One of the great things about the Steelers teams of the 1970's was the lack of true free-agency. That is, of course, if you were a fan of the team.
Players weren't afforded the opportunity to shop their services to any franchise they wished in those days, enabling a really good team to stay together for the long-haul and pretty much wring out all of the championship success it could before age and diminished skills combined to close the window on a truly great era.
By the early '90's, unrestricted free-agency became a reality, and that, along with a salary cap, changed the dynamics quite a bit, as teams were forced to go about building and sustaining championship contenders much differently.
And, for the Steelers in those years, this also meant losing pretty much every significant free-agent once his contract was up and he was free to seek employment elsewhere. Yes, believe it or not, despite equal revenue-sharing and the status as one of the marquee franchises in the NFL (especially after Bill Cowher took over as head coach in 1992 and re-established a winning-tradition), the Steelers organization had a bit of a small market baseball mentality to it, and it was rare for free-agents to stick around.
In-fact, much like how the Pittsburgh Pirates operated then and still do today for the most part, it was just expected the Steelers wouldn't put up much of a fight to retain one of their free-agents and that they would just start over and fill the void with someone younger and/or cheaper.
It's hard to say if this was because Pittsburgh played in Three Rivers Stadium in those days and couldn't capitalize on some very crucial revenue streams such as state-of-the-art luxury boxes or if there was just a philosophy to save money, but things were far different in the 90's than they are today.
Back in 2011, after LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons joined James Harrison with very lucrative contract extensions, there was reason to celebrate. After all, when you've been to three Super Bowls in six years, you'd hate to see such a trio broken up for financial reasons.
Rewind to the mid-to-late 90s and, as usual, the Steelers had one of the best linebacker corps in football. Only problem was, Kevin Greene, Chad Brown and Greg Lloyd were all looking to bolster their financial portfolios with rich, new contracts. The attitude at the time was that it would be news if Pittsburgh could sign just one of those guys. Lloyd was the player rewarded with a contract extension, while Greene (a veteran) and Brown (a young player on the rise) were allowed to sign elsewhere without much resistance.
Over the years, the same would hold true for the likes of Leon Searcy, Yancey Thigpen, John Jackson and, sadly, the legendary Rod Woodson, who left as a free-agent following the '96 campaign and would go on to play seven more seasons in the NFL.
Again, this may surprise you, but when Jerome Bettis was re-signed and retained in the the winter of '97 after coming to Pittsburgh a year earlier, it was a big deal. It was actually quite the exception to the rule in those days. As the archived article from 18 years ago points out, Bettis became the first starter the team re-signed during the initial five years of unrestricted free-agency. The article also mentions the possibility the Steelers would lose receivers Andre Hastings and Ernie Mills to other teams, which they did.
You combine the defections of Hastings and Mills with the departure of Thigpen just a year later, and that meant the Steelers top three receivers from their Super Bowl XXX team were gone in a matter of two seasons.
Obviously, much like time took its toll on those '70's Steelers, the loss of talent through free-agency eventually took its toll on those teams from two-decades ago.
So, what changed from then to now? Sure, the salary cap has increased on a regular basis since the '90's, as have those revenue streams thanks to record TV deals and the Steelers moving into Heinz Field in 2001. But, today, like years ago, all teams are still playing on equal footing.
Why did Pittsburgh make it a top priority to retain as many of its own free-agents as possible? Did the initial Super Bowl success in 2005 lead to a change in team philosophy or did a change in team philosophy lead to Super Bowl success?
In any event, for Ike Taylor, who announced his retirement on Tuesday after 12-years, it meant that, as a player who was very good but not great, he was able to stick around for the entire ride and even become one of the most popular and approachable players with the fans and the media. It also meant he was able to get a proper send-off, one that may have not been on the scale of a Troy Polamalu, Jerome Bettis or Hines Ward, but one that allowed his fans and teammates to pay tribute on social media and say thanks for what he was able to contribute to the most recent Super Bowl era.
Had Taylor been allowed to walk instead of signing a new contract in 2011, he may have ended his career with another team, and his days in Pittsburgh may have been quickly forgotten.
Had Ike signed elsewhere, we may never have truly understood the very special bond that exists between him and Dan Rooney, the team's chairman.
It's no secret how Pittsburgh's decision to keep the core of its Super Bowl team together through contract extensions has led to some problems in recent years with retaining younger free-agents.
However, from a purely sentimental standpoint, such a philosophy has been instrumental in building lasting memories of someone like Taylor, as well as Brett Keisel, another fan-favorite who could have very easily left as a free-agent before his great personality and spirit were allowed to become part of Steelers lore.
Ike Taylor bleeds black and gold as much as Polamalu, Harrison, Ward, Bettis, Aaron Smith and Ben Roethlisberger, and it was nice to see him start and finish his career as a Pittsburgh Steeler.