Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
The Steelers were neck deep in a furious week of free agent activity and Roberto Clemente too.
Free agency hit with a vengeance this week changing the landscape of the league. New details and developments rushed in over the course of hours and sometimes minutes. Its a pretty good bet that by the time you read this that information and assumptions may have changed or become obsolete. The goal this week is one of context. As the 2013 preseason roster begins to take shape what are the story lines that are beginning to form that will define the team going forward.
Free agency winners and losers?
Many in the media and not a few fans are beginning to think in these terms. Are organizations like Cleveland and Kansas City 'winning', while others like Baltimore 'losing'? And where do the Steelers fit into the mix? There are a couple of writers that don't buy into this type of thinking.
Jen Floyd Engel of FoxSports calls the notion of free agent winners a "myth". Here's the way she puts it:
Judging a team by their amount of action on the first day of the NFL league year is kind of like judging porn on its dialogue. You are missing the point. Free agency is the landscape of the truly damned; the stomping grounds of the desperate. The teams throwing money at age-inappropriate, salary-cap casualty, castoffs do so not because results from this endeavor have been positive. They do so because they have no other options.
She points out that successful teams are the ones that are built in April off the strength of the draft. Free agency properly conceptualized brings in a few quality additions to an already strong team and tips the balance toward championship competitiveness. She compares the disparate results gained by Philadelphia and their failed "Dream Team" with that of Denver who added Peyton Manning and this year Wes Welker to an already strong unit.
Bill Barnwell of Grantland.com takes a different take calling the first day of free agency "The Dumbest Day of the NFL Year". His point is that teams pay an excessive amount of money to players who would be available for a lot less on any other day of the year. He focused on the deal the Dolphins made with Mike Wallace and answered whether it was justified in the following way:
I believe in the hands and the talent, so I think Wallace is capable of living up to this contract, but I also have a lot of faith in Pittsburgh's ability to self-scout and judge their own personnel. It says a lot that the Steelers gave Antonio Brown an extension and didn't bother to re-sign Wallace. It doesn't invalidate Wallace's ability, but if he fails in Miami, we're all going to look back and point out that he went from the most stable, professional organization in the league to one of the least stable, least professional ones and act like we all knew that the move wasn't going to work. My opinion's sitting that one out.
While a lot of exciting and hopeful things transpire during free agency, it can be a sad, even disturbing time for players, organizations and fans as relationships come to an abrupt end because of age or a price tag that has grown too high. The end comes often well before that player has worn out their welcome, and sometimes it occurs just as some players are reaching the peak of their abilities. Steelers president Art Rooney II acknowledged that
"It's not a part of the job you enjoy, having to say goodbye to players like that who meant that much to us and had contributed that much to our success."
If it makes you feel any better, and I'm pretty sure that it won't, Steeler Nation isn't alone. Patriots and Ravens fans are also pretty bummed at the release of Welker and Anquan Boldin respectively.
The Steelers released the popular, former DPOY and focal point of one of the greatest plays in Super Bowl history shortly after the Checkdown published last Saturday. Making this more difficult than it was already likely to be was that there were hopeful reports concerning the possibility of Harrison's return until just some hours before the announced release. Harrison's play was improving toward the latter portion of last season and he reported that the problems brought about by back and knee issues had finally been overcome and he was once again at 100 percent. Those who chose to reconcile the team's decision claimed that Harrison's decline was irreversible and that it was time to move on.
Ron Cook of the Post-Gazette reported that head coach Mike Tomlin, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and linebackers coach Keith Butler all wanted the team to retain Harrison. Harrison's agent Bill Parise indicated that he expected Deebo to play for about another four years and that he was in the best condition he had been in several years and that he would make the Pro Bowl this year. He also said that the door was not completely closed to Harrison returning to the Steelers but it was not something they were focusing on at this time. The situation is not expected to be settled for another few weeks. It remains to be seen if Harrison will be viewed as the Rod Woodson of this decade; a player the Steelers cut ties with too soon.
