The Steelers announced Saturday that they placed veteran defensive end Aaron Smith on the season-ending injured reserve list due to a “foot sprain,” a specific injury that has likely never ended a player’s year before the midpoint of that season until now. The announcement capped a bizarre 36 hours, since it was reported on Friday that practice-squad defensive end Corbin Bryant had been signed to the active 53-man roster, but the Steelers did not reveal how they made room for Bryant until later today, even though Smith had to be placed on IR before the Steelers could officially promote Bryant.
For the 35-year-old Smith, this likely and hopefully marks the end of his stellar career. After missing the last two games due to his foot sprain, this marks the third consecutive year and fourth time in the last five where Smith will end the season on injured reserve. He played in just 15 games over the past 3 years.
The Best 3-4 Defensive End Ever?
At 6-foot-5, 300 pounds, and with excellent leverage and quickness to go with a competitive desire as great as any player in recent Steelers’ history, Smith was the archetype for 3-4 defensive ends, arguably the best ever at that relatively new position. Over the course of his career that began in 2000, the Steelers have the statistically best run defense in the NFL.
Even though top 3-4 defensive ends often occupy double teams and thus rarely generate much pressure in the passing game, Smith recorded eight quarterback sacks twice during his career (2001 and 2004), the latter of which resulted in Smith becoming the first pure 3-4 defensive end to earn a Pro Bowl invite in NFL history after helping Pittsburgh post a franchise-best regular-season record of 15-1 in 2004. In his prime, Smith was the heart, soul and leader of a dominant defense.
But having to watch Smith get physically pushed back by single blockers, and often run at and over during the first four games this fall was like seeing Muhammad Ali’s boxing career end with beatdowns by Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick.
Smith never missed a start from 2001-06, but his physical problems began with a knee injury early in 2007 and he ended that season on IR due to a torn biceps. Coupled with an injury that sidelined superstar safety Troy Polamalu as well, the Steelers’ normally stout run defense collapsed at the end of the season, culminated by a home playoff loss to the Jaguars.
However, Smith returned strong in 2008, playing an intricate role for the Steelers’ second Super Bowl championship in four seasons. He started 2009 off well, but saw his season end prematurely in week 6 due to a torn rotator cuff. While the Steelers’ pass defense struggled over the second-half of 2009, their run defense did not suffer without Smith.
Whereas he was no longer a dominant player, Smith was a solid starter early in 2010 before suffering a torn triceps in week No. 7 that ultimately ended his season, although he was not placed on the IR list for the hope that he would return later in the year. He never did, but the Steelers did not miss beat, tallying the third best run defense (62.8 yards per game) of any team in NFL history during the Super Bowl era, while advancing to their third Super Bowl in six seasons.
Steelers’ Front Office Should Have Restructured Smith Before Season
Having missed the majority of three of the past four seasons, Smith seemed like the Steelers’ No. 1 candidate to be asked to restructure his contract this past offseason. To end the owners’ lockout, the NFLPA agreed to a horrific CBA for the players that resulted in a 2011 team salary cap of $123.5 million, which was roughly $20 million less than expected. Well over the cap, the Steelers opted to release three veteran players, and put themselves in a much worse salary-cap situation for 2012 and one that will still cause problems in 2013 and 2014 since they also restructured the contracts of several key players, significantly increasing their salary cap figures for future years.
Ironically, though, the front office never approached Smith about a restructure before the season, even though he carried a lofty $6.5 million cap figure, with a $4.1 million base salary for 2011 that could have been completely eradicated if he was released or at least significantly lowered if a year was added to Smith’s contract, which made sense since Smith had expressed interest in playing through the 2012 season. If he was on the opening-day roster, Smith’s full salary was guaranteed regardless of a potential injury at some point during the season, which seemed a strong possibility based on his recent history.
Instead, the front office offered offensive tackle Flozell Adams the choice between taking a significant paycut from his completely non-guaranteed 2011 salary of $5 million or to be released. Coming off a year when he was an excellent offensive tackle in both run- and pass-blocking, Adams essentially told the Steelers to shove it and was let go.
One summer as a young teenager trying too hard to master capitalism, I sold vintage baseball cards of Mickey Mantle and Roberto Clemente to a dealer at a cut-rate (this was before Ebay), so that I could purchase via mail-order 500 rookie cards of Pete Incaviglia. After watching Incaviligia play for Oklahoma State in three consecutive College World Series, and knowing that he had easily become the NCAA Division I all-time leader in home runs and slugging percentage (while using an aluminum bat and often facing bad pitchers), I was convinced that Incaviligia would become a modern-day Babe Ruth, who would eventually break the all-time MLB home-run record.
