I don’t know if you remember the 1990s, or were even alive to experience them, but the Steelers just didn’t keep their own free-agent superstars back then.
That’s right, even though free agency was in its infancy during the ‘90s, many NFL owners quickly learned that spending, and spending a lot, was a good way to win the spring. To reiterate, the Steelers weren’t one of those teams. They were like the dad who refuses to buy name-brand cereal—“You’ll eat these Fruit Hoops, or you’ll starve.”
One Steelers superstar after another departed during the mid-to-late-90s, which eventually turned Bill Cowher’s roster from a contender into a pretender by 1998.
One of the last dominos to fall was receiver Yancey Thigpen, who inked a five-year, $21 million contract with the then Tennessee Oilers in the spring of 1998; according to Thigpen’s Wikipedia Page, this was the richest contract ever offered to any receiver in the history of the NFL up to that point.
A little backstory on Thigpen: He was a fourth-round pick by the San Diego Chargers in the 1991 NFL Draft. After spending one season with San Diego, the Winston-Salem State product became a Steeler in 1992. Thigpen was a backup and special teams player during his first two seasons in Pittsburgh, catching a combined 10 passes for 156 yards and three touchdowns. Thigpen began to make a name for himself in 1994, however, as he started six games at receiver and tallied 36 passes for 546 yards and four touchdowns. Thigpen also produced in the playoffs that season. You might remember Thigpen as the guy who pulled out a Terrible Towel and started twirling it in the end zone following a touchdown reception in a victory over the old Browns in a divisional-round matchup at Three Rivers Stadium. Thigpen became a full-time starter and a star in 1995, as he posted 85 receptions--a new single-season Steelers record (John Stallworth, 1984)--for 1,307 yards and five touchdowns. It was Thigpen who caught the critical touchdown near the end of the first half of Super Bowl XXX while being covered (and interfered with) by Neon Deion Sanders. An injury limited Thigpen to just six games and 12 receptions in 1996, but he was back to his old number-one receiver self a year later, catching 79 passes for a team-record 1,398 yards (John Stallworth, 1984) and seven touchdowns. Thigpen was perhaps the most vital skill-position player for a Steelers’ squad that made it all the way to the AFC title game that year. Thigpen was voted to his second Pro Bowl in three seasons in ‘97 and was also named a Second-team All-Pro for the second time since ‘95.
But the writing was on the wall. Everyone knew Thigpen was out the door as soon as the NFL’s new calendar year began in March. The Steelers were content with entering the 1998 season with their receiving corps version of Fruit Hoops—players named Charles Johnson, Courtney Hawkins, Jahine Arnold, Will Blackwell, David Dunn and an unknown rookie, Hines Ward, would try to fill the massive void left behind when Thigpen signed his deal with Tennessee.
The 2000s seemed to bring about a shift in philosophy for the Steelers as it pertained to retaining their own stars. Maybe it was the move to Heinz Field. Maybe it was the presence of Ben Roethlisberger. Maybe it was the second Super Bowl era, but it became the norm for the franchise to find creative ways to sign homegrown high-profile players to lucrative deals.
Except for receivers...other than Ward and Antonio Brown.
In fairness, Ward and Brown were special talents and consistently out-performed every other receiver on the roster during their prime years with the Steelers. They are arguably the two greatest receivers in the history of the team.
But Thigpen appeared to be on his way to becoming an all-time Steelers great, himself.
Unfortunately for Thigpen, injuries would continue to derail his football career in Tennessee, and he appeared in just 19 games over three seasons and caught a combined 91 passes for 1,430 yards and nine touchdowns.
Nobody could have predicted that—even if Thigpen did miss a lot of time in ‘96—but that’s the danger of throwing a bunch of money at free agents—you just never know.
It’s a whole new world today, with social media and the media and fans constantly weighing in and sharing their opinions and concerns about everything.
Given how productive Thigpen was during his time in Pittsburgh, and given how social media has amplified the cries by the fan base to retain certain players, would you demand that the Steelers sign Thigpen to a lucrative and likely market-shaping deal if he had a similar career in the modern era? (You’d have to account for statistical inflation based on this era, of course.)
Would you put Thigpen on the same level as a Ward or Brown, or would you view him on the level of a JuJu Smith-Schuster or Diontae Johnson?
Yes, Thigpen was taken down by injuries, but, to repeat, that couldn’t have been predicted after the ‘97 campaign. The numbers that Thigpen put up during his Pro Bowl days in Pittsburgh essentially made him the most prolific receiver in franchise history up to that point.
Would you want the organization to break the bank for the 21st Century version of Thigpen, or would you be content with them letting him walk since the Steelers now have a reputation for drafting and developing good-to-great receivers?
It’s an interesting question.