Note: This is the third of a five-part series being published this week examining the 2012 Steelers, with a focus on the team’s salary-cap challenges. If you have not done so, please read Monday’s detailed synopsis on the salary-cap and which Steelers are under contract for next fall, as well as Tuesday’s look at the challenges Pittsburgh faces. Those two articles will provide the background information needed to fully understand this article.
There can be no debating that the Steelers are in a very tight salary cap situation for 2012 that at the very least must be a dubbed a mess. It will undoubtedly leave the team with unproven, lower-priced, new starters at several positions and far fewer veterans on the bench. This can be attributed to three correct strategic philosophies and three that at the very least deserve questioning
3 Logical Approaches/Moves
An Aging Teams Needs to Spend to Win Now
The Steelers are usually conservative in their off-season moves, almost never going after high-price free agents from other teams and often focusing more on the long-term than the short-term. These approaches are why they have been the NFL’s best franchise and most consistent winner over the past 40 years. However, with the second oldest roster in the NFL and eight projected starters from what has been a historically-dominant defense all in their 30s, Pittsburgh clearly viewed 2011 as its best shot at winning a seventh Lombardi crown for the near-future, and thus mostly acted toward that goal with the notable exception of short-changing the team’s weaknesses on the offensive line, which will be discussed later in this article.
Pittsburgh was wise to stick with its core of veterans and assemble one of the deepest and most proven rosters in the NFL after it was just one drive short of beating Green Bay in Super Bowl XLV. By doing so, though, they kept younger, cheaper players buried down the depth chart or off the roster. Moreover, to help get under the salary cap for 2011, they restructured the contracts of several veterans (e.g., Ben Roethlisberger, James Harrison, Chris Kemoeatu, Ryan Clark, Brett Keisel) that increased each player’s projected salary cap figures for 2012 and beyond, making it more difficult to cut any of these players before 2012 and giving the Steelers less negotiating leverage to ask some to take significant paycuts after 2011.
However, by doing so, they were able to not only sign all of their key players who were slated to be unrestricted free agents after 2011 to long-term deals, but also to bring back lower-level but still valuable veteran free agents for this season such as nose tackle Chris Hoke, cornerback William Gay and quarterback Charlie Batch, while only cutting three players (OT Max Starks, OT Flozell Adams and WR Antwaan Randle El) to get under the salary cap for 2011.
While some of their individual moves were suspect, the philosophy of focusing much more on the present year than future seasons (which goes against the Steelers’ norm) was correct regardless of what transpires this fall, because a team’s primary goal should be to win a Super Bowl when that is a realistic possibility. That focus is more paramount when a team possesses such an old roster that has many key players nearing the end or on the downside of their great careers, including superstar safety Troy Polamalu, all-world linebacker Harrison, and the team’s entire starting defensive line entering the season.
More important was the Rooney family’s commitment to again spend up to the full ceiling of the 2011 salary cap. A salary-cap floor will not be re-instated to the NFL CBA until 2013, with the ownership of the Bengals and Buccaneers arguing that it should never have been put back in place at all. That is because neither ownership cares much about winning, and is instead trying to maximize their already gaudy profit-margin that they owe to the league’s utilitarian approach to sharing most revenues equally among teams, including income from all TV contracts.
Tampa Bay was one of the surprise teams of the NFL in 2010, finishing 10-6 with a young quarterback (Josh Freeman) who is eerily similar to Roethlisberger in size, ability to extend plays and propensity to come through in the fourth quarter when games are on the line.
The Buccaneers entered this off-season with more cap space than any other franchise, but had a lack of skill-position talent and gamebreakers needed for Freeman to win a title. However, the Bucs were mostly a non-participant in the free-agency frenzy.
Now, spending lots of money on other team’s free agents is usually not a sound strategy (e.g., Eagles this past off-season and the Redskins on annual basis), and the Bucs did re-sign their key free agents. Still, they are well below the 2010 cap ceiling, and did not improve enough to become a legitimate contender this year, nor did their management move salaries around to have a better chance at a championship next year or in 2013.