While I have obviously since lost much more money through other unwise investments, that was undoubtedly the most idiotic financial decision I ever made. Incaviglia ended up being a poor man’s Dave Kingman, hitting just 206 home runs over a 13-year journeyman career that saw him play for 10 teams, lead the MLB in strikeouts twice and finish with a career batting average of .246.
Still, I think that my Incaviglia investment was more sound than how the Steelers’ handled Smith and Adams’ contracts this offseason. Both were only signed through 2011. For some unexplainable reason, the Steelers did not ask a team-first veteran like Smith, who had been with the franchise for a decade but had played in just 11 games over the previous two seasons, to restructure his contract on a paycut and/or to transfer money to unlikely-to-earn potential bonuses that would not count against the cap even though the team had Brett Keisel coming off his first Pro-Bowl campaign, and two recent first-round picks in Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward all returning at defensive end.
In contrast to the injury-prone player Smith had become, the 36-year-old Adams had never missed a game in 12 of his previous 13 NFL seasons, including the last five years. More important, he was one of only two quality players on a Pittsburgh offensive line that was ranked as the worst in the NFL by Pro Football Focus in 2010, but had significantly improved its rushing attack, which ranked 11th in the NFL because they primary ran behind the mammoth Adams en route to Super Bowl XLV. Finally, in cutting Adams and Max Starks, the Steelers made Willie Colon, who was coming off a season-ending Achilles tear that most players never return from at the same level, and journeyman Jonathan Scott (who was re-signed to a paltry $1.3 million total contract for 2011) their undisputed starters at right tackle and the ultra-important left tackle spot, respectively. Over the first four games this fall, Pittsburgh fans unfortunately saw how those decisions turned out, with franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger literally feeling the pain from those managerial mistakes much more than the fans.
Do not mention any ridiculous notions about loyalty either. This is a franchise that always treats its players with respect, but also recognizes and conveys to them that this is foremost a competitive business. The Steelers released Franco Harris (the second most important player in franchise history) right before he was set to break the NFL’s all-time career rushing yardage total, and that was before teams were restricted by annual salary caps.
Since the start of the salary-cap era in the early 1990s, the Steelers have been cold and calculating with key veteran players, quickly cutting ties with some of their best and most important players (e.g., Greg Lloyd, Joel Steed, Joey Porter, etc.) as soon as their play started deteriorating compared to what they were earning. The only player the Steelers voluntarily let depart who they clearly made a mistake on was Rod Woodson. All of their many other decisions since the advent of modern-era free agency were either the right moves at the appropriate time or at the least did not hurt the team’s future success (e.g., not re-signing Alan Faneca after 2007; choosing to re-sign Steed instead of Yancey Thigpen in free agency after 1997, since both players’ careers quickly subsided). Please remember this team forced franchise icon Jerome Bettis to take significant paycuts twice if he wanted to avoid being released. Smith, however, was the lone exception.
Local Press Was GaGa Over Smith
Yes, Smith WAS a great player and is a great leader. But the illogical favoritism exhibited to Smith by the front office was surpassed in absurdity only by the absolute loyalty and shielding from any criticism he received from an adoring Steelers’ coaching staff and even the team’s local media. Despite having a relatively small-market host city, the Steelers receive great local coverage, and the team’s beat writers are some of the best reporters in sport journalism. However, that has not been evident in their coverage of Smith, where their objectivity, thoroughness and veracity were on par with the reporting of Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhafwas.
The then-34-year-old Smith tore his triceps just before mid-season in 2010. That injury usually sidelines players for a full year, and should have been viewed as particularly detrimental for an injury-prone, aging and tall 3-4 defensive end who needed full upper-body strength more than any other player on the team to withstand constant double teams from heavier opponents.
But yet the Steelers’ coaching staff elected to keep Smith on its active 53-man roster for the rest of the year, with the hope that he would be able to return late in the season or at the least for the playoffs. He never healed enough to come back in 2010; and to keep Smith on the roster all season, the Steelers cut a rookie fourth-round pick, and took major risks by dressing only five defensive linemen in two games.
A few days before Super XLV, the Steelers finally ruled out any chance of Smith returning to the field that season. But yet in his blog on the Post-Gazette’s subscriber-only site, Ed Bouchette – the dean of all Steelers’ beat writers and one the most respected and objective NFL scribs in the country – wrote that it was still the right decision to keep Smith on the active roster all year even after he was listed as out for the Super Bowl. Huh? It literally had just been proven to be the wrong decision, but I guess the Bay of Pigs Invasion would have been the right decision as well per Bouchette, so long as Aaron Smith was part of the operation.
