No one knows what is going to happen when/if Smith, Kemoeatu, et. al. become free agents next February. But we do know one thing that will not happen.
The Rooneys (assuming Dan and Art II still control the team) will not panic. They never do.
Steelers have been in similar situations before, and the Rooney’s ability to face these situations without flinching is a strength and a major reason for the Steelers sustained success. Consider:
February, 1996. Steelers quarterback Neil O’Donnell hit
the free agent market fresh off an AFC Championship season. A quarterback exceeds the expectations of even his staunchest backers and takes you to the Super Bowl. You do what it takes to keep him. No Brainer, right?
Not so fast. O’Donnell’s play in Super Bowl XXX betrayed the
fact that he was a good, but not a great, quarterback That didn’t stop the New York Jets from offering to make O’Donnell the third or fourth highest paid quarterback in the league. The Steelers made a generous counter-offer, but flatly refused to overpay. O’Donnell left, and never started another playoff game…. …his successors started six.
February 1997. The Steelers top three cornerbacks, Rod Woodson, Willie Williams, and Deion Figures are all free agents. The Steelers didn’t handle this one as well. Dan Rooney pointedly admits that letting Woodson go was a mistake (notice, they avoid a similar mishap with Jerome Bettis). But nor did the team blindly start throwing money around.
February 1998. Yancey Thigpen and John Jackson become unrestricted free agents. The Kordell-Yancey connection had lit up the AFC, while John Jackson did what he did best, protect the quarterback’s blindside. Thigpen got an offer from Tennessee which placed him among the top 5 NFL receivers. Jackson was 33 and had never been a Pro Bowl, but was made the highest-paid offensive lineman in NFL history by the San Diego Chargers.
Thigpen’s departure robbed the Steelers of a threat at wide receiver until the emergence of Hines Ward. Jackson’s departure signaled a period of disarray on the offensive line that lasted for two full seasons. But what of Thigpen and Jackson? Thigpen continued to have injury issues, only starting 18 games over the next three seasons in which he never caught more than 38 balls. Jackson started for two more years with the Chargers but was cut before the end of his contract,
and finished out his career as a backup with the Bengals.
February 1999. Carnell Lake is a free agent. Lake’s ability to move from safety to corner had saved not one but two seasons. But Lake was beginning to lose a step, and as harsh as this sounds Lake was mailing it in along with much of the rest of the team during the meltdown in late 1998. Nonetheless, the Jacksonville Jaguars offered him a ludicrously lucrative contract. He played the 1999 season, spent the 2000 season on IR, and was cut after that, playing his final season with Baltimore in 2001.
Lake’s successors during the 1999 season, Scott Shields and Travis Davis were terrible, no pathetic, but by the 2000 the team had brought in Brent Alexander. Alexander was no superstar, but he did prove himself to be a serviceable replacement.
The moral of the story is not, “don’t worry everything will be alright.” Free agent losses can, do and have hurt the team, but the cost of losing a player is not always as high as the cost of overpaying to keep him. The Rooneys don’t over pay, and generally, though not always, have a pretty good sense about when its better to let a player go.
And the Steelers will have cards to play come February. Without accounting for salary cap increases, the Steelers will have approximately 10 million more under the cap, which should give them room to make a move. Theoretically they could franchise Smith and transition Kemoeatu (or visa-versa) and ensure that they keep them both for another year and/or use these tags as leverage to get one of them to sign to a long-term deal.
With Max Starks, Chris Kemoeatu, Anthony Smith, Marvel Smith, Trai Essex, Bryant McFadden, and Nate Washington all becoming free agents, the Steelers will be in a complicated situation when free agency starts.
A few of those guys at the very least will be playing for other teams in 2009, that’s the nature of the beast. But the Steelers won’t get caught like a deer in the headlights come February. So don’t fret about it now, and enjoy the 2008 season!