That would never happen to the Steelers, who are not a big-market team but would still move money around to use most of their allotted cap. In other words, if they were flush with cap space like the Bucs were this year, the Steelers would extend contracts to some of their players slated for free agency within two years and restructure contracts to spend more now when they have the cap space available, thus opening up more cap space for future years. The Steelers are not lavish spenders, but instead wisely use the salary cap to give them a chance to be contend for that year but also remain competitive for future years.
But that is why Pittsburgh is almost always at the least decent, having won six games or more in 38 of the past 39 seasons, and notching at least five victories in now 41 consecutive seasons. In contrast, Tampa Bay won five or fewer games in 16 of its 35 total seasons before this fall, in large part due to frugal ownership.
It is also why the Steelers’ front office should not be criticized for their inability to re-sign offensive tackle Flozell Adams after Willie Colon was lost for the year in the season-opener, or after they again asked Adams to return following horrific offensive-line performances in weeks 3 and 4. They tried, but Adams justifiably would not play for any team unless he was paid $5 million per year (which was his original contract), and guaranteed a starting spot for a contender.
Now, I have long argued that Pittsburgh made a major mistake in releasing Adams over other high-priced players from more talented and deeper position areas than the offensive line (e.g., defensive end, linebacker, etc.). At this point I would think even the most ardent loyalists who contend the Steelers’ front office can do no wrong now recognize that normally astute group royally screwed up on the offensive line this past offseason, including with the release of Adams.
However, it would have been more frustrating if the Steelers had left a lot unused cash under their 2012 cap after the season started for a rainy-day fund that (A) either might never be used or (B) no one is available to sign worth that money at the position needed for an upgrade (you have no idea who will get injured), and thus the team instead signs a fill-in to a minimum contract. If a team spends $6 million less than the cap limit, it is not allowed to then go an extra $6 million over the limit next year. Use your cap space fully each season to give your team the best chance to win, which is what the Steelers generally do every year.
Winning Teams Should Make Re-Signing Own Unrestricted FAs a Priority
With the NFL’s labor uncertainty and eventual lockout between the 2010 and 2011 seasons, the Steelers had two potential marquee free agents, neither of whom they could lose and still likely contend for a Super Bowl title in 2011. The more important potential free agent for the 2011 season was Ike Taylor, the team’s No. 1 cornerback, which is a position where the Steelers had a precipitous drop in performance level from all other players over the previous two seasons (2009-10).
However, while he remains in great physical shape and has never missed an NFL game due to injury, Taylor is a 31-year-old at a position dominated by players in their early- to mid-20s. LaMarr Woodley, the team’s other marquee potential free agent before the 2011 season, is 26 and was probably a slightly better player for the Steelers’ top-ranked defense from 2008-10 than Taylor, although the Steelers seemingly would have been able to better replace Woodley had he not been on the roster than Taylor. However, due to his youth and upside, Woodley would have obviously been the more coveted player on the open market.
But no one knew if Woodley, who had just finished his fourth season, would be an unrestricted or restricted free agent, assuming a new CBA was reached that even resulted in a 2011 season. Historically, second-round draft picks like Woodley became unrestricted free agents after their fourth season, assuming they had not already signed an extension. But the CBA provisions that had kicked in for 2010 did not allow unrestricted free agency until after six years of service.
Depending on how negotiations in the labor strife between owners and the NFLPA proceeded, the Steelers may have been able to essentially guarantee Woodley’s services for 2012 merely by placing a high-level restricted free-agent tender on him that would have increased his base salary more than 600 percent to around $3.4 million for 2011, and given the Steelers the right to match any opposing offers or receive first- and third-round draft picks from any team that signed Woodley to an unmatched contract. They then could have used their franchise tag on Taylor, which would have guaranteed him a 2011 salary of around $10-11 million and allowed the Steelers to use that leverage to negotiate for a hometown discount on a long-term deal. As a veteran with eight years of accrued service after 2010, Taylor was likely to be an unrestricted free agent if any type of labor accord was reached.
However, the Steelers risked losing Taylor and, in the process, essentially eliminating their Super Bowl aspirations for this fall, by instead electing to place a franchise tag on Woodley that guaranteed him around a $10 million salary for 2011.
That strategy proved fortuitous and showed was the Steelers’ have the best front office in the NFL. Woodley would have been an unrestricted free agent through the new CBA had he not been franchised. Because his inflated 2011 franchise tag salary created difficulties for the Steelers to get under the cap for this season, Pittsburgh did not have as much negotiating leverage as they usually do with players under its franchise tag. However, the Steelers were able to sign Woodley to a 6-year, $61.5 million deal that also lowered his 2011 base salary to $1.1 million and cap hit to $7.7 million.
