With the regular season set to kick off this week against the Texans, some fans crossing fingers, rubbing rabbits’ feet, and shaking voodoo symbols in hopes Steelers resign one of their soon-to-be free agents, while other quarters of Steelers Nation question the wisdom of the Steelers self-imposed regular season negotiation blackout.
Scott Brown of the Tribune-Review fielded a question from a fan last week who pleaded for an explanation of a policy that he labeled “spiteful and self destructive.”
Brown acknowledged that Marvel Smith or Chris Kemoeatu will have all the leverage if they play up to potential this season, before ultimately concluding that the policy is right both because it’s worked and because negotiations during the season might be a potential distraction.
Brown is right on the money.
The Steelers refusal to negotiate contracts during the season is a policy born out of painful experience.
Flashback to 1993
1993 was NFL’s first season with free agency, and the last played without a salary cap. With several starters set to become free agents after the season, the Steelers began their practice of locking up before their contracts expired by reaching extensions with Dermonti Dawson and Greg Lloyd during the off season. They also matched Tampa Bay’s three year offer to Neil O’Donnell.
Rod Woodson, however, had not agreed to an extension when the season started. Likewise Barry Foster was in the final year of a contract that he felt paid him a pittance, and he was all too happy to share his feelings.
The Steelers continued contract negotiations during the season, and reached agreements with Foster and Woodson prior to the season’s third game, with Woodson signing a deal that made him the highest paid player in team history.
These moves succeeded in locking up two All Pro starters at the expense of creating dissention in the ranks. A very public tone of “he got his, when am I going to get mine?” shorouded the locker room.
Following the season, Steeler Digest editor Bob Labriola lamented the rise of “the locker room lawyer,” and singling out Donald Evans and Leroy Thompson as disruptive influences.
By mid-season, the contract distractions got so bad that the Steelers suspended all negotiations until season’s end in the name of focusing on football.
But the damage was done. After starting 6-3, including a 23-0 Monday Night Football pummeling of the defending AFC Champion Buffalo Bills, the Steelers finished the season 3-4. At 9-7 they reached the playoffs, but only after getting help from several teams, and enduring a tirade from Greg Lloyd when they found themselves losing to a hapless Browns team with nothing to play for at half time.
To be certain, more than locker room dissention undid the 1993 Steelers. They lost Barry Foster against the Bills. As former WMAL sportscaster Ken Beatrice reminded at the time, “Leroy Thompson is never going to make people forget he’s not Foster,” and the Steelers coaches stubbornly refused to split carries between Thompson and Merrill Hoge.
Neil O’Donnell didn’t help matters by trying to force the ball to Eric Green, in spite of the presence of receivers like Yancy Thigpen, Ernie Mills, and Andre Hastings. Special teams were also an issue, as the team gave up four touchdowns on returns, and ultimately a blocked punt in overtime sink their playoff campaign (sound familiar?)
But later Steeler teams endured similar obstacles while managing to go farther and win bigger. A big reason why is that those teams had the kind of closeness that the 1993 team lacked.
Since then contract talks during the season have been strictly forbidden but the Steelers, and subsequently those teams have been free to focus on football.
The results speak for themselves.
Steel Curtain Rising sincerely hopes that the Steelers will sign Marvel Smith and/or Chris Kemoeatu before kickoff against the Texans. But if they don’t, Steelers Nation can be thankful that contract negotiations will not begin until sometime in 2009.