When good teams have bad years, fingers get pointed. After a disappointing season for a supposedly improved offensive line, those fingers are being levied at the highest paid member of the unit, calling for his release.
I have the utmost respect for Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He prides himself for keeping his finger on the pulse of the Pittsburgh Steelers. While his readers don't always agree with his opinions, he consistently does a good job of combining accurate journalism with realistic reasoning, resulting in rational analysis.
I think Mr. Bouchette has lost his damned mind.
In his dated Jan. 13, Bouchette assumed control of the Steelers front office. Every writer who focuses on an individual team does so at some point, as we attempt to formulate our own theories behind what has, and what will, happen. However, most responsible journalists go out of their way to separate fact from fiction -- reality from speculation. In his article, this responsibility has been ignored as he has claimed Pittsburgh will in fact release starting left guard Willie Colon, naming Kelvin Beachum as the new starter.
While I'm not refuting his suggestion into impossibility, to say I fail to agree with his assessment would be an understatement.
Colon has had an injury-plagued career with the Steelers since being drafted out of Hofstra in the fourth round of the 2006 NFL draft. Many an eyebrow was raised when Colon signed a 5 year, $30 million dollar contract prior to the 2011 season after spending the 2010 season on injured reserve with an achilles injury. Interestingly enough, the contract was offered to Colon to be Pittsburgh's right tackle. Why his re-signing drew such cynicism is still a mystery.
Colon was inactive for the first 14 games of his rookie season, but started the last two at right tackle for an injured Max Starks. Colon retained this role in 2007, starting all 16 regular season games. He also started every single game in 2008 and 2009. Colon was not considered injury prone at the time, but for some reason his total absence in 2010 changed public perception.
In hindsight, perhaps this new found skepticism was justified as Colon then missed the 2011 season after starting the first game. This time he was sidelined with torn tricep, completely unrelated to the achilles injury from 2010; but the two were connected anyway when Colon failed to finish the 2012 season after suffering with an unspecified left knee injury - again unrelated to the first two in reality.
Other players have been injured along the same period of time, yet they do not draw the same spotlight Colon has. David DeCastro damaged ligaments in his knee after being selected in the first round by Pittsburgh in 2012, and was inconsistent after his return. He is still seen as a bright spot in the future of the offensive line. Maurkice Pouncey has seemed to deal with ankle injuries every single season since he was drafted in 2010, yet he still gets voted to Pro Bowls and All-Pro teams. Only two things really separate Colon from DeCastro and Pouncey: his contract, and the fact his injuries have forced him to miss entire seasons and not just portions.
Forgotten is the encouraging presence Colon brought to an offensive line caught in a flux, as veterans left in free agency and the team began searching for replacements. While players like Chris Kemoeatu and Darnell Stapleton have come and gone, Colon remained a young pillar to build a line upon.
During Colon's missed time, the Steelers realized their lack of depth at the tackle positions, and addressed the need through the draft taking Marcus Gilbert (2011) and Mike Adams (2012), both second round selections. At the same time, Pittsburgh continued to search for productive guards finding DeCastro for the right side in 2012. As Colon arrived to camp healthy, he was one amongst a slew of other healthy men being paid to play the same position. Re-signing Starks gave Pittsburgh four starting options at tackle for only two spots. The Steelers moved Colon inside to left guard, hoping he would become the pulling road-grader they desperately coveted.
While the 2012 season was a historic disappointment for Pittsburgh's rushing attack, Colon was one its few highlights. What success was found running the ball, usually came as a product of Colon. He was not perfect as he learned a brand new position, but to call his move a failed experiment would be inaccurate. When Colon's knee began forcing him to miss games late in the season, the running game fell back below mediocrity - as did pass protection.
The Steelers found themselves reaching to fill the void left by Colon, even moving Pouncey to guard playing Doug Legursky at center. Had Colon's ability not allowed the left guard position to become such a vital part of the gameplan, a reserve would have simply been installed in his place without much noticeable change in results. Teams don't move All-Pro centers to replace unsatisfactory guards.
Despite these facts, Bouchette and other members of the Pittsburgh media, have begun to call Colon's name when playing the blame game. They point at his missed time to three unrelated - yet severe - injuries, and pervert them into poor performance or insufficient talent. In a time when the salary cap tightens around the neck of the Steelers, they point to Colon's contract as an over-evaluation of his worth. While I can agree Pittsburgh would probably prefer to have him on the field rather than the sidelines, but to say his talent is unworthy of his pay scale is absurd.
Colon still has three years remaining on his deal. To release him in 2012 would only worsen cap problems. Releasing him prior to free agency in March would only save the Steelers $1.2 million in cap space, as he would create a dead money penalty of $6.45 million dollars. To release him after June 1st would split the current year's penalty in half, it would apply the other half to 2014. This would save an additional $3.225 million toward 2013, but the Steelers would be left searching for a new starting left guard with none likely to be the best player available when Pittsburgh goes on the clock with the 17th pick.
I do agree with Bouchette's suggestion of Beachum becoming the future at left guard, however not in the same timetable. Beachum started several games at right tackle after both Adams and Gilbert were lost to injury. While Beachum played exceptionally well for a seventh round draft pick, had his performance been so outstanding we would be talking about his starting again at right tackle. As much as I like Beachum, he is still a young player. He was serviceable in spot duty at tackle because he has collegiate experience there. Beachum has never been a guard, and would need practice and playing time there before he can honestly be anointed as the heir-apparent.
Beachum would be a much cheaper option, his lack of experience and the amount of Colon's dead money make it highly unlikely the Steelers would make such a move this season. Allowing Colon to play in 2013 eliminates some of his dead money, and gives Pittsburgh another season to groom Beachum into an eventual replacement or find a suitable candidate in the next two drafts, while keeping a quality veteran presence on a shaky reconfigured line.
My counter-proposal to Mr. Bouchette, is to plan to release Colon in 2014. Make Beachum the starter then and take less of a cap hit in the process. Also, take better care to not express personal opinion as stone cold fact.
With the Steelers likely to watch the departures of Mike Wallace, Rashard Mendenhall and other veteran contributors, any semblance of stability will be necessary for success. It's hard to believe a team in desperate need of veteran leadership, would so hastily part ways with the longest tenured member of the unit.
Mr. Bouchette may yet prove to be correct in the end, but for Colon's sake and the Steelers, I hope this is not the case.