Woodley is an inconsistent player as shown by his MIA status for the first four weeks of this season, followed by dominating performances over the last three weeks. But he is still improving and at his best in the postseason, where he has started seven games and has an on-going NFL record with at least one sack in all of them. He also has the most sacks in postseason history over seven consecutive games with 11. In other words, when executives, owners and coaches of bad teams, many of which had lots of available cap space before 2011, were home watching the 2008 and 2010 season playoffs, Woodley was a dominant, young player in the biggest games.
Particularly because he is the rare tweener who possesses both the power and size to play rush end in a 4-3 defense and has shown himself an all-around Pro Bowl-level player in the 3-4 defense, Woodley would have easily received multiple offers better than the $72 million, 6-year contract the Panthers needed to re-sign Charles Johnson as an unrestricted free agent this past off-season. The Steelers could not have been financially able to match such an offer without creating real salary cap hell for 2011 and 2012, and risked losing their best, young defensive player with no compensation in return had they not initially placed the franchise tag on Woodley.
Moreover, because 4th- and 5th-year players like Jonathan Joseph and Antonio Cromartie were eligible for free agency after the CBA was reached, Taylor’s market value dropped considerably due to was easily deemed the best and deepest free-agent pool of cornerbacks ever with five or six legitimate No. 1 corners available, all of whom were younger than Taylor.
Wanting to stay in Pittsburgh, where he loves the coaching staff, ownership and his teammates, Taylor gave the Steelers a slight hometown discount, re-signing for 4 years for $28 million after not receiving any offers that averaged more than $9 million per season.
This showed the Steelers understood the labor situation, fair-market value, and the desires of their players far more than the Tribune-Review sports staff, with its propensity to quote freelance sports writer and self-proclaimed NFL draft expert Dave Te-Thomas on all things related to Ike Taylor, even though most rabid football fans have no idea who Dave Te-Thomas is or how someone ends up being named “Dave-Te.”
Regardless, the Steelers kept their two most important free agents and paid less than expected for Taylor. More important, they spent far less than they would have to re-sign Woodley if he were allowed to test the free-agent waters.
Lock Up Your Key Players Long-Term a Year Before Free Agency: It’s the Steeler Way
In general, Pittsburgh’s front office likes to sign its top players to long-term extensions the year before they are slated to become unrestricted free agents, although rarely are they able to lock up all of their potential top unrestricted free agents a year early.
However, they did just that this past off-season. First, they signed Wodley to a long-term deal, which removed his franchise tag and ended the possibility of Woodley becoming a free agent after 2011.
They also did the same with Polamalu and linebacker Lawrence Timmons, both of whom were slated to be unrestricted free agents after 2011. However, compelling arguments could be made against both those deals.
Afer the Woodley signing, Pittsburgh could have used the franchise tag on Polamalu if needed to retain his services in 2012, particularly since that would not be as expensive on a safety. There were also concerns about giving a long-term deal to a fierce hitter with a history of injuries.
But as Art Rooney II said after the Steelers signed Harrison to a long-term deal after he was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2008 and authored the greatest defensive play in Super Bowl history, sometimes you have to reward performance and loyalty; and none of the many great players on the 2011 Steelers’ roster fits those descriptions better than Polamalu.
Moreover, a player of Polamalu’s stature had every right to publicly lobby for a gigantic contract that exceeded the one recently given to Woodley. Most players would have, but complaining or bringing attention to himself through media are not Polamalu’s style. Polamalu was coming off a season where he was NFL Defensive Player of the Year. He is not only the top safety in football, but also the best and by far most important player on the Pittsburgh roster. Nevertheless, he agreed to a 4-year, $35.5 million contract through 2014, with only a $10.55 million signing bonus, and that deal actually lowered his 2011 cap figure. In comparison, the Chargers re-signed safety Eric Weddle to a 5-year, $40 million contract with $19 million in guarantees a few weeks earlier.
