Steelers Free Agency 2013: Colbert’s Salary Cap “Loaves and The Fishes”

The debate in Steelers Nation as Pittsburgh entered the 2013 off season was whether the Steelers were in “Salary Cap Hell” or merely “Salary Cap Purgatory.” No one on the roster not named Ben Roethlisberger appeared safe.

Now that the dust has settled, it is clear that while the Steelers have/had cap issues, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin pulled off the NFL Salary Cap equivalent of the “Loaves and the Fishes.”

  • How’s that you ask? Read on young Padawan…. 

(Note Steel Curtain Rising has a strict “no politics, no religion” editorial policy but hopefully you will excuse this deviation as the metaphors are irresistible.)

“The times, they are a changing….”

It’s true that Steelers Nation has not experienced such off season roster upheaval since the 90’s. Back then, in the pre-Heinz Field days, free agent exoduses became an annual rite.

The process was agonizing. Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher would draft and develop players, only to lose them as soon as they reached free agency.

What happened this off season is both similar and different. In the ‘90’s cash flow was the culprit, whereas during the Steelers 2013 off season it was lack of cap space, forcing Pittsburgh to swallow hard and cut contributors whose age, injury status, and cap values made them expendable.

Let’s look at how deeply the axe swung:

Steelers Salary Cap Casualties:
James Harrison, former NFL Defensive Player of the Year
Willie Colon, cut two years into a four year contract

Contracts Not Renewed by the Steelers:
Casey Hampton
Charlie Batch
Byron Leftwich

Steelers Players Poached in Free Agency:
Mike Wallace
Rashard Mendenhall
Keenan Lewis
Max Starks
Will Allen
Ryan Mundy
Doug Legrusky

Painful? Doubtless.

Consider this:  EVERY player that Pittsburgh lost in free agency, cut or declined to bring back started a game for the Steelers in 2013. Six of whom were full time starters.

In 2013 the Pittsburgh Steelers not only said good bye to a lot of talent, experience, and locker room leadership, but they also abandoned a fair amount of potential.

These loses will be felt. How badly? The answer to that question lies in what the Steelers did to compensate.

Steelers Free Agent Spending in 2013

The conventional wisdom is that the Pittsburgh Steelers are an inactive team in free agency. In the 2013 off season the Steelers were active, but many of Pittsburgh’s free agent moves happened slightly below the radar.

Steelers ’07 Draft Class Revolving Door (former players reacquired):
William Gay
Matt Spaeth

Unrestricted Free Agents Resigned by the Steelers:
Ramon Foster
Larry Foote
Plaxico Burress
David Johnson
Greg Warren

Restricted Free Agents Resigned:
Emmanuel Sanders
Steve McLendon

Unrestricted Free Agents Retained via Tender for 2013:
Isaac Redman
Jonathan Dwyer

Steelers Free Agent Additions:
Brian Moorman
LaRod Stephens-Howling
Guy Whimper
Bruce Gradkowski

For a team supposedly on the precipice of Salary Cap disaster, the Pittsburgh Steelers made a lot of moves during the 2013 off season.

In pure quantitative terms, the Steelers came out ahead, signing/resigning 15 players while saying good bye, in one form or another, while losing 12.

  • Quantity is one thing. What about quality? Did the Steelers come out ahead? 

That’s a more difficult question and one with a more nuanced answer.

Colbert and Tomlin’s Loaves and Fishes Salary Cap Miracle 

Measured in terms of raw football talent, it is impossible to argue that the Steelers weathered their most difficult free agency period since the Donahoe years and came out ahead.

Anyone who tells you that Plaxico Burress’ value to the offense is equal to or better than that of Mike Wallace is missing a few fries from his Happy Meal. Ditto any attempt to equate William Gay’s value with that of Keenan Lewis.

  • But success in the free agency era goes beyond questions of raw talent.

Yes, you need good players to win and great players are essential to winning big. This is true in any era. When asked about Steelers success, Dan Rooney’s stock response is “You have to start with the players.”

But success in the salary cap era doesn’t come down to who has the best talent, but who can get the most for their salary cap buck. And in that respect the Steelers have potentially positioned themselves to come out ahead.

  • Take the Steelers situation at cornerback.

Without argument, the threesome of Ike Taylor, Keenan Lewis, and Cortez Allen beats the threesome of Taylor, Allen, and William Gay.

But the money the Steelers saved in not resigning Lewis didn’t just go to Gay. It allowed them to resign David Johnson and bring back Matt Spaeth. Now Johnson and Spaeth are marginal roster contributors to be sure. But that’s the point.

Assuming that Cortez Allen is the real deal and that Ike Taylor doesn’t slow a step, then the trio of Allen, Taylor, and Gay at CB combined with Speath, Johnson and David Paulson holding down the fort at tight end in Heath Miller’s absence arguably delivers more value for salary cap dollar than Keenan Lewis would have.

  • The same can be said of Mike Wallace.

Had the Steelers really wanted to, they probably could have kept Mike Wallace.

But at what cost? Certainly Plaxio Burress wouldn’t have been resigned. Emmanuel Sanders either wouldn’t have been tendered or would have been allowed to go to New England. Either Jonathan Dwyer and/or Isaac Redman would have been gone too. AND LaRod Stephens-Howling probably never darkens any doors on the South Side either.

To go with a baseball analogy, Mike Wallace is a legitimate home run threat on any down and defenses must plan for. The Steelers will miss his contributions.

  • But football is a team game, and the Steelers are calculating that they can make up for losing this home run threat with a series of base hitters.

Such strategies come with risks. Losing Ike Taylor for the year and fielding a Lewis/Allen corner tandem is quite different than fielding a Gay/Allen corner tandem. The same can be said for several other position areas, most notably offensive line and wide receiver.

  • But making such calculated risks is part of life under the NFL’s salary cap. 

On paper Kevin Colbert has made a series of excellent “best bang for the salary cap buck” decisions. Soon Steelers Nation will know how those decisions play out on the field.

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3 thoughts on “Steelers Free Agency 2013: Colbert’s Salary Cap “Loaves and The Fishes”

  1. What the Steelers did is no miracle; Billy Bean accomplished it in baseball with the Oakland A’s; it’s called “Moneyball”, and its the only viable solution the Steelers had available to them short of a total “rebuild”.

    Their pursuit of titles with the existing core has apparently come to an end, and the Steelers are transitioning (regardless of whether they’ll admit it) in a logical, sensible and fiscally responsible manner. Kudos to them.

  2. Clark,

    Perhaps the term “miracle” was a little over-rated but given all of the banter about “salary cap hell” vs. “salary cap purgatory” it was irresistible.

    And I think your “Moneyball” analogy is a good one, and perhaps an apt one in the flat salary cap era.

    Thanks for commenting.

  3. Great writeup but it seems salary cap hell may still be appropriate and only a couple amazing drafts in a row will counter all the personnel losses and dead money due to restructurings. At some point, the piper will be paid. Thanks for a well-written article.

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