The Steelers and Free Agency, How Times Have Changed

Last Friday Ed Bouchette wrote a very interesting article on how, unlike Larry Foote, most Steelers want to stay in Pittsburgh.

Bouchette’s on to something. Chris Kemoeatu took less money to stay with the Steelers. James Harrison was course to hit the open market in an uncapped year, but he pushed to stay. James Farrior could have played out the final year of his deal and cashed in, he opted to resign.

It wasn’t always like this, as a brief stroll down memory lane reveals.

“…I want to stay in Pittsburgh, but really, it’s not up to me….”

During the 1990’s Steelers Nation heard some variant of the above quote from soon-to-be free agents and free agents alike. (If memory serves, Yancy Thigpen was the one who actually said, “I want to stay in Pittsburgh, but really, it’s not up to me.”)

While the Rooneys took a lot of flack for letting so many free agents get away, the truth is they were pioneers in managing free agency and the salary cap. They excelled at identifying the players essential to winning, and signing them long before they reached free agency. Dermontti Dawson, Greg Lloyd, Barry Foster, and Rod Woodson were among the heavy hitters who Steelers management kept off of the open market.

This didn’t keep the fans, or the press, from focusing on the ones that got away.

Starting in 1993, the Steelers refused to negotiate contracts during the regular season. Players knew that this meant that if they didn’t get a deal before opening day, they were as good as gone.

That was Carnell Lake’s interpretation, and after he left he openly talked of playing 1998 with a sort of bitter resignation it would be his last in Pittsburgh.

Lake’s sentiment is understandable. To a point.

In many cases players’ memories suddenly got short when they hit free agency. Dan Rooney himself admits that they made a mistake in letting Rod Woodson get away. Not only was it a mistake, but the way in which they let him go was a mistake.

Woodson wasn’t happy about it, but he also seemed to forget that the summer prior to his final season the Steelers had offered him a much more lucrative deal than he ended up getting from San Francisco as a free agent.

Neil O’Donnell was of course the most egregious case, openly stating something along the lines that he would “take less money to stay in Pittsburgh before going to a bad team.” That was October 1995. In February 2006 O’Donnell turned down a competitive offer from the defending AFC Champion Steelers to go to the 1-15 Jets… He never started a full season again.

Why the Change?

The biggest reason for the change is Heinz Field, which gave the Steelers revenues to better compete in the free agent market. But the departure of Tom Donahue also had something to do with it. Donahue deserves equal credit with Bill Cowher and Dan Rooney for keeping the Steelers competitive during the early years of free agency.

But Donahue’s attitude towards departing free agents was not always helpful. Shortly after leaving the Steelers, Kevin Greene, Rod Woodson, and Eric Green found themselves on the free agent market again, and each expressed a desire to come back. Donahue was dismissive, going as far to say “we’re not in the salvation army.”

Kevin Greene played several more productive years in Carolina, and Rod Woodson could have really helped the Steelers in the late 1990’s and early part of this decade.

Kevin Colbert, in contrast, has a much more practical view that accepts that players who leave are making business decisions. He has also welcomed back former players such as Myron Bell, Ainsley Battles, and Tom Myslinski.

It is impossible to measure the impact of this change in philosophy, but it certainly seems to have helped the team navigate free agency.

Watch Tower: A Couple of Slip Ups

Bouchette’s article also contained a couple of minor inaccuracies. He compared Larry Foote’s situation to Adrian Cooper, who played tight end behind Eric Green in the early 1990’s, saying that the Steelers traded him to Minnesota because he was unhappy with his salary.

While that’s technically true, Cooper’s comments in the aftermath of the Steelers playoff loss to Joe Montana’s Kansas City Chiefs supplied the Steelers prime motive for dealing him. When questioned about what had been a sub-par season, Cooper claimed that if his salary had been higher, his performance would have been better.

Upon hearing that Tom Donahue is reported to have said, “if that is true then he has just played his final game as a Pittsburgh Steeler.”

The other issue revolves around Greg Lloyd. Bouchette lumped him in with free agents who wanted to stay but were forced to go. Again, it is true that Lloyd wanted to stay, but the Steelers let him go when he still had 2 years left on his contract.

Steel Curtain Rising’s Watch Tower takes a critical look at those who cover the Steelers. Click here to read more Watch Tower entries.

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