´ Steel Curtain Rising: September 2008

Who gets the game ball for the win over the Colts?

Monday, September 29, 2008

Steelers vs. Ravens: Time to Learn Identity

Hype is a downside of the extended NFL off season. We revel in reading about our favorite teams 10 if not 11 months of the year, but this comes with a cost. News leads to analysis, which all too often leads to pack journalism.

You know, Miami was supposed to be Super Bowl bound going into 2006...
...Alas, the Dolphins finished 6-10.

This year it was the Browns were supposed to be the Cinderella team, while they did get into the win column today this week, one must keep in mind that they beat the Bengals.

On the flip side, who was thinking that the Bills and Redskins would start so strongly? Or for that matter, who thought the Ravens would be leading the AFC North going into week 4...?

Defining an Identity

Bill Cowher liked to say that a team established its identity over the first four to six games of a season. The Steelers game against the Ravens is going to reveal a lot about this team.

After starting strongly against Houston and Cleveland, the Steelers fell flat on their faces against the Eagles last week. Or perhaps its more accurate to say the Steelers fell, and Ben landed flat on his face.

They also lost Casey Hampton and Willie Parker in the process.

Its week four alright. The Steelers excelled in one game, looked good in another, and downright awful in the third. While they've (thankfully) avoided any catastrophic injuries, they are missing a handful of starters....

....Their number one draft pick makes his first start.

The pass protection that started surprisingly good, now seems leaking....

...and the Steelers are going up against the number one defense.

Its too early to say that tonight's game against the Ravens will be a pivotal contest in the race for the AFC North division title. The game define Rasheed Mendenhall's success or failure, nor will it close the book on the relative relative liability status of the aging defensive line.

But this early season meeting against the Baltimore Ravens will teach us a lot about the 2008 Steelers.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Eagles Hammer Steelers, 15-6

Normally you do not think of 15-6 as a lopsided score, but the Steelers got their heads handed to them today.

And this comes from someone who was traveling on business and did not even see the game....

Seriously, one does not need to watch a minute of action to jump to this conclusion.

As the offensive line goes, so goes Ben. And the team.

Ben got sacked EIGHT TIMES! That is enough to negate the quality protection the unit afforded Ben in the first eight games.

So much for the talk of Larry Zierlien's new techniques taking effect. So much for Chris Kemoeatu making us forget about Alan Fanaca.

The Steelers one glaring question mark going into 2008 was the offensive line. The preseason and the first two games made everyone think that the line would not be an issue.

It is.

Ben is lucky not to come out of the game worse than he did.

Larry Zierlein and Mike Tomlin had better figure out what went wrong, becuase Ed Reed and Ray Lewis are going to be licking their chops watching today's game films.....

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Steelers Victory Over Browns Reveals Something Important

The Steelers 10-6 victory over the division rival Cleveland Browns may not have been pretty or dominant, but it nonetheless revealed something important. During the second game of the season the Steelers got a raft of second chances, and the way they handled those speaks volumes about the team’s identity.

If the Steelers didn’t always execute perfectly, they made up for it with attitude.

On a night when wind and rain and a quarterback with an ailing would seem to conspire against it, Mike Tomlin demonstrated a clear confidence in the men he leads. And if the Steelers didn’t always deliver the first time around, they played with poise under pressure.

Although the Steelers failed to cross the 50 during the first half, the Steelers made it evident that they were going to reach for what they wanted, not what was going to be given to them.

The Cleveland Browns, almost everyone’s preseason pick to win the AFC North if not the, tried the same tack. What followed was a clinic on separating pretenders from contenders.

After one quarter of statement, Brown’s decided to test the Steelers defense by going deep as soon as the wind was their favor. Derrick Anderson fired downfield to Brandon Edwards…

...Bryant McFadden got there first.

The Steelers moved the chains twice, but then found themselves facing fourth and one. They went for it, and Roethlisberger drew the Browns off sides, only to learn that Mike Tomlin had already called a timeout.

After a botched play like this, conventional wisdom would indicate that you punt or perhaps try a very long field goal.

Don’t tell that to Mike Tomlin. He sent the offense right back out there, and 13 yards later Willie Parker vindicated him. Three plays later, the Steelers Hines Ward dropped a touchdown pass, but Ben unhesitatingly went right back to Ward on the next play for the game’s only touchdown.