My guess is that some of our readers are now wondering who is Eric Weddle? Well, he is a decent safety who had his first great season in 2010 (although he still has never been selected to a single Pro Bowl) and was rewarded with a contract that is comparable if not better than the one Polamalu signed to stay with Pittsburgh.
Extending Polamalu at that price through just 2014 with that signing bonus was a no-brainer for the Steelers’ front office. Now I do think the Steelers overpaid for Timmons’ extension, which will be discussed later in this article. Regardless, it is still reassuring that a young, talented player who has tremendous upside is locked up for the long-term regardless of the price, particularly since the Steelers’ other two inside linebackers (James Farrior and Larry Foote) are both aging, far less athletic than Timmons, and both are only signed through 2012, with only one of those two likely returning for next fall.
3 Questionable or Illogical Moves/Strategies
Over-Paid For Some Free Agents or Players Near FA, Creating More Long-Term Risk
A quick glance at the Steelers’ 2012 salaries shows that the cap charges on just five players (Roethlisberger, Woodley, Timmons, Harrison, Polamalu) will account for a stunning 46% of the Steelers’ maximum payroll if the overall cap stays the same as it did in 2011. Timmons is the only one of those players who is not a legitimate superstar or even been selected to a Pro Bowl.
As I prophetically stated after the contract was announced, the Steelers certainly did not receive a hometown discount in extending the contract of Timmons a year before he was slated to become an unrestricted free agent, with Pittsburgh also holding the threat of keeping him under a franchise tag. However, the 6-year-deal for $50 million was obviously much more reasonable than the initial reports that had the same figure covering just five seasons, although the $22.5 million in guaranteed money was the same the Steelers gave the far more deserving Woodley.
Timmons has mostly under-achieved in Pittsburgh after being the 15th overall pick of the 2007 NFL Draft, making him the second highest Steelers’ draft pick (behind only Roethlisberger) in the past 11 years. Timmons played sparingly as a rookie, was a part-time player who backed up Foote in 2008, had an injury-riddled, up-and-down campaign as a first-year starter in 2009 and then an excellent breakout season in 2010, when he finished with team-highs in solo (95) and total tackles (134) on the third best run defense in modern NFL history.
Thus, the Steelers really paid Timmons superstar money based on just one very strong season and more so on his potential, contrasting with Woodley, who had a much more substantive body of work as an all-star caliber player for three consecutive seasons and was the team’s top defensive performer in the postseason. Moreover, inside linebackers generally do not command as much as pass rushers in free agency, and Timmons (unlike Woodley) was re-signed a year before he was eligible for free agency, meaning the Steelers took risk re-signing him early.
Now, had he followed up his 2010 season with a similar year in 2011 or even improved, Timmons may have commanded an even higher price from the Steelers or other suitors as a free agent this offseason, particularly since scouts of many teams that run a 4-3 defense likely believe he could be an even better and a far more consistent player as a weakside outside linebacker, which most scouts projected as his NFL position when he was at Florida State. But considering his salary, Timmons has been the biggest disappointment for the 2011 Steelers thus far and it is hard to imagine any team (especially the Steelers) would sign him for $50 million if he were on the open market right now unless he again starts playing like he did throughout 2010.
Timmons does two things exceptionally well: Chase down ballcarriers in pursuit, and cover backs and tight ends. But he is horrible at shedding blocks and is easily taken out of plays when locked up by offensive linemen, not very strong when having to engage bigger backs coming right at him, has absolutely no pass rush moves if blocked by anyone, and lacks football instincts or intelligence, the latter evident because the Steelers’ defensive coaches seemingly refuse to leave him as the lone inside linebacker for the dime defense on obvious passing downs.
He also should not be asked to play outside linebacker in the event of injuries anymore, because Timmons cannot play the position in the Steelers’ 3-4 scheme. Playing most of the Jacksonville game against a rookie reserve left tackle, Cameron Bradfield, who was making his first career NFL start, Timmons’ stat line consisted of 0 solo tackles, 0 assisted tackles, 0 sacks, and absolutely no pressure whatsoever on rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who tends to hold the football too long. Start Farrior at right guard and I imagine he would find a way to record a tackle each game.
Such a move hurts two positions, because there is also a considerable fall-off in play from Timmons to Foote at inside linebacker. Of course, when the Steelers finally need a contribution from Jason Worilds – a luxury second-round pick in 2010 – due to Harrison’s eye injury, Worilds is hurt again, which actually was also his history at Virginia Tech and one of the reasons why most teams gave him a third-round grade at best.
