The Steelers draft a player with a premium pick. He delivers as a rookie. He develops, albeit inconsistently, as a player with a promising upside as he reaches his prime NFL years.
He reaches free agency. The Steelers tender him, with an eye towards possibly signing him long term while in Latrobe, only to have a crafty rival try to thwart their plans....
After debating internally, the Steelers decided to meet Bill Belichick's 2.5 million dollar tender rather than allow Sanders to defect. Here and elsewhere the pro's and con's of letting Sanders walk have and will be debated.
But there's still a rub in the form of an untold backstory that sees the Steelers narrowly averting a rendezvous with history.
You see, restricted free agents rarely switch teams. And it's even more rare that they do so for one year deals.
BTSC's own Neal Coolong was the first to raise the caution flag that something may be afoul and Yahoo!'s Jason Cole followed suit.
Was the Steelers arch-nemesis Bill Belichick scheming by signing Sanders to a one year deal that the Steelers would be salary cap crazy to match with promises of further riches to come? Could that be the reason for the "Sanders-signed-offer-no-he-didn't-yes-he-did" nature of the story?
- It's a question whose legitimacy is only strengthened by Sander's own mysterious Tweet.
But this isn't the first time the Steelers have been down this road. It happened before in a story that the mainstream Steelers media missed. Fortunately we here at the BTSC community have long memories and stand ready to fill in the gaps.
1993 the Steelers at the Dawn of Free Restricted Agency
The restricted free agent category was created by the landmark Freeman-McNeil case that brought free agency to the NFL. The first CBA gave restricted free agency to three years veterans, and full free agency after 5, with the unrestricted number dropping by a year once the salary cap went into effect.
1993 was the first off season with free agency, and it was an uncapped year. And unlike the 2010 version, NFL general managers tripped over themselves to throw money at free agents.
In the blink of an eye, free agency robbed the Steelers of Hardy Nickerson, Tunch Ilikin, and Aaron Jones - 2 starters and a key back up form Bill Cowher's inaugural season.
And the prospective poachers weren't done. Tampa Bay signed Neil O'Donnell to a three year restricted free agent tender, and San Diego signed starting Steelers linebacker Jerrol Williams to a one year restricted free agent tender.
- The Steelers of course matched O'Donnell's offer.
Williams left them in a more perplexing position, not at all unlike what they found themselves in with Sanders.
Jerrol Williams was part of the Steelers 1989 Draft Class, and like Sanders he made an almost immediate impact as a rookie. When Brain Hinkle broke his leg in week 2 vs. the Bengals, the Steelers first looked to sign veteran Darin Jordan, but when he wasn't available, they turned to Williams.
Jerrol Williams exploded with 3 sacks as the Steelers shocked the then Super Bowl favorite Vikings.
The Steelers seemed to have a star in the making. Yet, Hinkle got his starting job back when he became healthy. He failed to unseat Hinkle in 1990 and again in 1991 even though Williams made 9 sacks in the season.
(D.C. area Steelers Nation expats above a certain age likely remember WMAL sports-talk host Ken Beatrice's outrage over Pittsburgh's decision to start Hinkle over Williams.)
But where injuries plagued Sanders, Williams fenced with other demons. At the time the word from Steelers Digest was that Williams didn't appreciate the commitment that accompanied starter status. Over 20 years later Jerrol Willaims confirmed that himself, explaining:
In the old school system under Coach Noll. if you didn't know all the plays chapter and verse you didn't start. So I couldn't move up with Bryan Hinkle there. Cowher said the main thing for me was to show the intensity every down that I did as a third down pass rusher.
Williams did break the starting line up under Cowher, and while his sack number dropped by half, he did force and recover two fumbles and hauled in an interception. Similar to Sanders, while Williams didn't exactly flop when he got his shot at Prime Time, but neither did he quite live up to expectations.
So while Williams, like Sanders, was a good player, he was no world beater, making it all the more surprising that the Bobby Bethard and Bobby Ross of the San Diego Chargers would offer him a mammoth one year 1.7 million dollar deal.
That may sound cheap, but in 1993 that was an exorbitant contract. Future Hall of Famer Rod Woodson only made 1.25 million for the 1993 season, the final year of what had been the richest NFL contract for a corner.
The Steelers had invested in drafting and developing Jerrol Williams, and wanted to keep him. Restricted free agency rules being with they were, they could have kept him, but only for a year.
Past Performance Does Not Guarantee Future Results. And Maybe That's a Good Thing. Or Maybe Not
In 1993 Dan Rooney didn't do big money contracts for one year any more than he does now (Flozell Adams excepted). And the deal smelled fishy to the Steelers filed a protest with the NFL's Management Council over the Chargers offer to Williams. Conceivably they could have done the same thing over Sanders.
But nothing ever came of 1993 protest, and if the NFL barley slapped Bill Belichick on the wrist for Spygate then what would have they done here, with no explicit rules barring signing a restricted free agent and then immediately renegotiating?
The Steelers let Jorrel Williams walk to San Diego and unfortunately injuries ruined his post-Pittsburgh career. Things went the opposite way for the Steelers, in a way few fans could have predicted when Williams left.
You see free agency was supposed decimate the Steelers. The Rooneys were universally regarded as cheap (don't believe it? Click here or here.) Yet the Steelers stunned much of the NFL by opening up their check books and upgrading the position by signing free agent linebacker Kevin Greene.
In dealing with what will likely be their last restricted free agent (assuming no last minute run at restricted free agents Issac Redman and/or Steve McLendon) the Steelers again opted to break with the conventional wisdom that has governed franchise decisions and to put short-term big money down.
Only time will tell if their gamble on Sanders pays dividends similar to the ones Kevin Greene delivered.