To their credit, Cleveland fed off the challenge, and answered by driving from their own 18 right down to the Steelers 11. The Browns poor clock management aside, Tomlin could not have liked seeing the Browns at the 11 with eight seconds remaining at the half. But Tomlin certainly must be happy that he let Troy Polamalu train independently this summer, as the strong safety picked off a would be touchdown pass at the one to end the half.

The second half brought more of the same story.

In the third quarter the Steelers faced with fourth and 4th at the Cleveland 30, and Mike Tomlin elected to attempt a field goal. Normally does not qualify for a mini-gut check, but, but given the rain and wind a coach with less confidence in his men would have elected to punt.

Reed split the uprights with a 48 yard kick.

Undeterred, the Browns answered with vigor only to have the Steelers defense show them once more why Pittsburgh was going to win ten and a row. Cleveland drove from the 20 all the way back down to the Pittsburgh 5. But James Harrison tackled Jamal Lewis for a loss, a false start cost Cleveland another five yards, and an incomplete Derrick Anderson forced the Browns settle for a field goal after driving 75 yards.

Although the Steelers punted on their next series, they again revealed that they would not buckle under pressure. After a mishandled kickoff, the Steelers had to start from the two. The Browns stuffed Parker for no gain on first. On second and ten from his own two, the offensive line put a protective shell around Roethlisberger as he rifled 31 yards down field to Hines Ward.

Give the Browns credit for persistence, because after forcing the Steelers to punt, they drove again, this time, taking the ball from the twenty to the twenty. But LaMarr Woodley, Larry Foote, and Bryant McFadden stuffed the Browns on three straight plays. At this point the Browns had seemed to get enough of prime time, and settled for another field goal.

After Willie Parker went for no gain after the ensuring kickoff, Tomlin demonstrated that he is a man who learns form his mistakes. Rather than play it safe by running the ball, he let Ben be Ben, and Roethlisberger rewarded him by hitting Health Miller for 19 yards. The Steelers would eventually turn over on downs, but the Steelers defense, helped by an Aaron Smith sack, saw to it that they didn’t even get a shot at a final Hail Mary.

When 2008 chapter on the Pittsburgh Steelers is written, game two will likely be cast simply as the night the Steelers went 2-0 by the ho-hum score of 10-6.

Fair enough, none of the key plays were outstandingly spectacular, nor will they be long remembered. But they nonetheless reveal something important. Mike Tomlin is a coach who is ready to put the game in the hands of his players, and when he does that the players will respond with poise.

Monday, September 15, 2008

First Draft: Steelers Prevail Over Browns, 10-6

Like many of you, work beckons tomorrow morning, and its already almost 1:00 am in my neck of the woods. So this is "First Draft," with inital thoughts on the game. Check back for a thorough analysis tomorrow.

The Steelers improved their record tonight by defeating the Cleveland Browns on the road by a score of 10-6. Played in a terrible wind, the Steelers were led by Ben Roethlisberger, Willie Parker, and a defense that came up with plays when it had to.

The Steelers were also aided by a Cleveland team that was plagued by poor clock management at the end of both halves.

Players of the game:

Big Ben: He played fearlessly and almost flawlessly with a seperated shoulder
Willie Parker: He turned in a another hundred year game. He broke no long runs, but he moved the chains.
Troy Polamalu: My, what it a difference it makes to have him back healthy
Chris Kemoeatu: Another oustanding performance, opening holes for Willie.
Bryant McFadden: Came up big in two key plays

That's all for now, full commentary will follow tomorrow.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Watch Tower: Enough Talk of 2009 Free Agents, Time to Focus on Football

We’re one game into the 2008 season, and that means that the Steelers have cut off all contract talks until season’s end. Their motive is simple: The focus needs to be on the action between the lines. It is time for the media (bloggers included) to follow suit.

Steel Curtain Rising had all but banished any talk of contracts or impending free agents….

….that was until Ed Bouchette published a column titled “Team likely to rue the off season…” and then a related question came up again in Bouchette’s semi-daily Q&A with fans. * Not to be out done, the Tribune Review’s John Harris followed suit mid-week with a column that implored the Steelers to chuck the negotiation blackout policy and resign Marvel Smith and Chris Kemoeatu.

Let’s see if we get this straight:

  • the Steelers start with a convincing win against the supposedly up-and-coming Houston Texans...
  • they’ve got their biggest division rival on the road this Sunday...
  • for the moment at least, the AFC favorite New England Patroits appear vulnerable...

