Its an unusual and slightly frustrating (in a good way) exercise writing the Checkdown this week. As I write this the free agency negotiating period (for a team's own players) has begun, meaning that by the time it reaches your eyes much of what follows will either be old or incomplete news. At best this is less a weekly round up than an interim progress report during one of the fastest moving news periods of the year. The really good news is that while there is still a great deal of mystery and speculation about what may lie ahead, there is also real news to talk about as well. If you haven't been paying attention the last few days you have some catching up to do. And if that weren't enough, as an extra special bonus, the league has thrown in some controversy to consider as well.
The salary cap
As reported as one of our top stories last week the specter of a cap apocalypse and accompanying bloodletting has fizzled. With the restructuring of Antonio Brown's contract the Steelers are now solidly in cap compliance a few days before the league deadline. So far the most significant price paid is one long time respected veteran. And it is unclear whether financial considerations were the uppermost concern in the release given the relatively modest salary involved. Though I don't want to delude anyone into thinking the situation is 'peachy', its not in the same area code as 'dire' either. With Brown's restructuring and other moves that we'll get to the team has space to negotiate with some of their own free agents and dip their toes (which is about as far as they go in the best of times) in the market for talent from other teams. And there is reason to believe that the extension/restructuring process is not done. No word yet on expected developments involving Ben Roethlisberger and others as of Saturday afternoon.
Perhaps Anthony Defeo's piece on understanding the cap should be required reading. Though lighthearted in its approach, (I particularly liked the mention of Asomugha, the fantasy poster child of all those within the Nation who either don't understand or hate the Steeler Way) should not obscure the more important point. Too many overestimate their understanding of the financials involved. I don't pretend to understand them either. So with that in mind, here is the question I'll pose for us to contemplate over the next several weeks (or as long as it takes to come to definitive resolution). Are you sure, absolutely sure, that the team cannot retain both Worilds and Woodley?
We lost offensive tackle Levi Brown. Who knew? Cornerback Curtis Brown was released as well. Both moves are certainly defensible based upon performance and utility, but when you throw Antonio into the mix one may be left to wonder whether someone threw a dart in the FO and it landed on the name 'Brown'. The most surprising and affecting move was the release of veteran inside linebacker Larry Foote. The loss of talent and savvy on the field is significant, the loss of leadership both on and off the field is even greater.
The termination of L. Brown was expected and probably of no great significance. On the other hand C. Brown and Foote have invited some tea leaf reading as to what this may portend for team moves down the road. Does the release of Brown mean good news for Ike Taylor's prospects for remaining with the team? Does parting ways with Foote constitute a vote of confidence concerning Vince Williams and Terence Garvin, a signal that the future for Sean Spence is brighter than anyone could have hoped for, signify that inside linebacker will be a high priority in the upcoming draft or some combination of all three?
The application of the Transition designation on the outside linebacker and his subsequent signing would probably qualify as the top story of the week. Though still able to test his value on the market, Worilds signed quickly thereby guaranteeing him to the team for the 2014 season. The signing of a long term multi-year deal which would also free up some additional short term cap space expected. For many the belief is that this development signals the end for LaMarr Woodley in Pittsburgh. Possibly. We'll see.
Troy, Heath and Will Allen too
It was announced this week that safety Troy Polamalu and tight end Heath Miller had each reached new three year deals with the team, insuring that they could both be around through the end of the 2016 season. This was unalloyed good news regarding two of the most talented and popular players within the organization. Hopefully this will put to bed the conversation that has been surrounding Troy for much of the last two years suggesting he should be released or traded due to age and/or durability issues. Miller successfully rebounded from a knee injury suffered at the end of the 2012 season. His signing should also lower the temperature on talk of tight end being a high priority in free agency and the draft. These contracts were also factors in providing cap relief. Almost lost in all the excitement was that veteran reserve safety Will Allen was also resigned; an important development given the possible losses of Taylor and safety Ryan Clark.
Sowing controversy about Ben
When Art Rooney II made it known that the team wanted Ben to retire a Steeler I asked the rhetorical question concerning the whereabouts of NFL Network reporter Ian Rapaport who had been reporting that the Steelers intended to trade their franchise quarterback. Well, he has shown up again, and he hasn't changed his line. In spite of our common goals, gaining consensus in Steelers Nation is not always an easy thing to do, but its pretty much as close to unanimous as you are going to get among the fans, media and the team (including Ben himself) that there is nothing to the stories that Rapaport (and NBC's Mike Florio) have been peddling concerning acrimony between Ben's camp and the Steelers. The rationale being put forward is that Ben's contract has yet to be adjusted and therefore that it stands as proof that there is a problem. I think it is safe to say that few people with Pittsburgh affiliations are buying this.
Celebrating the Steeler Way
A lot of people were predicting hard times for the Steelers right about now. It is not enough to say that Pittsburgh is not struggling as much with free agenct as was expected. As this process unfolds across the country and throughout the league it is apparent that the Steelers are navigating smoothly, effectively and professionally, while other organizations who were supposedly better off (was any other team thought to be in worst straits than Pittsburgh?) are experiencing hiccups. As the worst fears begin to dissipate a new appreciation of the organization's strengths is reemerging.
Neal Coolong reminds us that in addition to any and all the talent that will be retained or acquired during this off season, that the recent draftees, still under their initial contracts and therefore not really part of our current discussions, can be expected to make some significant jumps in their developmental curves. It would not be at all surprising if players like Markus Wheaton, Jarvis Jones, Le'Veon Bell or Shamarko Thomas experienced major leaps in their games. ScottishSteeler234 writes to the impact and value of having the front office and other areas of team management being strong and in sync. It is those institutional dynamics that come into play and pay enormous dividends at this time of the year.
It has also been worth noting that Pittsburgh's fourth world championship team had an interesting distinction unlikely to be repeated in the foreseeable future of the NFL. Every single player on the roster had either been drafted or signed as UDFA's by the Steelers. This speaks to a tremendous organization advantage in the identification and cultivation of talent. We're left to wonder if the rules and practices that were in play during that time had continued on until today would it have resulted in a stronger competitive advantage for Pittsburgh. Might the count of Lombardi trophies been even higher. One thing that is certain is that such an accomplishment would be impossible in today's NFL.
EVen though we are far removed from the game, and will be for some months, the continuing education opportunities at BTSC have slowed by not stopped. This time it is Paper Champions that is providing a tutorial on the zone defense.
Plaxico was having a promising camp when he suffered a shoulder injury that ended his season and placed him on IR. Fans and the media wasted no time in declaring Burress' career over. Plax had other thoughts and now he stands ready to attempt to compete once again for a spot on the 2014 roster. Will he be afforded that opportunity? I suspect that many of us wrote Plax off months ago and would be content upon keeping it that way. On the other hand, if the Michigan State alum has one more decent season in him and the Steelers give him the opportunity to display his talents it could be the solution to a number of problems without a lot of guess work.
The thing with Charlie is that he was with the team recently enough that he's not just speaking of the past, but also providing a window upon team matters and personalities that are still relevant and in play now. Nice insight.
In a breaking news item, Pittsburgh former number one draft pick is announcing his intention of retiring from the game.
Jack Bechta lays out three changes in the corporate culture of the league and their impact on the game.
A simmering issue for some for quite some time, the Wells report, and its fallout as well as the anticipated impact of the likely entry of Michael Sams into the league has brought some aspects of this to a head. The Competition Committee, one of its members being Mike Tomlin, is wrestling with how to address stopping its use in the league culture. Depending upon the recommendations it will be a short distraction or part of the conversation for some time.