Unfortunately, Timmons’ 2010 success may have been largely due to having a great defensive line in front of him that occupied 4-5 offensive linemen, and being part of the best set of linebackers in the NFL, which allowed him more opportunities to play in space, where he excelled.
Thus, the key is to maintain great players around Timmons, and scheme to allow him to be unblocked in space, where his tremendous closing speed can be employed as a weapon in multiple ways. Timmons is only 25 and can undoubtedly still improve. But he is in his fifth NFL season, is undersized at 6-foot, 234 pounds, and any linebacker costing more than $50 million should do more on the field than Timmons has thus far in 2011.
Even with all those criticisms, I would have been very happy had the Steelers signed Timmons before the season to a 6-year extension for $40 million, and content with $42 or $43 million. However, his guaranteed money should not have been more than $12 million, because Timmons is a fast-twitch athlete who is a significant leg injury away from never being a quality player again.
Maybe I am one of my many Pittsburgh fans who see Timmons’ unbelievable athleticism and expect more from him. Plus, for the first four games in 2010, Timmons was playing as well as any linebacker in the NFL, so that potential for dominance has already been shown consistently for a full quarter of a regular season. Regardless, it is nice to know that Timmons will be around for the long-term, particularly since the Steelers’ other inside linebackers, Farrior and Foote, are nearing the end of their careers.
Another questionable move made by the Steelers this past offseason was their 5-year, $29 million re-signing of offensive tackle Colon. That transaction was almost shocking since the Steelers had previously shown little interest in extending Colon earlier in his career, including after he had his best season in 2009 and was slated for unrestricted free agency if not for provisions that kicked in for the last CBA that for a short time made fourth-year players restricted free agents.
More important, Colon missed all of 2010 due to a ruptured Achilles, an injury that forces more than 1 out of 3 NFL players who suffer it to never play again and the majority who do come back never return to their pre-injury level.
Surprisingly, though, Colon looked nimble in the preseason, but was still lost for the season with an unrelated triceps tear in the season opener against the Ravens. Obviously missing a full year of football makes players more susceptible to injury and Colon will be very rusty after he returns next fall. However, it is much easier for most players to quickly return to form a year after a triceps tear, particularly for a younger man with a such a powerful upper body as Colon.
I was neither happy or upset with the Colon signing. However, I was optimistic that he was signed to a 5-year deal but only received a relatively low-risk $6 million signing bonus. Moreover, I would still bet that Colon will be a quality starter next fall, although the Steelers cannot again ink him as a starter without a quality reserve or expect him to excel early in the season. Considering his 2-year layoff, it may be time to finally move Colon to guard, but that can only be considered if the team retains free agent Max Starks this offseason.
The one offseason signing by the Steelers that made no sense due to the length and financial terms of the contract was bringing back free agent kicker Shaun Suisham on a 4-year, $6.35 million deal that included a $1.3 million signing bonus. Suisham absolutely deserved to be re-signed after solidifying Pittsburgh’s field-goal unit upon being signed for the final seven regular-season games in 2010. Suisham was a stunning 14 of 15 on FGs in the regular season, although he was more shaky in the postseason where he missed 2 of his 5 attempts.
However, Suisham personifies the term “journeyman kicker.” Since beginning his NFL career as a 2005 training-camp member of the the Steelers, the 30-year-old Suisham has been in and out of the league, having been released or not re-signed a total of seven times by six franchises, and only spending an entire season on an NFL roster twice without being released. He was unemployed before being signed by the Steelers after midseason in 2010, in part because he had made just 79 percent of his 110 prior field-goal attempts over his career.
The Steelers released three players and restructured several others to help be in compliance with the 2011 salary cap, so why was Suisham worth so much? Based on media reports, he had no other contract offers and did not even visit another franchise as a free agent, and that type of info is almost always released by players’ agents to help drive up their market value. If not, it is still usually reported by local media.
This fall Suisham leads all NFL kickers with four missed field goals. Those four misses came from 30, 36, 41 and 46 yards, with only one to the bad end of Heinz Field. He has not attempted any field goals of 49 yards or longer, and is a dreadful 2 of 4 on tries from 30-39 yards. This is not new territory for Suisham either, since he led all NFL kickers with 10 missed field goals for the Redskins in 2008.