…and the Pittsburgh media is already focusing on 2009 off season gloom and doom?

Steel Curtain Rising’s regular readers know very well that this site is firmly on the record in favor of resigning Marvel Smith and/or Chris Kemoeatu off the market. The offensive line’s domination of the Texans justifies this position.

Likewise, the resurgent line play (after all of one game) is certainly fueling the “Oh my God, the sky will fall if we lose these guys” stories. Fair enough, but contracts and legalese claim too much attention from sports media as it is.

There’s little doubt that the Steelers will be in a difficult spot if they lose Kemoeatu, Smith, Essex, Colon, and Starks, but if that happens they’ll be plenty of stories to write about that starting next February. What’s more, they’ll actually be some news to report instead of just filling up space with idle speculation.

Instead of focusing on “what will happen if…” why not focus on the reason why the Steeler would miss one of these players – namely their performance on the field. (Scroll down to see Steel Curtain Rising's final word on the Steelers 2009 free agency situation.)

*Bouchette, interestingly enough, seemed to back off this position somewhat in his Tuesday chat with fans, perhaps he wants to hedge his bets....

A Final Comment Contracts: Worry About 2009 Free Agents in 2009

Both Harris and Bouchette brought up good points about the Steelers impending 2009 free agent class, but it’s also important to add a little perspective.

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!

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Steelers Manhandle Houston Texans 38 to 17 to Open 2008

It ain’t bragging if you can do it. But just saying it don’t make it so….” - Bum Philips, head coach, Houston Oilers, 1975-1980.

Entering the 2008 season the Houston Texans were supposed to be one of the league’s up-and-coming teams. In surge of carpe diem, Texan head coach Gary Kubiack attempted to strut his tuff by going for it on fourth down at mid-field on the opening drive. That was a bold move, worthy of an elite team, and rather brash, considering the pedigree of the Steelers run defense….

….Perhaps someone should have reminded Kubiack of Bum Philip’s old dictum, “It ain’t bragging if you can do it. But just saying it don’t make it so…” because quarterback Matt Schaub, went for it, came up short, and Pittsburgh dominated thereafter.

The Steelers defeated the Texans 38 to 17, but two garbage time Houston touchdowns made the game less lopsided than it really was. It only took the Steelers eight plays to score on a 7 yard Willie Parker run after the Texan’s failed fourth down gamble.

Parker’s leg bothered him, it didn’t show, as he ran for 138 yards on 25 carries, finishing the day with three touchdowns.

Ben Roethlisberger was also in championship form, completing thirteen of fourteen passes for zero interceptions and two touchdowns to Hines Ward.

Perhaps more importantly, the offensive line protected Ben. They fended off a defensive front that featured three first round draft picks, including Mario Williams; Big Ben was sacked only twice. While offensive also opened the 2007 season by playing “better than expected,” today’s performance was encouraging.

The Steelers defense completely shut down the Texans’ offense, with a combination of “splash” plays and a stifling run defense that limited Houston to 75 yards rushing.

James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley led the defense. Harrison posted three sacks and a forced fumble, while Woodley made the most out of his first NFL start recording a sack (or two, depending on whose numbers you believe), a fumble recovery, and an interception. Tory Polamalu also made his presence felt by bringing down his first interception in nearly two years.

The Steelers special teams also turned in a strong, if not spectacular performance, limiting Houston return ace Andre Davis to a 18.5 yard average on six kickoff returns, and the Texan punt return unit only averaged 2.5 yards on 2 returns.

Credit the Texan defense for taking the long ball away from Big Ben and Santonio Holmes. Holmes average close to 18 yards a catch last year, but Houston limited him to 2 grabs for 19 yards today. Roethlisberger made them pay for it however, by hitting Health Miller and Hines Ward underneath 9 times.

Rashard Mendenhall’s NFL debut was less than stellar and that, along with Byron Leftwich going 0-4 in the fourth quarter, was perhaps the only note of concern. Mendenhall netted just 28 yards for his ten carries, although he did do a respectable job as a kick returner.

Things get difficult for the Steelers in a hurry as they face off against the Cleveland Browns, whom many are picking to win the AFC North.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Answers the 2008 Steelers Must Provide

Mike Tomlin opened training camp declaring that he expected more from his second year veterans, noting that NFL player’s reveal their true mettle during their sophomore seasons.

