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Kevin Colbert's People Management Skills Might Be Most Underrated Atrribute of the Steelers' Well-Respected General Manager

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We all know that Kevin Colbert does a mighty job as director of football operations for the most decorated franchise in the NFL. What I don't think we all appreciate is just how much of a badass Colbert is in terms of his people management skills the genuine respect and admiration he receives from those who are lucky enough to consider themselves friends or do business with him. I vaguely remember a conversation I had with my brother while he was at the 2010 Scouting Combine. During one of many chats that long weekend, he mentioned just being blown away by Colbert when it was his turn at the microphone fielding questions from the media. In law school at the time and an attorney now, my brother's less guilty of grandiose, black-or-white statements/predictions than I am, but at the time, I failed to really try to understand what he was getting at beyond just Colbert's track record fielding winning teams since taking over the GM duties back in 2000. Of course, I had, and have since then, heard Colbert speak. But I'm not sure in anything but a press conference setting.

Well, I just finished listening to and transcribing just about every last word of Kevin Colbert's 14 minute Monday interview on 94.7 The Fan. Wow, wow, wow. I get it now. His greatness goes way beyond his ability to scout talent, forecast future performance and run spreadsheets. Solid info about the state of affairs during the hectic free agency period, a nice primer about what's still on the Steelers agenda and radar (there's a difference) this next month, and what an illuminating look into what makes Kevin Colbert so incredibly successful as a talent evaluator and architect of successful group dynamics.

Colbert's the smartest and most well-prepared in the room 99 percent of the time, but, as impressive as that may sound that's not enough. We all know people like that. Problem is, those people aren't always people you cam also relate to and respect in a real way. The legend of the Steelers organization being a 'family' couldn't survive this many years after The Chief's death if the torch wasn't being carried on. Many have done so, and not just Art Sr.'s children.

But I believe that Kevin Colbert is overlooked as one of the most influential acolytes of The Steelers Way this past ten-plus years.

I'm going to share snippets of the transcription, as well as some of my reactions to his comments, but I'd encourage you to either read the entire transcription or listen to the interview yourself.

(For some inexplicable reason, all CBS affiliate stations -- The Fan included - auto-refresh every few minutes, which certainly disrupts the flow of listening. (Imagine what it does to the transcription process....) But I'd encourage you to listen rather than to read -- or listen after you read --  because even the cadence and delivery of Colbert's message is something I found myself being impressed and inspired by. You can't capture that in a transcription, but it's real and it matters.After what has unfolded in free agency the past three offseasons, it's impossible for me to come to any other conclusion than that the Steelers have legitimately maintained the right to be considered one of the remaining few 'family-run businesses' in professional sports.

The relationship between the front office/ownership and the players is paternalistic in a way, yet there's no hierarchical pretense or lack of authenticity in the non-business, human interaction that fills in the cavernous gaps  between when contracts are signed and up for renewal.

Enough. To the interview.

On how confident he felt that Plaxico Burress would sign with the Steelers after their meeting this weekend:

"Well I was a little concerned quite honestly. The visit went well, everything along those lines went good, but I think the competition for his services actually picked up during the day while he was with us. We tried to work out something with a two-year deal that was hopefully satisfactory to him, and hopefully would be able to fit under our salary cap restrictions, but other teams were able to do things that we couldn't and we weren't able to get it done. I'm happy for Plax that he's got his career back on track, and I wish him luck unless we've got to play against him again."

My take:Hard to blame a man for taking what he felt like was the best financial opportunity, particularly at this stage in Burress' career having already forfeited a portion of his very finite earning power while in jail. I will say this though -- this is not the first, but the second time that Burress has turned his back on Pittsburgh to go chase extra dollars elsewhere. Some things just aren't meant to be, and Plax in black-and-gold might just be one of them.

Are the Steelers confident in what they have at left tackle or will they still try to add a player:

"We'll watch it. Jonathan Scott came in last year and did a good job, helped us get to the Super Bowl. We still have Tony Hills back as a restricted free agent, and Tony has provided us depth at both left and right tackle in the past. And then Marcus Gilbert, the guy we drafted in the second round, it's time for him to accelerate his development because he missed the min-camps and OTAs. It will be a tough spot for him, but again, tough for all the rookies and they just have to adjust. So we'll watch it, and again, we'll watch everything not only with our team but around the league and keep our eyes for players that could possibly help us."

My take: I've spoken to some of you on the phone or by email about this, and after listening to Colbert, I'm definitely sticking to my story that the Steelers feel they can achieve greatness in 2011 and 2012 with Jonathan Scott at left tackle. The starting job is not his by any stretch of the imagination, but I think he'll most likely start out the year protecting Big Ben's blind side. There will be snafus and other moments that elicit face plants from Steeler fans across the globe, but he's going to be just fine. Two words: Sean Kugler.


What was it that made him convinced to give Willie Colon a new five-year deal coming off a season-ending Achilles injury:

"Well Willie did that with his play previously. He was a solid right tackle for us, and he's a key member of our team. And then he had the unfortunate injury last year and missed the entire season. Of course, we couldn't monitor his progress throughout the season, and really at the end of January he was fully healed. Now, whether or not he was fully ready to participate we wouldn't know; it wouldn't matter at that point because he was done for the season because we had placed him on reserve injured. But all the indications were in the offseason that he was healthy. We won't know that until he gets out on the field and participates, but he should be fine. And again, we were just excited for him to return because he's been a big part of our success in the past and we think he can be in the future."

