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Steelers' Aim Small, Miss Small Stance in Free Agency Has Served Them Well

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As many of you may know, I live in enemy territory, Redskin Country. At this time of the year the differences between the Steelers Way and the Redskins Way are never more stark and distinctive. As folks down here are fond of saying, if the Super Bowl could be won between the months of March and August, the Skins would be world champions every year.

The level of excitement in these parts is off the charts. Washington has traded up to the second pick of the draft, and unless Indianapolis has a serious change of heart, the Redskins will land Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III. Following up on that move, the Skins have also landed free agent wide receivers Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan, with Eddie Royal also being a possibility. Ticket sales are already up and a financial windfall for owner Daniel Snyder is guaranteed.

I don’t have to tell you that things are very different for Steeler Nation. For me, and I suspect many others no news is good news. I check the various websites and media outlets on a regular basis and breathe a sigh of relief when there is no news involving the Steelers. In fact, as I am writing this, the only news related to the free agent process is an article in the Trib where William Gay is expressing hope that he can stay with the Steelers. There is greater significance in this considering the fact that a lot of defensive backs have been claimed in the first hours of free agency.

What explains this difference? I've been around this site long enough to know that there are a number of Steelers fans who wish that our approach were more like that of the Redskins and a number of other teams. Why aren't we trading up for high level draft picks? Why aren't we chasing after a Carl Nicks in free agency? The answer is we don't have to.

Brian Billick wrote an interesting article last week explaining how many teams engage in free agency as a means of making up for key failings in other aspects of their operations. If, for example, a team drafts a player who may be talented but doesn't really fit into their scheme, or drops the ball in terms of coaching a player to the point where he can effectively contribute, then the solution is to obtain a developed player from someplace else. Teams that have a better sense of who they are; and are more competent at development, like the Steelers, use free agency in a much more limited manner. More often than not, the team simply resigns its own free agents. When they do pick up free agents from other teams, it is usually never the high profile splashy players that get all the publicity. Who would have known enough to lobby for the likes of a James Farrior, Jeff Hartings, Mewelde Moore, Ryan Clark or Jerricho Cotchery? Yet all have made valuable contributions, and three (Farrior, Hartings and Clark) have turned in Pro Bowl performances.

Billick's theory seems particularly accurate when applied to the Redskins and the Steelers. At first glance Washington's maneuvers would seem to be pretty much idiot proof. But if you have been paying attention, you now know that the Skins are incapable of staying out of their own way. Washington Post sports columnist Sally Jenkins has laid out how Snyder (along with Cowboy owner Jerry Jones), reneged on an agreement with other league owners to not take unfair financial advantage of the conditions surrounding the lockout. Of course, being the kind of people they are, Snyder and Jones did. The retaliation has come in the form of salary cap reductions. The problems for the Skins over the past generation (and for that matter the Cowboys as well) has not been bad luck, but incompetence on a mind blowing scale. It remains to be seen if RG3 and supporting cast have the capacity to overcome it.

And what about Pittsburgh? For many, the sense of this team has been determined by how the 2011 season ended. Let me suggest a little experiment. On the front page of this site is a Steelers roster. Take a few minutes to look over the roster. Art Rooney II said this specifically in regard to Ben, but it could just as easily apply to the entire team, there is a need for tweaking, but to suggest that there are great needs to be addressed or that the team is in any manner seriously flawed would really be overstating the case.

A few questions. What if Maurkice Pouncey was actually available to play and be reasonably healthy at the end of the season (something that hasn't happened before)? Additionally, what if Willie Colon, rated one of the top right tackles in the league was also available at the end of the year (something that hasn't happened in two years)? What if Gilbert who was thrown into the fire due to injuries improves significantly for his sophomore campaign (and also is relatively injury free)? And what if a Todd Haley offense and a more prudent Ben can lessen the stress and predictability that help make the O line seem less capable than it actually was? Finally, for this set of questions, what if we get a little help in the draft or free agency at guard, not superman, just some skill, stability and depth?

Who could we obtain in the draft or free agency who would be as good as or better than Mike Wallace? So why would anyone be happy or sanguine about letting him go? Is there any reason not to believe that with a season free of injury and grief that Manny Sanders doesn't have the potential to match the level of performance of Antonio Brown? Would there be a better #4 receiver in the league than Jerricho? If Antonio Brown was the receiving star of training camp last year, might there be similar expectations for the running back star of last year's camp, Baron Batch?

If by mid- season the starting defensive line were Keisel, Hampton and Hood, with Hayward and McLendon being the principle backups, would that be terrible? With three potential Pro Bowl linebackers in the starting lineup would Larry Foote being the weak link be unacceptable?

Let me be clear; I am not suggesting that the Steelers would not benefit from upgrades and improvements, but as Ryan Clark stated on the NFL Network a few days ago, this is a playoff, perhaps championship team as is. Most of the players are happy to be here and, if given a reasonable choice in business terms would prefer not to leave. The organization does not have as great a need for free agency as a springboard to improvement. And that is why I for one hope this storm just passes us by.