The same holds true of second year coaches and their teams.

Bill Cowher’s 1993 campaign clarified that 1992 was not a fluke, but Steelers fans also learned that over-confidence could be a Cowher-coached team’s Achilles heel.

The Steelers kick off in less than XX hours against the Houston Texas, embarking on a 17 week campaign that will take them through the NFL’s toughest schedule. Regardless of their ultimate won-loss record, this team is going to reveal of answers to questions left unanswered in 2007.

Can the Steelers Close?

The most disquieting trait of the 2007 Steelers was its tendency to give up games in the final moments.

Tomlin deserves judgment on his own merits, but thoughts of “that (almost) never happened under Bill Cowher” were unavoidable. How many times did we hear The Chin declare: “There’s a fine line between winning and losing… It wasn’t pretty, but we found a way to win.”

Their 10-6 record notwithstanding, the 2007 Steelers too often found ways to lose.

The exact cause of these late game let downs is unknown, but candidates are multifold:

  • Ryan Clark’s absence was far more acute than anyone anticipated
  • Tory Polamalu was out or otherwise not himself for most of the year
  • The pass rush disappeared over the course of the season
  • The offense lacked the ability to play “attrition football.”
  • Self-destruction on special teams

Another, seldom discussed, suggested cause for the Steelers late game woes goes right to the heart of the working relationship between Mike Tomlin and Dick LeBeau. Both men gush with mutual admiration for the other, but the defense started so strong, then wanned as the year progressed. Was it the injuries, or were teams making adjustments to the Steeler defense, and if so, why couldn't Lebeau and Tomlin counter? Suffice to say, it was impossible to watch opposing offenses march down the field time after time without at least wondering if the head coach and defensive coordinator were on the same page.

Ryan Clark is back and Tory Polamalu is on the mend. Lamarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons look to inject new life into the Steelers pass rush. The additions of Mewelde Moore and Rasheed Mendenhall should boost the Steelers ability to kill the clock.

It all comes down to this: Good teams win close games. That may be cliché, but clichés become clichés because they are true.

Can Ben Avoid a Beating?

For all but three seasons of his tenure, the offensive line was a team strength under Bill Cowher. So it’s easy to point to the beating Ben took last year and say, “You see, new head coach, new offensive line coach, new center, and look what happens….”

Alas, the line gave up more sacks in 2006 than it did in 2007. So we’d better say that the line was one of Cowher’s strength during all but four of his seasons.

This year Justin Hardwig replaces Sean Mahan, who was shipped back to Tampa. Marvel Smith’s back is better. Willie Colon has year under his belt as starter, and while Alan Fanaca is in New York, the word is that Chris Kemoeatu brings a nasty edge to his game.

Enough players have come forward saying that “Alan was great, but you know, its hard to teach an old dog new tricks,” for Steel Curtain Rising to admit that we perhaps criticized the “well, Larry Zierlein was installing a new blocking system” excuse/explanation too harshly. Fine.

Ditto Mike Tomlin’s argument that pass protection involves more than just the line. Ben and Santonio Holmes did seem to be developing a rapport for audible in the preseason. Excellent.

Healthier players. Comfort with a new system and new leaders. Better coordination between the QB, his backs and receivers. Fantastic.

All of it sounds so nice.

But results are what matter.

The bottom line is, Ben gets better protection, 2008 can be a special season. However, another 40 + sack season for Ben could have serious consequences that extend far beyond the season finale against Cleveland.

Should Bob Ligashesky Have Been Fired?

Special teams were appalling in 2007. Some critics have argued that the Steelers special teams, statistically speaking, actually improved from 2006 to 2007.

Yeah, right.

Football is about imposing your will, and establishing momentum. Returns for touchdowns kill momentum. You can keep your opponents return averages down all you want. Averages are irrelevant if you consistently 50 yard returns in the fourth quarter with a leads to protect, you’re still self-destructing on special teams.

Steel Curtain Rising has spoken often enough about this issue in the past. Tomlin determined that the 2007 unit failed for want of special teams aces. That appears to be changing. If special teams continue to fail in 2008, Tomlin must be ready to take the unusual step of firing Bob Ligashesky in mid-season.

