Free agency the Pittsburgh way
Okay. We're all supposed to be Steelers fans here. So why is it that every year some of us start jumping around and losing our minds because Pittsburgh doesn't start off the free agency period like some Fantasy Football fiend on crack? there are no surprises or mystery here, but if you think there is then maybe you're just not very good at paying attention to how this organization operates. Rarely if ever do the Steelers stoop to spending what has been described by some as "stupid money" for talent in the early hours of free agency. And why should they? Why overpay for players that, if they were all that, would have been retained someway, somehow by their original clubs in the first place? Why doesn't Kevin Colbert go all Chip Kelly and start wheelin' and dealin'? How many Lombardis do the Eagles have? Hey, don't get me wrong. God bless 'em, maybe it will work out for them this time. And for Jacksonville, and Miami, and for all those other teams that either have never won much of anything or haven't won a championship since before many who are reading this were born.
As Steelers beat writer Ed Bouchette speculates, the Steelers' crime, unforgiveable to some, is that they are dull. The adrenaline junkie, as Bouchette has labeled them operates on the assumption that the grass is almost always greener on the other side of the fence and change for change's sake is always preferable, as the quick and easy fix they seek is forever promised to materialize in the body of someone 'out there'. Super Bowls are rarely, if ever, won in March, and I can sympathize with the fact that DeAngelo Williams is not going to have most fans staring at the ceiling at night, losing sleep over visions that this is the piece of the puzzle that results in Pittsburgh laying waste to the NFL. And, of course, many of these same folks will be at the forefront of those who will want to fire anyone and everyone when this philosophy fails.
In the fable of the tortoise and the hare they always put their money on the rabbit. The Steelers are the turtle.
The story so far
At week's end, as is almost always the case, some things went pretty much as expected, some choices were disappointments, though not totally unexpected and there were some genuine surprises. The biggest story by far really didn't have much to do directly with free agency.
Ben Roethlisberger signs contract extension
With the exception of one or two national media types, there wasn't much concern that this deal would get done, but it was, nonetheless, the elephant in the room as far as the short term championship prospects of this franchise are concerned. Some fans take having the presence of an elite quarterback for granted, which is indicative of a certain level of naivete. There have been some instances of teams who were able to transition smoothly from one elite franchise quarterback to another with little or no gaps. Green Bay (Favre to Rodgers), Indianapolis (Manning to Luck) and San Francisco (Montana to Young) come immediately to mind. But in most cases a quarterback of this caliber comes along once in a generation, if that often. In Pittsburgh's case it was over twenty years between Terry Bradshaw and Ben. Sixty years later fans in Detroit are still waiting for the next Bobby Layne. And even having a player of this quality does not guarantee championships. Jim Kelly, Dan Marino and Fran Tarkenton are in the Hall of Fame but none have a Super Bowl ring, though each got their teams to the ultimate game at least once.
So let us be clear as to what the situation is here. There is a window from the 2015 to 2019 seasons that present Pittsburgh with the best chance to win a Lombardi (or more). Once Ben is gone or clearly declining it becomes far more difficult though not impossible. Baltimore and Tampa Bay, for example, won Super Bowls without elite quarterbacks. While the Steelers are not, generally speaking, an organization that would completely mortgage its future for short term gains, it does make sense to attempt to maximize its opportunities to reach the Super Bowl while #7 is still around.
And in other Ben news, it was announced that he would be inducted into the MAC Hall of Fame.
Certainly what qualifies as the biggest surprise of the week has been the resolution of Jason Worilds' football career. Not a curveball, but a knuckleball was thrown when the free agent linebacker announced his retirement from football. Its fair to say that no one saw that coming. What was even more intriguing than the actual reasons behind his decision was the speculation among fans, former players and the media about their beliefs in this regard.