One of the first players to sign with a new team at the beginning of free agency, the reaction to the departure of Wallace, who signed a $60 million deal with the MIami Dolphins, was different. Of course this was a move that was anticipated since last spring, and its fair to say that acrimony generated by his holdout while he was a restricted free agent in combination with a sub par 2012 campaign left many in Steeler Nation not displeased that he has left the team. The Dolphins are hoping that Wallace will be a key piece in helping this team become playoff relevant once again. And with 30 million guaranteed It would be fair to say that professionally and financially Wallace's strategy was a success.
One of the more puzzling developments was the loss of Lewis who signed with the New Orleans Saints. Fans knew that there was a good possibility that Lewis would be priced out the practical range for the Steelers to be able to bid successfully for him, but there have been reports that the team made no effort to retain him; a bit stunning to some fans who felt that this was the player who might leave that they wanted most for the front office to retain.
I felt that the emergence of Cortez Allen may have doomed Lewis' prospects with the Steelers along with the fact that in the two years that he has been in charge of the defensive secondary Carnell Lake has transformed that unit into a team strength, making the retention of Lewis, no matter how desirable, unnecessary. With the expected return of Ike Taylor at 100 percent, the return of Willie Gay and the promise of young players like Brown, Victorian, Van Dyke and others how wise would it be to expend a large amount of limited capital in an attempt to win this particular battle when there are more crucial needs elsewhere? Others have cited the relatively late flowering of Lewis' talent to be a factor as well. Indeed, some were declaring him a failure as recently as the early weeks of the 2012 season.
It struck me as unusual that two players who had been childhood friends would have the good fortune to end up being selected by the same team on the same year and begin their careers together. This was the situation when Wallace and Lewis of New Orleans came to the Steelers from Ole Miss and Oregon State respectively. Now they are leaving together, in Lewis' case to return home. Good luck to them both.
The pipeline between the Steel City and the Arizona desert continues as the former first round draft pick has signed to play under former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians for the Arizona Cardinals. As SteelCityRoller intimated Steeler Nation never really warmed to the back from Illinois and that may have been a factor in his deciding to move on. Shouldn't we be raising the question of whether the Cardinals should compensate the Steelers for providing so much talent?
Released by the Steelers on Wednesday the former starting left guard was signed by the New York Jets on Friday. This means that, like Keenan Lewis, Colon will have the opportunity to play in his hometown. The Bronx native also played his college ball at nearby Hofstra University. Financial issues necessitated Colon's release, some are arguing that injury concerns may justify it long term. And Hombre de Acero has been a bit insufferable because he correctly predicted this development two years ago.
Is there any sort of common thread that runs through the decisions to not attempt to retain Wallace, Lewis, Mendenhall and Colon? Yes. Other teams were certainly willing to pay more than the Steelers could or wanted to agree to in order to compensate these men. All four have a tremendous upside that failed to manifest on a consistent basis in their time with the team. In the case of Lewis and to a lesser extent Wallace, attitude seemed to contribute to inconsistent performance. Mendenhall was perceived as an underachiever and a fumbler. I always felt it was peculiar and a bit unfair to hold Rashard wholly responsible for inconsistent performance as his critics simultaneously blamed poor offensive line play for handicapping Ben Roethlisberger. Why was the offensive line a factor in one man's difficulties but not the other? With Colon injuries prevented him from completing a season for three consecutive years. On the other hand each player is likely to be more talented than the players the Steelers will probably plug in as their replacements. Its certainly possible that each of these players as well as Harrison could put injury and developmental issues behind them and have outstanding careers going forward. If the Steelers fail to return to form -making a serious run at a championship (or winning one)in the short run- this will be viewed as a regrettable week.
The safety from the Pittsburgh area and West Virginia University will be joining Colon in New York as he signed with the New York Giants. Unlike the other players mentioned Mundy will not be missed as much. In fact, judging from comments associated with this link there were a lot of people that were absolutely delighted that he was on his way out of town.
This comes under the category of breaking news. It is reported, that the New England Patriots have made an offer to the restricted free agent. It is not clear that Sanders has signed the offer. Some consider it likely that the Steelers will not match an offer. This will likely come under the category of old news by the time you read it.