The 2008 campaign will undoubtedly teach us more about Mike Tomlin and the men he leads. He knows his players, and they know him. But regardless of what other lessons present themselves, the Steelers must protect the quarterback, improve on special teams, and act with killer instinct when things get close for good things to happen in 2008.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Watch Tower: Steel Curtain Rising in Error as Steelers Will Apparently Make No 11th Hour Signings

Once again, it is time to step forward and take my own medicine. Steel Curtain Rising wrapped the news of Sean Mahan’s trade with speculation that the Steelers were moving Sean Mahan to create salary cap space to resign another lineman.

Such eleventh hour signings are certainly precedented. In 2006 and 2007 the Steelers made surprise signings of Ike Taylor and Kendall Simmons in the week preceding the season opener.

But both of those signings came early in the week, and with none announced thus far, it is highly unlikely that a deal will be made on Friday or Saturday. You can also look to the fact that in his weekly column “The Two Minute Drill” Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola declared the Steelers off season negotiations to be a success, and more or less intimated that the Steelers had tried and failed to resign players like Marvel Smith or Chris Kemoeatu.

While Labriola, who works out of the Steelers offices and gets his pay check from a publication that is part owned by the Steelers, is not the most objective writer, he has access to inside sources that no other reporter has. Labrolia’s column would have had to be written on Saturday or Sunday (or before) and it’s unlikely he’d have chosen that topic had a serious negotiation been afoot. (The article was published on Monday. I, however, did not read it until Wednesday.)

Barring an out of the blue announcement between now and kick off against Houston, the Steelers will begin their regular seaon contract negotiation blackout peroid, and enter free agency next winter with their top four tackles and starting guard all free agents, restricted or unrestricted.* That is not a pleasant situation, to say the least, but we will discuss that in the future.

*Willie Colon is the only restricted free agent, for those of you keeping score. Smith, Essex, Starks, and Kemoeatu will all be unrestricted free agents as of March 1, 2009.

P.S. Part of me keeps saying, “hold off on posting this…. Labriola stressed that the Steelers had to 'scrounge' to find the cap space to
resign James Farrior. ...of course, now the have cap space...." Suffice to say, if tomorrow I see “Steelers Resign So and So” in the Post-Gazette’s breaking news box, this writer will be one happy camper. (At the very least it will teach me not to make preemptive “mea culpas.”)

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Steelers Trade Mahan…. Freeing Up Cap Space?

In a mildly surprising move, the Steelers traded former starting center Sean Mahan to Tampa Bay for an undisclosed draft pick. Media outlets reported that the Steelers had shopped Mahan, Trai Essex, and Max Starks prior to making final cuts without any luck.

Mahan had been the Steelers center last year, but his performance was substandard, leading the Steelers to pick up Justin Hartwig as a replacement.

Steelers coaches are making a huge vote of confidence in favor of second year pro Daryl Stapelton who will take over duties of backup guard and back up center. Stapleton was on the Steelers practice squad in 2007 and was an undrafted rookie free agent.

One also has to wonder if the Steelers are not making this move to free up cap space so that they can make a last minute signing before the their self imposed blackout on contract negotiations.

In his on-line chat, Post-Gazette reporter Ed Bouchette confirmed with the players themselves that neither Marvel Smith nor Chris Kemoeatu. is in negotiations with the team. With that said, in the same chat Bouchette indicated that a trade involving Mahan was unlikely. In the same vein, the James Farrior signing also came as a surprise.

The idea that the motive of Mahan trade is to free up cap space is pure speculation on the Steel Curtain Rising’s part, but the Steelers would do well to make ensure some sort of stability on the offensive line, as five of the nine lineman on the roster will become free agents at season’s end.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Steelers Regular Season Contract Negotiation Blackout a Wise Policy

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.

Monday, September 1, 2008

9 Players Return to Steelers Via the Practice Squad

The Steelers filled out their practice squad today, resigning nine of the players they had cut only 24 hours before.

Joining the practice squad are:

linebacker Patrick Bailey,
cornerback/safety Roy Lewis,
safety Grant Mason,
offensive tackle Jeremy Parquet,
nose tackle Scott Paxson,
wide receiver Micah Rucker,
tight end Dezmond Sherrod ,
running back Justin Vincent

Thanks to the NFL’s international player development program, the Steelers were also able to put wide receiver Marvin Allen on their practice squad.

Most members of NFL practice squads merely hope to get activated for one or two game stints, the practice squad occasionally yields a super star. James Harrison spent parts of both the 2002 and 2003 seasons on the practice squad, only becoming a regular fixture on the team’s active roster in 2004.