My take: Interesting that Colon seemed healthy enough to theoretically suit up in the Super Bowl had he not been placed on IR. Colon's quick recovery certainly had something to do with the Steelers decision to offer him a multi-year deal, but I think it's quite incredible and a testament to the organization's integrity that they didn't leverage Colon's injury and more importantly, his stated desire to remain in Pittsburgh, to try to lower his asking price by a few more million. Yes, Colon left $3 million on the table, but frankly, it seems like a safe bet that he would have left another $2-$4 million on the table to re-sign with the Steelers. Colbert, Omar Kahn and the rest of the Steelers front office didn't take that route though, and instead found the perfect happy medium in the negotiations -- they neither over-paid nor short-changed one of the team's most loyal, popular and contractually unlucky players.

On how important it is to extend LaMarr Woodley in order to lower his big cap hit in '11:

"Yeah, that's really stuff that we'll look at in the next wave because right now we're assessing where we are. We still have some work to do to get in compliance with our salary cap which will be enforced starting August 4th. So there's still some things to do there. We haven't really explored the future guys, the guys that are under contract this year only and then they'll be free agents. Of course we have four significant players in that group -- LaMarr Woodley, Troy Polamalu, Lawrence Timmons and Mike Wallace."

My take: It's too early for me to say 'I told you so'. Very much so in fact, but I definitely found this response from Colbert as a clear-cut indicator that extending LaMarr Woodley to a new deal is not anywhere near the top of the team's priority list right now. One would think that, in an attempt to comply with the cap, Pittsburgh would work something out with Woodley they would ask Roethlisberger and James Harrison to restructure their contracts. Obviously that wasn't the case. Again, that doesn't mean the team is not interested in or planning on investing in Wood long term. But for me personally, I found it interesting that Colbert didn't show the same zeal or candor when talking about Woodley and his role on the team and locker room like he did with other players that he was questioned about. (The one part I didn't transcribe was about bringing back Chris Hoke, and Colbert had amazingly glowing things to say about Hoke an his popularity with the guys; same for more important players like Willie Colon).

This could simply be a product of Colbert being disciplined about not saying too much about business that still needs tending to. But I don't know. if you're one to believe that Woodley will still be extended before the start of the season, I guess I'd just say that I wouldn't be so sure. Might have to wait until end of season if it happens at all. Like the rest of you, I'll certainly be pleased to see Woodley with the Steelers for years to come, but I just don't know see how it will be financially solvable to re-sign both Woodley and Lawrence Timmons. Why? They're both Drew Rosenhaus clients. I'm not a perpetual Rosenhaus basher, but I sure have a hard time seeing him allow two of his star clients to both take hometown discounts to stay in Pittsburgh.

If Pittsburgh is in fact forced to choose between paying one or the other, which way do you think they'd lean? On the 25-year old Timmons who took a few years to get his feet underneath him and has yet to hit his stride? Or the 27-year old Woodley who perhaps has already hit his ceiling as a 10 sack guy?

On why the Steelers opted to go to St. Vincent's for training camp rather than conducting it at the team facility like so many other teams are doing:

"Well it's important for a lot of reasons. As an organization -- myself and Coach Tomlin -- really wanted to make sure we got up to St. Vincent's. It's important for our fans. With the demand for our tickets, a lot of fans don't get an opportunity to see our team live unless they come to our training camp. Over the two and a half weeks that we're here, we'll probably have 100,000 people come through St. Vincent, and that's great for our fans. From a team building standpoint, it's irreplaceable to have these guys together night and day. I mean, they work together, they eat together, they play video games together, they bond. It's just a team building deal that we would never discount. We were hopeful that we would be able to continue coming to St. Vincent because it's a great venue, they do a great job of getting the campus ready for us. And we're always excited about coming here. And I think the players enjoy...not that they don't enjoy being home, trimming the hedges, planting flowers and doing their family duties in addition to getting ready to football, but here they can focus for two and half weeks on football and getting ready. And that's especially important this year with the shortened preparation we're going to have."

My take: Class. All class. This quote in particular really hammers home why Colbert is special beyond just his ability to evaluate talent. Really not much more needs to be said, but I loved him mentioning video games as an important bonding activity. I don't play myself, but Colbert shows how in tune he is by mentioning that. On a more important note, obviously his comments about providing fans with opportunities to see the team live is pure gold and not at all disingenuous. Special stuff.


On the tough decision to cut Max Starks, if that decision was unavoidable, and if it's possible that he might return under a different contract:

"We had to make room, there was no way around terminations that we had to do in Max and Flozell and Antwaan. And they were painful believe me. But we left the door open. If any of those players came back, they would obviously under a different contract. And we all agreed let's be ready, let's see where these things go, and we left that door open. Again, over the course of training camp, there's going to be a lot of interchanging players not only here, but around the league."

My take: I definitely don't see Randle El back simply because some team that has to spend money might throw him some last-minute deal that's beyond what Pittsburgh would ever dream of offer in its particular situation. We'll see about Adams; also probably a goner for good, though the man has lots of scratch in the bank already and could decide he'd prefer to be around the Steelers organization for another year or two to conclude his career over heading to a dead-end situation somewhere else in '11 just to earn the type of paycheck he rightfully knows he can command somewhere. As for Starks, I'm a bit torn. I do think he would accept a significant pay cut to stay with his teammates in Pittsburgh, but I just don't know if the Steelers would have him back even for a reduced price. I said this on the phone to Homer J. the other day -- I think the Steelers want to force themselves to get serious about finding a long-term solution at left tackle for the latter years of Big Ben's career.