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A Closer Look At The Steelers Salary Cap Situation To Better Understand The Team's Struggles In 2009

Just a conversation starter here that I'm eager to get your take on.  The subject - how the Steelers have been forced to balance out the spending they did re-signing key veterans by keeping an unusually high number of rookies and other inexperienced, low paid players on the roster. 

Let's take a look at just how much of the team's allotted salary cap has gone to paying the team's better players. The chart below shows how much more the Steelers are shelling out this year to pay their top players than they did even just a year ago. There are a myriad different variables as to why this is - and we'll get in to some of them in this post as well as in follow-up posts - but for now, let me just say that the preliminary point of this exercise is to show how the Rooneys were forced to counterbalance this reality by keeping an unusually high volume of young players (rookies in particular) on this year's roster in order to keep the balance sheets in check. This will also be the case in 2010. The hope though is that the experience gained this year by the raw young talent will pay dividends in 2010 and 2011 when the core group of key players the team's invested heavily in will still be around and capable of playing at a high enough level to lead the team towards more Super Bowl glory.

For any of you all out there who own your own business or are involved in accounting, finance, economics, or even just payroll or something else Human Resources related, you know how operations almost exclusively are run off an Excel spreadsheet. In business, you increase a profit margin a smidge here and a smidge there with calculated and clearly defined decision. In the NFL, your actions are shaped primarily by the looming annual salary cap figure - a hard cap that all teams must abide by unlike in Major League Baseball or the National Basketball Association. 

That's not to say I understand the ins and outs of how the Steelers front office is running this team based on salary figures alone. But I do feel confident saying that what we're seeing this year - that is an abundance of young pups being asked to make major contributions for a defending champion team - is a product of the pressures the organization is feeling this year and next to keep their books balanced.

Let's take a closer look.

2008 NFL Salary Cap: ~$116.7 million

2009 NFL Salary Cap:  ~$127 million

Name 2008 Cap Hit 2009 Cap Hit  +/- Delta
Ryan Clark $ 2.2 $2.4 + $.2 
James Farrior  $ 4.05 $3.98 - $.7 
Casey Hampton $ 5.4 $6.6 + $1.2
James Harrison $1.55 $ 5.75 + $4.2
Justin Hartwig $ 1.49 $ 2.23 + $.74
Chris Hoke $ 1.48 $ 1.67 + $.19
Santonio Holmes $ 1.74 $ 1.6  - $.14
Brett Keisel  $ 3.15 $ 5.0 + $1.85
Rashard Mendenhall $ 1.19 $ 1.48 + $.29
Heath Miller $ 1.7 $ 4.67 + $2.97
Mewelde Moore $ 1.1 $ 1.92 + $.81
Willie Parker $ 4.09 $ 4.53 + $.44
Troy Polamalu  $ 6.82 $ 6.49 - $.33
Jeff Reed $ 1.96 $ 1.96 $0
Ben Roethlisberger $ 7.97 $ 13.2 + $5.23
Aaron Smith $ 4.75 $ 3.95 - $.8
Ike Taylor $ 3.74 $ 5.67 + $1.93
Lawrence Timmons $ 1.75 $ 2.1 + $.35
Deshea Townsend $ 1.97 $ 2.37 + $.4
Hines Ward $ 6.7 $ 5.6 - $1.1
Max Starks $ 6.89 $ 5.5 - $1.39
Chris Kemoeatu $ 1.42 $ 2.8 + $1.38
Willie Colon $ .54 $ 2.2 + $1.66
------- ------- ------- -------
$73.65 $93.67 + $20.02

Initial Conclusion(s):

We'll try to go a bit deeper, but simply put, the Steelers paid a bigger slice of their yearly pie to their top players in 2009 than they did in 2008. The Salary Cap jumped about $10 million dollars from '08 to '09, yet the Steelers salary cap allotment to their 'upper crust' players jumped more than $20 million bucks. 

What does that mean? Well, lots of things I suppose, including that the front office really believes in investing in a certain core group of players.

