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Which Pittsburgh team should the Steelers emulate this off-season? Themselves, of course.

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Pittsburgh’s three major professional sports teams have three very distinct identities. One has won five championships in the last 25 years, while one hasn’t had five winning seasons in that same span. But which approach should the Steelers take in the 2018 off-season? The answer hasn’t changed in the last 25 years — or even the last 45.

Divisional Round - Jacksonville Jaguars v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

In the last two months, the Pittsburgh Pirates have blown up their roster, trading away their two most-talented players — outfielder Andrew McCutchen and pitcher Gerrit Cole — and have done little to improve for the here-and-now, despite Spring Training already being in full swing, if you’ll pardon the pun.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Pittsburgh Penguins are not content with being hockey’s hottest team, pulling out all the stops before the trade deadline and acquiring center Derick Brassard in a three-way trade. Brassard would be a second-line center on just about every other team in the NHL. Instead, he’ll be center number three behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, who have been among the top five players in the entire league throughout their careers. The Penguins are usually active buyers before the deadline, and didn’t disappoint this season, not content with already being “merely” the two-time defending Stanley Cup Champions.

Big swings in both cases, and likely with totally opposite results.

The Steelers are close to being a championship team, missing only a few pieces on defense to be able to challenge any team in the NFL on any given Sunday. Logic would say they should be more like the Penguins as NFL free agency and the 2018 NFL Draft approach. In this case, perhaps “swing for the fences” isn’t the best metaphor, considering the state of baseball in the Steel City. Perhaps “fire from the blue line” is more appropriate.


Do the Steelers need to be big spenders? Yes, and no. With the NFL salary cap as it is currently designed, the Steelers are currently pressed tight against the limit. They have enough wiggle room right now to pay for their upcoming draft class, with enough left over to sign a cheap depth player or two in the event of unforeseen injury. That’s it. There currently is no room for the big swings the Penguins are making.

There is room to be cleared up, though. In that case, it makes more sense for the Steelers to approach at least part of this off-season in a more Pirate-like manner, selling off some expensive pieces. Mike Mitchell, J.J. Wilcox and others look like near-certain cuts due to the sizes of their contracts. Others could end up being surprise cuts as the team tries to clear room for their goals, like signing running back Le’Veon Bell to a long-term contract. In that way, the Neal Huntington approach could be more beneficial that that of Jim Rutherford, despite the latter’s track record in building on-the-fly the last two NHL champs.

The Pirates have rivaled the Cleveland Browns as laughingstocks of the sports world over the last quarter-century, save for a few years this decade in which the Bucs have bordered on spectacular throughout the regular season. In that same time, the Penguins have won five Stanley Cups. One would think the best approach for a team trying to get over the final hump between themselves and a championship would be to emulate the latter. Now more than ever, though, the Steelers would probably be best served emulating...


After all, decades of success in Pittsburgh have come not from signing big-name, high-dollar free agents, but from taking a measured, steady approach to the ever-changing financial and personnel landscapes. Between the Steelers’ first championship in 1974 to their most recent in 2008, major changes have come along involving salary caps, free agency and other aspects of various collective bargaining agreements. Despite it all, the Steelers have not changed tactics. It has paid dividends in the form of a league-best six Super Bowl victories.

The NFL landscape is challenging right now, though. Several NFL teams are built well to beat the Steelers: the New England Patriots, though on the downside of a dynasty, still seem to have head coach Mike Tomlin’s number, and the Jacksonville Jaguars have a very stout defense, while quarterback Blake Bortles may finally be coming into his own as a passer and leader. Those two teams were, not coincidentally, the team teams battling it out for the AFC Conference Championship in late January, with the Jaguars having beaten a sleepwalking Steelers defense in the Divisional Round of the playoffs one week prior.

But that doesn’t mean a departure from the team’s tried-and-true off-season approach is the key to success. With few exceptions, the Steelers have been among the best-drafting teams in the league during general manager Kevin Colbert’s tenure. With a lot of talent available in the early rounds this year, there is little reason to expect less, especially with few holes on the roster needing to be immediately filled. The talent available lines up well with the needs of the team.

And with options available to clear out more salary cap space if desired, there are opportunities in free agency, despite the Steelers rarely making splash moves, opting instead to use free agency to add depth while developing their own starters through the draft.

Yes, the “window is closing” on winning with Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback. The future Hall-of-Fame quarterback has openly stated he wants to play three more years, so it would seem that the trade-off of a few years of salary cap purgatory in 2021 and 2022 would be a fair swap for another Lombardi trophy or two to add to the team’s six already on display at the team facilities.

In the end, expect the team’s approach to look kind of like a cross between the Pirates’ big sell-off and the Penguins’ all-in approach: clear out contracts with a negative return on investment, sign some key role players in free agency, draft well and maybe — maybe — take a shot at that one free agent who has the potential to put them over the top, a la James Farrior or Ryan Clark.

If that sounds familiar, it should. It’s little different from any other Steelers off-season.

It’s the Steeler Way.