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By signing McLendon, Steelers avoid the Thousandth Cut

There is an idiom often used in business to describe the termination of negotiations on a deal resulting from a series of small unresolved issues instead of a singular large one; the deal died a "death by a thousand cuts". The loss of McLendon to the Packers could have been that one thousandth cut.

Michael Heiman

The phrase, originally derived from an ancient form of Chinese torture known as lingchi, describes a situation where a lot of small things happen, none of which are fatal in and of themselves, but add up to create a situation that is no longer tenable.

Often times the participants in the negotiations that ultimately break down are unaware of the impending outcome until someone on one side or the other steps back and takes a fresh look at the situation from a larger perspective. Until that is done, the participants in the actual negotiations are victims of their micro-level perspective, often acknowledging the acceptance of one negative issue or another as normal or "can't have everything", but failing to appreciate the compounding deleterious impact all of those small issues have on the larger overall situation. This phenomenon is often referred to as "creeping normalcy" in which the acceptance of a small negative issue seems "normal", and then another small negative issue also becomes acceptable, then another, then another, each one a small cut inflicted on the larger whole until someone realizes that the deal is dead.

It seems every week brings another issue or circumstance that, on its own doesn't seem so terrible, but if seen together with its preceding issues, appears quite different. Step back and review some of the "cuts" suffered by the Steelers so far in 2013:

  • Steelers forced to match the New England Patriots' one year $2.5 million offer to WR Emmanuel Sanders, potentially costing the Steelers more in salary than they had tendered thus further exacerbating the 2013 salary cap situation, or the 91st pick in this year's draft, depending on whether you view your beer mug half empty or half full...
  • Free agent departure of WR Mike Wallace to the Miami Dolphins, CB Keenan Lewis to New Orleans Saints, RB Rashard Mendenhall to the Arizona Cardinals, S Will Allen to San Francisco Forty Niners and CB Ryan Mundy to the New York Giants, leaving the Steelers receiving corps, backfield, secondary, and particularly their Special Teams unit with only nominal depth;
  • The cutting of OLB James Harrison (still unsigned but flirting with the Cincinnati Bengals) and OG Willie Colon (who signed a one year deal with the New York Jets),
  • OT Max Starks, P Jeremy Kapinos and NT Casey Hampton have not been re-signed.

Somewhat balancing these cuts, but by no means equaling let alone improving on the quality lost, the Steelers bring in CB William Gay (former Steeler) from the Arizona Cardinals, TE Matt Spaeth (former Steeler) from the Chicago Bears and backup QB Bruce Gradkowski from the Oakland Raiders (the QB signing may be the lone net improvement over the established baseline in the backup quarterback position).

The Steelers re-signed from its 8-8 team last year RBs Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer, OG Ramon Foster, ILB Larry Foote, WR Plaxico Burress, TE David Johnson and LS Greg Warren, as well as ILB Stephenson Sylvester who they didn't even bother to burden with a RFA tag; they just released him, and he apparently didin't elicited any interest from any of the 31 other teams in the NFL.

And as if all of the above wasn't enough, in addition the Steelers have also replaced their offensive line coach and wide receivers coach.

The Pittsburgh Steelers used to be known as a fiscally conservative team that did not frequently dabble in free agency and would not hesitate to allow its own free agents to leave for contracts higher than the Steelers thought they were worth, or even release a player a year early and backfill with a younger, less expensive and seemingly as talented a player as was released.

The Pittsburgh Steelers used to be known as a team that always seemed to find unpolished gems late in the draft or unheralded UDFA who could be used to replace aging, more expensive starters with little or no apparent decline in performance.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have had a run of overall excellence for so many seasons, that it has become normal for the organization and its fans to expect excellence.

However, the "normalcy" that Steeler Nation expects every season, and clings to when refuting those who voice concern over the seemingly small matters that keep piling up, could be creeping in a new direction.

Whereas once upon a time the roster of key players was allowed (or encouraged) to turn over, now key players are being retained; whereas once upon a time the organization was known for its fiscal conservativeness, now is seen by others in and around the league as being improvident with its payroll.

"It's ‘normal' for the Steelers to re-structure contracts every year, and who can argue with their success?" is an oft repeated response to concerns raised; yet with the salary cap virtually stagnant for the past three seasons, the Steelers keep adding dead money to future years which detracts from how much they can tender their own players, offer their own free agents, or shop for that "missing piece" player like the next James Farrior or Ryan Clark.

"It's ‘normal' for the Steelers to allow free agents or aging players to leave because they always have a new starter waiting on the bench" is an oft repeated response to concerns raised; yet Jason Worilds has been erratic in his dress rehearsals as a starter and now putative replacement for James Harrison, and behind him for proven depth you have who: Stephenson Sylvester and Chris Carter?

The most disheartening aspect of being involved with a deal that dies of a thousand cuts is dealing with the recriminations that "if we had only realized what was happening", meaning either a different approach could have been taken, or the losses could have been minimized by terminating the effort earlier.

The Steelers have approximately $5.5 million coming to them in salary cap relief as of June 1, as a result of cutting guard Willie Colon. However, most of that money is already earmarked for the salaries of the rookies the Steelers draft next week. In addition, the Steelers have several beloved and valued veterans approaching the last year or two of their contracts: Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor, Ryan Clark, Brett Keisel all are slated to earn multiple millions of dollars this year and next. Given the circumstances the Steelers find themselves in at this point in the 2013 season, they may be forced to give serious consideration to voluntarily enduring more painful cuts such as the one involving James Harrison, if for no other reason than to sacrifice a limb to save the patient. For to continue as they have been operating, and exacerbating the self-inflicted wounds already impacting the team, may be the cruelest cut of them all.