Smith looked noticeably weak and lacked his normal quickness during the 2011 preseason, but veteran defensive line coach John Mitchell quickly dismissed the notion of any competition for the starting left defensive end spot, even though Hood, the Steelers’ first-round selection in 2009, had filled in admirably for Smith for most of the 2010 season. Aren’t all positions supposed to be open-competition in NFL training camps, particularly when a team has two returning starters at the same spot?
Fans watching the actual games clearly saw Smith’s struggles during the preseason and Smith – to his credit – admitted that he was not playing near his expected level and had lost strength due to his triceps injury. But that was not evident in a feel-good column on Smith by the Tribune-Review’s Joe Starkey published before the opening-day loss to the Ravens. Starkey opened by writing, “He’s back for season No. 13. Strong as ever.” Starkey either never watched Smith in the preseason, or is the Ronnie Milsap of Steelers’ reporters, or simply put aside the obvious, the final possibility because Pittsburgh beat reporters evidently agreed to a single creed of “thou must never write any content that could be construed as critical of Aaron Smith through any respect.”
The Steelers’ proud defensive front seven was thoroughly dominated in a humiliating, 35-7, season-opening loss at Baltimore. No defensive player was worse on that day than Smith, who was regularly pushed backward and literally thrown to the ground by one blocker on a key TD run, something that never happened in Smith’s prime.
But despite having three other quality, highly-paid defensive ends, Mitchell kept Smith in for 52 plays against the Ravens, while recent first-round picks Hood and Heyward only saw action on a combined 15 defensive plays that game despite Baltimore gashing the Steelers for 170 rushing yards. But yet Steeler City Insider.Net expert Jim Wexell (who is normally objective) wrote after that game that he “would not bet against Smith.” If the bet is that Mitchell would continue to wheel Smith out as a starter so long as he is healthy no matter how poorly he plays or that Smith would likely end another season on IR, I would not have bet against him either. But at that point, it was obvious Smith was a fraction of the player he had been throughout most of his career due to the multiple major injuries on various body parts unfortunately draining the aged Smith of his upper-body strength, quickness and leverage.
With Smith starting and playing the majority of defensive snaps, the Steelers’ normally stout run defense yielded 119.5 rushing yards per game (22nd in the NFL) and 4.8 yards per carry over the first four games. While still not very good by Pittsburgh standards, those numbers are down to 99.5 yards and a 4.1 average over the last two games with Hood starting and Heyward moving up to the No. 3 defensive end, and those were with more key Pittsburgh defenders injured, such as James Harrison. Hood has played at a much higher level over the past two games than Smith was capable of (even when healthy) at this point of his career.
The saddest part of all this is that Smith probably still could have been a quality reserve this year and possibly in 2012 as well had he been limited to a Travis Kirschke-type role of 10-15 plays per game. For such a back-up position, his base salary should have been reduced to $1 million this year, providing salary cap relief for both 2011-12. If the team did not want to force him to take an outright paycut so severe, then they could have re-worked his contract to include a lot of unlikely to earn incentives (Pro Bowl, 10 or more sacks, team wins Super Bowl, etc.). If Smith did earn any of them, they would not count toward the Steelers’ cap until the following year. And Smith is such a team-first, unselfish player that my guess is that he would have graciously accepted the paycut without saying a word. After all, he had already received roughly $20 million from the new contract he signed before 2007, even though he only played a half-season or more one time since signing that contract.
Incidentally, to be able to sign Max Starks after the week No. 4 loss at Houston (which also marked Smith’s last game action), Smith did restructure his contract and extend it for another year. He is set to earn a base salary of just less than $2.1 million next fall, which the 2012 cap-challenged Steelers cannot even consider paying Smith even in the unlikely event he returns from yet another season-ending injury and tries to play next fall. Moreover, a prorated portion from Smith’s new signing bonus will add another $875,000 to the Steelers’ team payroll next year even if Smith is retired or does not make the team’s roster.
Fortunately, though, Smith’s salaries will be forgotten after a few years and fans will instead focus on his stalwart play when he was healthy, remembering how Smith changed the game of football as a dominant 3-4 end, and fondly recalling that Smith was a strong leader during games, in the huddle and in the locker-room for the Steelers’ mini-dynasty from 2004-10. Smith will likely finish his career with two Super Bowl rings, and membership on three Super Bowl teams and at least five squads that advanced to the AFC Championship game. But there is no way he should have ever been paid top-dollar or be an undisputed starter for the 2011 Steelers.