Now, I want Suisham on this team because (despite the numbers above) he is a straight-ahead kicker and is not going to have a meltdown in convenience store restroom that ends up on DrunkAthlete.com.
But why the hell does he carry a $1,687,500 hit on the Steelers’ absurdly tight salary cap for 2012, particularly since the front office knew of their cap problems for 2012 when Suisham was re-signed in the summer of 2011. Did he have dirty pictures of someone? Seriously, because based on his history, this guy should have been inked to a 2-year deal (at the most) with a small signing bonus as a nice reward for his solid half-season in 2010.
Addressing this problem is not as simple as just releasing Suisham before the 2012 season. Doing so before June 1st would result in a $1 million cap hit in dead money on the Steelers 2012 cap, along with his replacement costing at least $390K. That hit on the 2012 cap would be reduced to $350K if he is cut after June 1st, although another $650K would be applied to 2012. Suisham was 3-for-3 on field goals against the Cardinals last Sunday and hopefully (like many of his teammates) has snapped out of his early-season funk. However, even if he gets hot again and makes the majority of his remaining kicks this fall, a kicker with Suisham’s resume was not worth that much money or a long-term deal.
Steelers’ Focused on Restructuring Veterans With Guaranteed Money, and Mostly Ruled Out Giving Players the Options of a Paycut vs. Release
As previously noted in this series, the NFLPA negotiated a poor deal for its players that ended the lockout this offseason, evident by the 2011 salary-cap ceiling of $120.5 million per team more than $20 million less than what would have been the ceiling had the revenue-sharing model from the old CBA simply been kept in place.
Since the lockout prevented the new league year from starting in the spring and there was no salary cap in 2010, the Steelers were one of five teams whose 2011 payroll was over the projected cap when a new CBA was reached in the summer, although several teams were flush with loads of cap space.
However, the lower-than-expected cap and uncertain financial times resulted in many free agents receiving lower offers than expected, fringe veteran free agents occasionally not receiving any contract offers, and a lot of teams (including those in no danger of going over the cap) essentially forcing some of their veterans under contract to accept a paycut for that fall or be released.
Such actions are unfortunate and only follow the trends taken by many big businesses in U.S. society over the past decade during the ongoing recession. Many corporations downsized their staffs through layoffs, paycuts, and forcing remaining employees to take on extra work for no additional income, all while some of those same corporations raked in record profits and out-sourced American jobs to third-world countries. This disgusting practice should result in government penalties, as well as higher taxes on the culprits instead of the tax breaks they currently receive for out-sourcing American jobs under the guise of “free trade,” which has resulted in a a huge annual U.S. trade deficet that is more concerning than the problematic national debt.
But the NFL is a different entity entirely. It has a utilitarian-based shared, collectively-bargained revenue system amongst players and teams, and then shared again amongst teams. Thus, asking some players simply not worth their current salaries based on recent performances to take paycuts due to a lower-than-expected salary cap a year after the league had no cap is not only a sound business practice but was seemingly a necessity for the 2011 Steelers.
Unfortunately, the Steelers for the most part did not do this before 2011 even though they needed to clear cap space for that year. Instead, they opted to restructure contracts of several veterans by essentially pushing back parts of their 2011 base salaries by converting that figure into a signing bonus the player pockets immediately but has its cap impact spread out over the remainder of the player’s contract so long as he remains with the team throughout the duration. By doing this, Pittsburgh created more cap problems for future years, especially 2012.
Incidentally, getting some players to take lower salaries on that year’s cap without hurting future years can be accomplished without telling them “they must take a paycut or else.” For example, some of the players’ salaries could be converted into not likely to be earned (NLTBE) bonuses that would not count against that year’s cap. Only if a player actually met some of these performance-based clauses could any part of those incentives be counted against the next year’s cap.
Another option is to offer other incentives, which could include turning some of that salary into a signing bonus that the player receives immediately (as the Steelers did), but divert even more of the salary into NLTBE incentives, and/or pushing that money back to a future year when the player will either be off the roster, or has re-earned that salary figure due to his play on the field. All of these are more gentle ways to get under the cap, along with extending contracts of players in years and lowering their current cap figure, which was the other mechanism Pittsburgh used to get under the 2011 cap but only for some of its top players.