More importantly though, it means that there were tough decisions and risks to be taken in order to fill out a complete roster that fell under the salary cap. What's the easiest way to achieve that end? By keeping a bunch of rookies and other young players in their rookie contracts. 

When you have an army of scouts as talented and ubiquitous as the Steelers organization, you can live with calculated risks like replacing a Bryant McFadden with William Gay; or hoping your young DBs fill the void left by cutting veteran special teams stalwarts like Anthony Madison. Then there's the occasional gaffe made by even the most competent front offices - like say the Kendall Simmons extension that is still costing the Steelers in 2009, more than a year after Simmons last took a snap in the Black 'N Gold. Basically, for every reaction, there's an equal and opposite reaction. In the salary-cap era of the NFL that means for every extra dollar you pay Player X, you have to find a way to pay Player Y less, or you must replace Player Y with a less expensive option, Player Z. You just have to roll the dice at times that the young Player Z is ready to perform on the big stage sooner rather than later.  

Some other thoughts about these figures. As always, please jump in and share your insights on what you see and what you think it all means in the bigger picture.

*This is why we weren't able to retain Bryant McFadden, even for the paltry sum that the Cardinals ultimately paid him. You have to make up for the dramatic increase in salary expenditures somewhere. 

*Same for Larry Foote. Did we release him because he was 'washed up'? No, no we did not. We did so because he was making too much money compared to what Lawrence Timmons and Keyaron Fox were making. Had there been some more money to work with, I guarantee you Foote gets re-signed. Perhaps some egos get damaged a bit as Dick LeBeau shuffles the talented quartet of Farrior, Timmons, Foote and Fox. But that extra experienced body would have come in handy looking back at things, no?

*By the way, this is also why Anthony Madison was originally let go. Madison, the team's top special teams ace in 2008, was released for salary cap purposes alone. The reality of it is that he was set to make close somewhere between 300-400k more than rookies like Joe Burnett, Keenan Lewis, or even 3rd year man William Gay. That's a risk the front office has to take. Said differently, you free up that extra bit of cap space to pay premium players and just hope that the youngsters come close to filling the production void left by a guy like Madison's departure. It hasn't quite worked out that way. And it certainly hasn't worked out that way (at least if you ask me) in terms of replacing McFadden with Gay for salary purposes.

*Perhaps the biggest waste of money this year - at least on a guy who's actually suiting up each week and not 'dead money' - is veteran DB Deshea Townsend. The 11 year vet has a cap value of $2.3 million this year. For what? I respect and appreciate loyalty to veterans, but in hindsight, the Steelers should have released him this summer.

*Another guy who I absolutely love but am beginning to question whether he's worth the price tag is Mewelde Moore. Last year, Moore earned just $1.1 million. This year, his cap value is just a shade under $2 million. I heart MM at the former price tag; not quite as much at the later.

*If you were wondering why Jeff Reed wasn't signed this summer, let me just say that it probably had very little to do with his proclivity to destroy towel dispensers and much more to do with the fact that he could be replaced by an unknown young kicker that our scouts liked for about 1/5 the cost - at most.  Even more money needs to be freed up to pay for guys like LaMarr Woodley and Santonio Holmes - so expect another round of retooling next year to make room for those guys our front office believes are harder to replace than guys like Reed.

*I didn't include it in the chart, but it's worth noting that Kendall Simmons is also taking up a sizable chunk of salary cap room as 'dead money'. If my figures are correct, he's taking up close to $5 million of cap space this year despite not having taken a snap in God knows how long. Again, these kinds of unforeseen circumstances require adjustments that may seem less risky or consequential on paper than they play out to be. 

I had originally decided to not post this and keep working on it until it was better written and more thoroughly thought out on my end. The idea kind of came to me just last night, and I tried to fit all this in in between finishing up my obligations for two of my final graduate school classes. There's more I'd like to say and elaborate on, but what the hell, it's 5:30 out here and I may not get a chance to get back to it for another day or so. So I'll just open it up to you all's thoughts for now, and will definitely revisit it myself soon enough.

In the meantime, perhaps this will provide a new narrative as to why the Steelers are undergoing some of the mystifying problems they're experiencing so far in the 2009 season.