Newbies, returns and retentions
The only brand new player to join the team during this first week is the former Bengals and Raiders backup. However, he is representative of a theme in Pittsburgh's off season moves in that Gradkowski has Pittsburgh area ties (played for Seton-LaSalle Catholic High School). Two of the team's coaching hires and free agent receiver Steve Breaston all have Pittsburgh ties. Gradkowski will likely serve as a backup to Ben.
The most recent returnee is tight end Matt Spaeth who is reported to have rejoined the team today. He has spent the last two years playing for the Chicago Bears. His return, along with the resigning of David Johnson has reunited all the players at that position and probably shuts the door on players like Kellen Davis. He joins William Gay as prodigal son who has returned to the fold after a couple of years living in other lands.
This was my favorite story of the week. I thought that the retention of Plax was good news on a number of levels and if by chance the team loses Manny Sanders, a crucial one as well. When this move was announced some on this site expressed disappointment as they hold Burress in low regard. Here are my reasons why I really like this (assuming Sanders stays).
1. Burress joined the team in mid-season, unfamiliar with the offense and in less than optimum football shape. Plax feels that with time to study Todd Haley's offense and clarify his potential roles as well as getting in peak condition that he will attempt to compete for a starting job. If he manages to do so with Brown and Sanders present and playing at peak capacity that would obviously be a good thing. But even if he fails and is consigned to 3rd or 4th receiver that may even be better because he would be a nightmare for 3rd or 4th defender. His height alone creates constant match-up problems for an opponent, even if they manage to cover him closely.
2. With the status of Heath Miller unknown going into this coming season having a big target particularly in the red zone will be important. When Heath comes back, even better.
3. Some may assume that with Jerricho Cotchery present that the possibility of Plax providing veteran leadership would be a redundancy. But there are some qualities that Burress brings that Cotch can't match and enriches their room. Todd Haley's offense is one of the few things that Plax would not be familiar with in terms of the team or the city. He has a Super Bowl ring, something that no one in the receivers room had before his arrival. He has great rapport with Ben. And along with Ben he knows what its like to be involved with a touchdown that wins a Super Bowl in the final seconds of the game. Amazingly, they did not do this together. Also interesting that in both cases someone else got the MVP award. I think if Burress has anything left in the tank at all it is a great situation all the way around.
The signing of Foster was somewhat of a surprise and basically signaled the likelihood of the departure of Willie Colon. Foster is a player who tends to be overlooked and dismissed, but usually performs competently and reliably. He brings a veteran's stability to what is looking to be a pretty young group of offensive linemen. He also has that quality of position flexibility; an asset given the injury prone nature of this group.
The biggest beneficiary of this signing will probably be Lawrence Timmons. Timmons had his best season last year, in part I believe because he was able to play the entire year at his natural position. Foote's return allows for that possibility again. It also allows for the possibility to get above the line play from the inside linebacker position in spite of the condition of Sean Spence who even is he is completely recovered physically by September will still be a rookie in terms of on the field experience. In addition he brings a ton of leadership and experience team generally. His presence will buy time for the team to find the player who will play with Timmons in the long term.
Something of a forgotten man since he was injured and lost for the season in the Steelers first preseason game at Philadelphia, David Johnson has signed with the Steelers providing the possibility of depth at two positions, tight end and fullback. Johnson was at the top of the depth chart at fullback when he suffered his injury.
The long snapper signed a contract that would allow him to fight for a position on the team for his ninth season.
The running back signed his free agent tender this week.
We finish with a couple of non free agent items.
New York Attorney General challenges NFL to fight discrimination
In response to stories of candidates at the recent NFL combine being subjected to questions that were related to their sexual orientation, the New York State Attorney General to make a stronger commitment to combating discrimination based upon sexual orientation.
Yes, this is Steelers site and a football site, but its also a Pittsburgh sports site, and any Pittsburgh sports site has room for Clemente. Peter King of SI.com writes about and highly recommends visiting the Roberto Clemente museum located a couple miles north of downtown Pittsburgh. If you are in or passing through the Pittsburgh area consider arranging to take a tour and support the museum.