As previously noted, the Steelers’ should have used a combination of all these tactics to lower Aaron Smith’s base contract for 2011,while adding another, cheap base contract for 2012 as an extension. But the Steelers should have taken such approaches with several other players this past off-season, especially Foote and cornerback Bryant McFadden, both of whom were only signed through 2012 on inflated deals.
Foote has a $3 million cap figure this year, which increases to $3.6 million in 2012. Now, $600K per each year cannot be changed, because those are the remaining prorated signing bonus figures left from the 3-year, $9.3 million contract he signed to return to the Steelers before 2010.
In signing Foote to that deal, the Steelers probably assumed that 2010 would be Farrior’s last year and the two would share snaps at ILB, with Foote transitioning back into a starter’s role by 2011.
Instead, the then-35-year-old Farrior had a superb season last fall, recording 109 total tackles and a career-high six sacks, which resulted in little playing time for Foote. The two are sharing more snaps this year, with both currently starting due to the injury of Harrison that forced Timmons to temporarily move to outside linebacker. But as has always been the case, Farrior sees more game action because he has always been and remains a better all-around player than Foote.
Now, only one of those two is likely to return in 2012 due to the Steelers’ salary-cap problems. More than likely that will be the younger player in Foote, who I presume will renegotiate and sign an extension this offseason. But that should have happened last year, because a backup inside linebacker (who typically only is in for one or two downs a series when Foote actually plays) should not account for $3 million against a tight salary cap.
That restructure would have lowered Foote’s base salaries for 2011 and 2012 significantly, but would have also included a small signing bonus to be spread out over the deal based on the cap but pocketed by Foote immediately, along with significantly higher salaries in 2013 and 2014 (when each team’s cap is expected to rise at a much higher rate than it will for 2012) that Foote could justify to the organization his worthiness of through his play as the unquestioned starter in 2012.
I assume that type of deal will still happen with Foote this offseason or he will be released. But it should have happened this summer to create more cap space for 2011. There are 48-50 starting inside linebackers in the NFL, so how many teams could Foote realistically start for at this point of his career? Maybe none if everyone is healthy. That is something he would have strongly considered if asked to restructure through the manner described above. Moreover, Foote obviously loves Pittsburgh, and appreciates this franchise’s coaching, leadership, and winning tradition even more following his one year with the Lions where he played for the only 0-16 team in NFL history. In other words, Foote would likely see positives in the deal and if not, then you release a backup inside linebacker who would be lucky to sign for more than a $1 million with any other team, and thus may have returned to the Steelers for even less.
McFadden, in contrast, should have just been forced to take a paycut. His cap figure is $2.67 million for 2011, but the Steelers would have saved $2.5 million had he been released after training camp (when he was again sidelined by nagging, minor injuries), and would have only been saddled with dead money for McFadden for a paltry $167K for 2011 and the same figure for 2012.
McFadden was a decent starter on the Steelers’ historically great 2008 defense, although he shared time with Gay for the most part. Evidently, though, he was not highly thought of by most scouts, since in a year when cash was spent lavishly on free agents throughout the NFL, the best offer the then-27-year-old McFadden received was a 2-year, $10 million contract from the Cardinals, which he signed rather than return to the Steelers for slightly less.
Following one disastrous year in Arizona, where McFadden struggled through injuries and was exposed as merely a physical Pittsburgh corner who could not match up against most NFL receivers in single coverage down-field while playing for a less-talented defense, Arizona traded McFadden back to the Steelers, along with a sixth-round pick in return for just a fifth-round pick.
After a very poor 2010 season in which he was again slowed by injuries and was clearly the weak link on an otherwise dominating Steelers’ defense, how much interest would there have been for McFadden this past offseason, particularly with the small cap ceilings?
Please remember that Richard Marshall, by most accounts one of the seven or eight most coveted among the loaded group of cornerbacks on the free-agent market, signed a 1-year deal with the Cardinals for roughly the same amount the Steelers would have saved from releasing McFadden. Moreover, Carlos Rogers, who is showcasing his skills as a legitimate No. 1 cornerback now for the 49ers, signed a 1-year deal for just slightly more than the Steelers are paying McFadden and Gay combined, the latter of whom re-signed for the league minimum for someone with his years of service.
