Is there a better franchise in the NFL than the Pittsburgh Steelers? At the very most there are only a handful of franchises you could argue for. The Steelers have had two coaches in the last 37 years. They've made the playoffs 10 of the last 14 years. They've participated in three of the past five AFC title games. They never suffer salary cap hell, a la Tennessee 2005. Heading in to 2006, 20 of the 22 projected starters are signed through 2007.
In 2004, Pittsburgh wisely let Plaxico Burress walk to higher money in New York because they knew Randle El could fill the void. And then this offseason, they let Randle El head to Washington for too much money, instead trading up for Ohio State receiver Santonio Holmes in the first round of the draft and nabbing Willie Reid in the third round.
You, sir, were too expensive. Happy trails.
You hear the word "parity" in NFL-talk a lot because so many teams struggle to succeed consistently. Not the Steelers. Their business model of bringing in players that fit their system and coaches that buy to their philosophies yields nearly annual success. Those that fit their team (and city) best are rewarded with long-term deals (think Hines Ward), but those that won't play for what Pittsburgh is willing to offer are let go.
The foundation for the continuity is Kevin Colbert, director of football operations. Few teams can match the Steelers record in putting drafted talent on the field. Contrast Pittsburgh's success with the Washington Redskins' lack of it. Where Daniel Snyder pays bloated contracts to big name free agents, shunning the draft, Colbert passes on the expensive talent and grooms his own.
It's not unlike what you see in baseball with the Oakland Athletics. General Manager Billy Beane has achieved remarkable success in a marketplace without a salary cap despite not having half the resources that his biggest competitors have. He lets expensive players walk, accumulates draft picks, uses them wisely, and trades shrewdly. Not unlike the Steelers.
It does mean that each year certain players we've grown to love will be moving on. But year in and year out we watch with admiration as a new player assumes a bigger role. What may seem like a loss is almost always a big gain, as the team maintains financial flexibility and retains draft picks.
The NFL is a complicated, difficult business, and sustained success seems absurdly difficult at times. As Steeler fans, we should be especially grateful our team is run the way it is.