´ Steel Curtain Rising: Judging Free Agent Decisions: Don't Use a 20/20 Lense

Who gets the game ball for the Steelers win over the Texans?

Friday, June 13, 2008

Judging Free Agent Decisions: Don't Use a 20/20 Lense

Ed Bouchette’s article analogizing between the Penguins soon-to-come taste of life under a salary cap to how the Steelers have managed the cap since 1993 hit the nail on the head.

A salary cap forces teams to answer tough questions. Who is essential? Who we can win without? Who gives us the best bang for our buck?

In chronicling the Steelers free agency history, Bouchette offered the signing of Duce Stanley and the departure of Mike Vrabel as examples of mistakes.

That Bouchette was echoing conventional wisdom does not invalidate the underlying question: Is it fair to charge the Black and Gold brain trust with errors for both of these free agent moves?

The answer is no, that’s not a fair assessment.

Duce Stanley arrived to shore up the Steelers ability to impose its will by rushing. He signed a 5 year 14 million dollar deal with a 4 million dollar signing bonus, played in 19 games starting 8 of those, including the playoffs, and gained 1058 yards. Those yards came in 2004 and 2005, as he only took the field for a single down in 2006 before getting cut at mid-season.

Viewed solely from the bottom line, the Steelers paid 5.6 million to get 529 yards rushing per season, and then essentially gave Stanley another 2.8 for playing a single down during another season.

Signing Stanley was still the right move in spite of those lopsided numbers.

Stanley reestablished the run in Pittsburgh by banging out 4.6 yards per carry for 700 yards during the first seven games of 2004. This effort kept Bettis fresh, paving the way for the Bus to log 941 yards in just six starts when Stanly got hurt. Stanley was essential to the Steelers division playoff victory. Not only did he relieve Bettis during a crucial moment in the game, but the tandem of Stanley and Bettis hammered the Jets into submission on a day when Big Ben looked every bit the rookie he was.

Duce also delivered in 2005, despite only managing 148 yards on 38 carries in five apperances. Midway through the season the Steelers traveled to Lambeau field with Jerome Bettis and Ben Roethlisberger out of the line up. Going 16-9-1 for 65 yards, Charlie Batch looked very much like a quarterback who had not started since 2001. Stanley saved the day running for 76 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries.

As Bill Cowher said the day of Stanley’s release: Stanley doesn’t play that game, the Steelers don’t win. Without that win, there is no magical eight game winning streak, no playoffs, no Super Bowl.

Stanley was a costly investment, but Duce paid timely dividends. I’d sign him again in a heart beat.

As the only outside linebacker to catch touchdown passes in a Super Bowl, Mike Vrabel has doubtlessly fueled his share of buyers remorse in the Steelers front office.

The fact that Vrable was a 1st All-Pro in 2007 speaks for itself (certainly, you’d take him over Clark Haggans), but for all his success, is Vrabel really “the one that got away?”

Mike Prisuta once pointed out that Vrabel did whatever Pittsburgh asked of him. He gained weight. He lost weight. He switched positions. Yet the Steelers failed to find a place for him.

True enough. But one of the reasons for that was that Vrabel was plagued by several nagging injuries that limited his playing time in Pittsburgh. The year he reached free agency, the two incumbent starters at OLB, Joey Porter and Jason Gildon, registered 10 and 13.5 sacks respectively.

Porter went on to become a mainstay of the Steelers defense during this decade. While Gildon did fade fast after his 30th birthday, he posted double digit sack numbers in 2001, and made his third straight Pro Bowl in 2002 while collecting 9 sacks.

Its good that Vrabel blossomed, and it is a shame he wasn’t wearing Black and Gold when it happened.

In 20/20 hindsight you’d like to say, “We really should have found a way to make a place for him.” But the truth that luxury doesn’t exist the salary cap age. The Steelers chose the two players who were performing over a man who, at the time, was a perpetual “up and comer.”

They made the best choice they could with the information that had at the time, and that is only way to make and measure of free agent decisions.

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