Initially some thought this a negotiating ploy; perhaps because many could not believe that anyone could be capable of walking away from the amount of money that was potentially available. This speaks to the idea, held by so many that large amounts of money trumps all other considerations. This was often the standard rebuttal when I and others would point out the dangers of CMEs and other health concerns for players. The response was that they were being paid well so what was the fuss? They were, indeed, fortunate to be in this field of work. Then it was revealed that Worilds' decision was motivated by faith concerns. And then other possible explanations were examined as well.
Early retirement is not a new phenomena. One of the best known cases was Cleveland Browns Hall of Famer Jim Brown who retired at the height of his career. Cleveland was never been the same since. Barry Sanders is another example. But a number of factors are different in the current era. It has only been in the last thirty years that playing professional football provided the potential compensation whereby an athlete could achieve lifetime financial security. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the evidence has never been clearer that playing the game has the potential for catastrophic consequences for the length and quality of life. Yes, those who chose early retirement may leave, literally tens of millions of dollars on the table, but since when did the 9+ million dollars that Worilds earned in 2014 become chump change? Could the Worilds decision be the signal of the beginning of a sea change in how players viewed their options?
Though softened by dwindling expectations that Worilds would be returning to the Steelers, his decision placed in sharp relief the team's deficiencies at outside linebacker.
Moats and Spaeth
Pretty much everyone favored re-signing Arthur Moats, the assumption being that he would be providing welcome depth to the outside linebacker position. But, for now, with Worilds out of the picture, he, along with Jarvis Jones is it as far as experienced players are concerned. Matt Spaeth also returns bringing his strong blocking abilities, championship experience and depth to the tight end room with him. Sticking with theme of maintaining quality depth, restricted free agents Will Johnson, Robert Golden and Antwon Blake were all tendered offers by the team and are expected to sign.
Troy and the other members of the band
If you had said there would be a retirement announcement this week without thinking the thought would be Troy Polamalu. Many seemed to be expecting it there is more than just a little concern as to how this will play out for one of the most popular Steelers ever to put on the uniform. Among those was Hines Ward, another highly popular player who went through this end game scenario a few years ago. While so many assume that Troy is irredeemably done, Ward held out the possibility of a Bettis-type situation where Troy returned in a much diminished role to provide leadership and support for a developing group of young players.
Brett and Ike
It was definitely the end of the line for another popular player as Brett Keisel was released from the team. Ike Taylor also acknowledged that his time in Pittsburgh as a player was up. For that portion of Steelers Nation that don't just root for the uniforms, the month of March as become a sad and poignant time as we watch personalities that we have grown to admire and respect reach the end of the line, and, more often than not, forced to move on to their life's work. The community will miss Da Beard and Swaggin' Ike (Note to 5020: I'm going to need a new uniform number next season). This leaves James Harrison whose value spiked as Worilds walked out the door. Its unclear as to whether he will return, he has the best chance of returning next season, though sadly, probably as a solo act.
Steelers start swinging in free agency
With Ben now squared away, and with the financial benefits of that restructured contract as well as a restructure of Maurkice Pouncey's deal, the team is now turning its attention to filling some needs via the free agent market. A big first step was to secure a veteran running back to support Le'Veon Bell in the person of former Carolina Panther DeAngelo Williams. Late in the week the team was in conversation with Patrick Robinson, a corner from the Saints. There is also the tantalizing possibility that Keenan Lewis might also become available. The addition of one or both of those players would go a long way to easing anxiety over the state of the defensive secondary forward, particularly after seeing Brice McCain leave for Florida. This leaves key wish list items being outside linebacker, a return specialist and depth at a few key positions. In tandem with moves already made this would put the team in a very comfortable position heading into the draft.
Former Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace was traded by Miami to Minnesota, while former linebacker LaMarr Woodley has caught on with Piitsburgh West in Arizona.
Free agency around the league
There was a lot of drama in free agency this week, particularly in Philadelphia, but elsewhere as well. In the AFC North the Ravens appeared to suffer more losses than anyone. There is some debate over whether Chip Kelly is a genius or an idiot. Same with commissioner Rodger Goodell. A veteran's combine is also scheduled with nine former Steelers participating.
Happy birthday coach
Mike Tomlin celebrated his this week.