The Steelers of the ‘70s won four Super Bowls in six years largely because they out drafted the rest of the league.
One part of this success came the Steelers active scouting and drafting players from the Historically Black Colleges circuit, a talent trove that most of the rest of the league willfully ignored then.
That foresight was important, but it would not have paid off in the form of Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood, John Stallworth, and Mel Blount had Art Rooney Jr., Dick Haley, Jack Butler, Bill Nunn Sr. and Chuck Noll not been superior talent evaluators.
- The Steelers system delivered Hall of Famers whether they were drafting first in 1970 or 21st in 1974.
All good things come to an end, and this happened in Pittsburgh when few were noticing. In the midst of their Super Bowl runs the Steelers shifted their drafting strategy.
With a roster stocked with All Pro talent they veered away from taking the best man on the board, fearing he might not be able to justify a roster spot, and started seeking players who might have “slipped” for some reason.
The results were far from fruitful.
- From ’75-’77 the Steelers picked Dave Brown, Bennie Cunningham, and Robin Cole, all future Pro Bowlers.
- From ’78-’80 the Steelers drafted Ron Johnson, Greg Hawthorne, and Mark Malone, Johnson’s career got derailed by injuries, while Hawthorne and Malone were out right busts.
This neat little story is relevant today because it is a fair question to ask if something similar might be unfolding before our eyes.
Mastering the Salary Cap
Once upon a time conventional wisdom held that free agency would do to the Steelers what it did to the Pirates. Critics derided Dan Rooney as a cheap sake who had no hope of competing with free spenders like Jack Kent Cooke, who was the Daniel Snyder of his day.
- The opposite of course happened.
The Steelers remained competitive through the 1990’s and thrived in the ‘00’s because they pioneered the principles for mastering the salary cap:
- Avoid bidding wars
- Focus on resigning your own, home-grown talent
- Never over pay
- Minimize the amount waste money (salary cap space devoted to players not on the roster)
The Steelers are not likely to get into any bidding wars anytime soon, nor are they likely to go on a shopping spree. As for over paying, if Lawrence Timmons does not play dramatically better than he did in 2011 they will have overpaid for him. But beyond that, the Steelers have been and should remain good about getting more bang for their buck.
Which brings us to our last point.
If you guessed that they all signed contracts last summer that the Steelers have turned around and renegotiated in less than a year, you guessed right.
The Steelers started the NFL off season about 15 million dollars over the NFL’s 2012 Salary cap and with Ben Roethlisberger’s recent renegotiation, have just about gotten to or perhaps slightly under the cap.
- That is good news of course.
But how, and why this was necessary remains a different question, given that such drastic renegotiations are far from Standard Operating procedure on the South Side, to borrow the words of Neal Coolong of Behind the Steel Curtain.
The mechanics of renegotiating a contract are simple: A team converts a part of the player’s base salary for the said year (or years) into a signing bonus, which then gets paid to the player in a lump sum, and is divided among the remaining years of his contract.
In pure dollar terms it amounts to a wash for the player because he loses no money.
For the team the issue is more complicated, because money converted to a bonus remains on the team’s books and can never be erased. In other words, if Willie Colon suffers another debilitating injury in the season opener and decides to call it a career, the Steelers are on the hook for his entire bonus.
The Road from Here
The NFL’s salary cap is expected to expand greatly when the new television deals kick in, easing the future bit of already paid bonuses. That’s fine, but that is still a few seasons away.
In the mean time, Omar Khan, Kevin Colbert, and Art Rooney II have taken a calculated risk. Their margin for injury or error is greatly reduced.
- The flexibility that allowed the Steelers to bring in Flozell Adams when Willie Colon went down is something they’ll likely miss for the next season or two.
- Signing Mike Wallace is also greatly complicated by their current situation.
It is far too early to say that the current Steelers brain trust is making the same types of errors with the salary cap that their brethren made with the draft in the late ‘70’s.
But it is a situation that bears watching.
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