Steelers Shed Salary, Super Bowl Rings, and Locker Room Leadership….

Institutional memory is a curious concept. Clearly one can neither precisely define or measure it, but institutional memory nonetheless remains a tangible quality.

One of the lessons that the Steelers organization took from the ‘70’s is that they held on to too many Super Steelers veterans too far past their prime.

After parting ways with Hines Ward, Aaron Smith, Chris Kemoeatu, and James Farrior no one can hurl that accusation at Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert, and Mike Tomlin.

In 1976 the Steelers left their 1975 first round pick Dave Brown unprotected in an expansion draft…

  • …Brown went Seattle where he made a Pro Bowl, two UPI All Pro Teams and one AP All Pro teams

In 1979 the Steelers kept a rapidly fading Dwight White over rookie training camp sensation Dwaine Board

  • White was done within two years, whereas Bill Walsh snapped up Board, who posted three double digit sack seasons with the 49ers in the ‘80s.

And of course in the spring of 1983 the Steelers figured the could squeeze a couple of three more seasons out of Terry Bradshaw, opting to pass on a kid named Marino…

  • …Steelers Nation knows how passing on Dan Marino turned out.

Who knows?

Were memories of those mistakes echoing through Art Rooney II’s head as he gave the word to Kevin Colbert to lower the hammer on yet another franchise icon?

Or did salary cap realities simply force any shred of sentimentality out of the Steelers?

No one can be sure.

The Steelers did start the off season $20 to $25 million over the 2012 salary cap. Colbert and Omar Khan did they damdest to giggle the numbers to the extent where its reasonable to ask whether the Steelers are mortgaging their future.

But the contract restructurings of Ike Taylor, LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons and Ben Roethlisberger were all to get the Steelers under the cap.

Which only reaffirms the status quo.

  • Positioning the Steelers for the future required untethering the organizations it from its recent past.

So now gone are James Farrior, Chris Kemoeatu, Aaron Smith, Hines Ward, Arnaz Battle, and Bryant McFadden.

Giving these six players their walking papers freed up approximately 10 million dollars in salary cap space.

  • But the Steelers are also saying goodbye to 12 Super Bowl rings if you throw in Chris Hoke’s retirement.

That statement is perhaps overly dramatic, because 5 of the 6 players had seen age, injury or ineffectiveness drastically reduce their role from 2010 to 2011. James Farrior was the only starter released, the only player with no heir apparent, and the only one who arguably could have contributed in 2012 were salary on consideration.

But winning is just as much about the intangible as it is about the measurable.

  • James Farrior, Hines Ward and Arnz Battle were all captains of their respective units
  • When William Gay and Kennan Lewis sent Bryant McFadden to the bench, McFadden embraced his role on specials teams with relish.
  • Aaron Smith never hesitated to take younger players whom he knew had been drafted to replace him, under his wing.

However necessary their departures might have been, each of the men the Steelers parted wasy with was an important leader, both on and off the field.

That’s not something to gloss over lightly, as the Redskins experience of the 90’s reveals.

The first Joe Gibbs era in Washington ended just as the salary cap era was beginning. In the blink of an eye veterans like Art Monk, Ernest Byner, Charles Mann, Ricky Sanders and other Super Bowl veterans were gone. These were players who had learned how to win, a lesson which their successors are still struggling to master almost 20 years later.

The Steelers recent “termination” binge was not as wholesale as Washington’s was in the mid-90’s. By all accounts the organizational culture on the South Side is far different that of Redskins Park, and one that’s strong enough to manage the coming locker room leadership transition.

  • But the Redskins lesson reminds us that there is no set formula for letting go of Championship Era players as they grow old.

Regardless of whether you let your veterans go too late or too soon, its always about getting the next decision right, and it is rarely just a question of simple numbers.

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2 thoughts on “Steelers Shed Salary, Super Bowl Rings, and Locker Room Leadership….

  1. Great stuff, Keith. I don’t think the Steelers were as cavalier this time around as they were in the 80’s. Nice info on Dave Brown; I had no idea they let go such a talented player. I think it’s easy for teams to get swept up in the “now” when they’re in the middle of a champisonship run. However, I think the way things are today with regards to increased player movement, teams are more equipped to change over their rosters. And by the way the Steelers have been drafting in recent years–quality players from big programs–it seems they have been keeping an eye to the future.

    As far as leaders. I think in an organization as well run as Pittsburgh, good leaders always emerge. James Farrior never seemed like such a vocal guy when Joey Porter was around, but once Peezy left, Farrior became the guy to deliver the pre-game speeches.

  2. Tony,

    Thanks for commenting. I agree, I am not too worried about the leadership void, but it is an issue.

    I also think that the Steelers are better equiped to weather a changing of the guard.

    I am not old enough to remember it, but I think that to a large extent age blindsided the Steelers when the 70’s turned to the 80’s. I mean, of course they knew it was coming, but my feeling is that most of them thought that it was farther off.

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