At the most, McFadden would have earned less than half of what he is being paid by the Steelers right now to seemingly serve as their No. 5 cornerback, since rookie project Cortez Allen played over McFadden last week even though McFadden was healthy and contributed on special teams against the Cardinals.
Now, in asking McFadden to essentially take a paycut, the Steelers could have converted most of that salary into unlikely to earn incentives and left his 2012 cap figure alone to see if he earned the right to be paid that money through his performance, something he is obviously not doing this fall.
The Front Office Put Together a Great Roster, But Again Short-Changed the Offensive Line
The Steelers’ front office and coaching staff assembled a deep and talented, Super Bowl-caliber roster for 2011 with one exception – the offensive line.
Pittsburgh literally went cheap in assembling its offensive line during the offseason, even though that was again the team’s primary weakness in 2010 and was rated as the worst offensive line in the NFL by Pro Football Focus.
I am assuming that some of you will defend the front office for “treating its players right” by not forcing any of them to take paycuts due to loyalty, and that would be a strong counter argument… if it were true. In reality, though, Pittsburgh played hard ball with just one player this past summer, telling Flozell Adams to take a paycut or be released. In the process, they did not offer him an extension, did not offer any type of signing bonus, and did not offer to divert any part of his salary into NLTBE bonuses that he could potentially still earn.
Instead the Steelers were cold, hard and ruthless with an offensive tackle who was clearly the team’s second best all-around offensive lineman in 2010, remained the squad’s best run blocker, and had five times as many Pro Bowl selections on his resume than all the rest of Pittsburgh’s offensive linemen combined.
Following his release from Dallas because he refused to take a paycut after the first subpar season his career, Adams was desperately signed by the Steelers in August of 2010 after Colon was lost for the year due to an off-season Achilles rupture.
The then-35-year-old veteran literally saved the team’s season. As a sign of how much they respected the contributions of the grizzly veteran, Pittsburgh’s offensive linemen all wore Adams’ Michigan State jersey when the team arrived for the Super Bowl. In other words, Adams got the Jerome Bettis treatment at the Super Bowl. Moreover, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and the front office both continuously praised Adams during and after the season, with both Tomlin and Art Rooney II both publicly stating after the season they wanted Adams to return for 2011 as a starter.
And as for loyalty, Foote demanded his release following a Super Bowl championship in 2008, because he did not want to lose more playing time to Timmons, and McFadden left for Arizona the same offseason for slightly more money from Arizona.
But yet in a “what-were-they-thinking” example the Steelers decided to release their most proven tackles (Adams and Starks, the latter of whom was never even asked to take a paycut) to create cap space. The only other player released was Antwaan Randle El, who would have been at best the squad’s No. 5 receiver.
Pittsburgh instead decided to save significant salary cap space for 2011 by re-signing Colon and journeyman Jonathan Scott, making them the unquestioned starting tackles, even though Colon was coming off a season-ending Achilles tear that most players never return to the same form again and Scott was re-signed for a measly $1.3 million cap hit in 2011, showing that no other team in the league viewed him as a potential starter at any spot let alone a left tackle.
Moreover, none of Adams’ $5 million base salary was guaranteed and he would have cost nothing against the 2011 cap if he did not make the team. But it’s hard to imagine he would not have started somewhere even if Colon had stayed healthy, because the goal is to put your best five on the field. Either Adams or Colon could have been tried at right guard, or Adams could have been moved back to left tackle, where he would have struggled far more than in his prime but would have fared far better against teams like the Colts or Texans than Scott, and could have been an even better run blocker than he was at right tackle.
Rather than force a reserve linebacker or injury-prone defensive end into salary reductions that would have rewarded both with the contract extensions they desired, the Steelers instead chose to short-change its offensive line. Accordingly, the results over the first four weeks of the season nearly short-changed Roethlisberger’s career. Hopefully, the Steelers learned a lesson through this failure, and as such cannot enter next season with Colon and Marcus Gilbert the unquestioned starters at tackle, and Ramon Foster and Doug Legursky the same at guard, all of which are real possibilities based on the team’s 2012 salary-cap problems.