed Ben, Troy, Hines, Harrison, Woodley, Timmons, Clark, Ike and Starks.  That’s a pretty good track record of picking the right guys to invest in.

  • Anonymous

    Pretty interesting breakdown. Oe thing that jumps out to me is that there’s a lot of “Backup in X” and “Drafted in Y,”  but not a lot of “Signed as FA.” While I agree that a goal of the salary cap was to make it hard to remain dominant, I do not think the primary concern was around these types of “organic” teams. Indeed rules such as restricted free agency and franchise tags seems to indicate that the NFL sees value in keeping players where they are instead of shuffling them around.

    I think what the salary cap primarily aims to guard against are two things. The first thing it guards against is having a team with a wealthy owner going out and buying all the best free agents all the time and building a dynasty that way (see also the Yankees). The second thing it guards against is having an imbalance of team power based on market. It’s been a mixed back as far as this criterion goes. The Steelers and Packers do quite well in small markets. The Bills and Panthers (recently) have not done so well, but if you look at their figures I think you’ll find them both coming in well under the salary cap. The cap can only protect the small market teams against big market teams by preventing the big teams from outspending them, it can’t prevent the small team from crippling itself through stinginess – the new salary floor could be interesting in that regard.

    • countertorque

      Has the salary cap really prevented teams from buying up all the free agents?  It seems like the Redskins do that every year.  It seems like the thing that really deters that strategy is the fact that football relies more heavily on teamwork and scheme.  An infinite ability to sign players, by itself, is no guarantee that you can build a good team.

      • Anonymous

        They’re often active in free agency, but every dollar they spend on a free agent is a dollar they can’t spend on a different free agent or on a resigning due to the cap. If I knew where to find the data I’d have a look and see what’s going on there. Remember, a team like the Steelers isn’t spending any less than the Redskins, it just prefers stability and resigning its own to turnover. If the Redskins really could spend whatever on whomever, some of those resigning might not happen. Why resign with the Steelers this year when next year I’ll be a free agent and the Redskins will give me a five year, eighty million dollar contract?

    • Anonymous

      “(see also the Yakees)”

      Is Mr. Intropy a closet lawyer?  :)

      • Anonymous

        Nope, I’m a computer programmer. I’m curious. What about that made you think lawyer?

        • Anonymous

          “see also” is a specific phrase used in legal writing to cite authority that supports a proposition in the preceding sentence that may not exactly be the same point but still bolsters the underlying contention.  For example:

          The Steelers will win at least 4 divisional games this year because Ohio sports teams suck.  See Browns and Bengals, See also the Reds and Cavaliers.

          Although the see also refers to non-football teams and thus doesn’t support the sentences primary argument (about the Steelers winning), it supports a secondary premise that Ohio teams suck.

          • Anonymous

            Very interesting. That’s pretty much how I meant to use it, but I don’t have any background in law outside of what I picked up in history/government classes, from the news, and from reading the occasional court transcript and opinion. I didn’t even realize that usage came from law. I guess it just stuck. I just had a look at Wikipedia’s citation signal article I’d say fewer than half of them are familiar to me.

  • Cols714

    I just want to point out that even though the defense is going to be the oldest in the league, the next generation of starters is already on the roster for the oldest defenders. Hood for Smith, Heyward for Keisel, and Stevenson for Farrior. These all seem like above average to stars in the making. The main piece missing is a new NT behind Casey Hampton, but that’s probably what the 2012 draft is for.

    • Anonymous

      I agree. A hidden benefit of having veterans around a long time is you get to be very selective about the next generation. Farrior’s 30? Draft an ILB to back him up and succeed him. That guy doesn’t work out? Cut him and draft another. If you know Farrior is going to play to 35, you have the luxury of setting a pretty high bar on his eventual replacement. This works best with positions where you need more players since it’s easier to rotate them in for relief and experience.