Steelers Salary Cap – Was Signing Polamalu and Taylor a Mistake? Grantland Says “Yes”

The Steelers “struggles” have ignited a death watch of sorts both inside and outside of Steelers Nation. One need not Google very far to find “Fire Dick LeBeau,” “Fire Mike Tomlin,” “Fire Todd Haley,” and/or “Fire Kevin Colbert.”

  • It would seem, then, that Pittsburgh has the worst 1-1 team in the 80 year plus history of the NFL…

…Seriously, this sarcasm doesn’t dismiss the Steelers current difficulties. Going 50-9 over six quarters starts some tough conversations. But nuanced analysis instead of knee jerk reaction is in order.  warranted. And over at Grantland, Bill Barnwell attempts such a nuanced approach with mixed results.

Barnwell takes a hatch the Steelers recent salary cap management, and pulls no punches in criticizing Pittsburgh for remaining too loyal for too long to veterans.

Barnwell makes many good points. In fact, on the offensive line, he doesn’t go far enough. If the Steelers set the NFL standard for stability (and they do) then the Tomlin era offensive line has been the crazy uncle locked away in the attic.

Since Tomlin arrived, the Steelers have signed six projected offensive line starters only to cut or trade each long before their contract ended. Count them: Sean Mahan, Justin Hartwig, Jonathan Scott, Chris Kemoeatu, Willie Colon, and of course Max Starks.

Of those offensive line decisions, Barnwell doesn’t go far enough he only mentions Colon and Kemoeatu.

After that point, Barnwell treads on more dubious ground. Front and center LaMarr Woodley.

He singles out the horrendous, dead weight salary cap cost that Woodley’s record breaking contract morphed into. OK. Indisputably, that’s one deal gone sour for Pittsburgh. But Woodley wasn’t an aging veteran when the Steelers reupped him. In fact, he was finishing his rookie deal and Barwell himself says he projected well into the Steelers long-term vision.

  • Yes, Pittsburgh is and will pay a high price for erring on Woodley. 

But who (other than Behind the Steel Curtain founding editor Michael Bean) saw Woodley’s demise coming? Whether the decision to cut Woodley turns into an “egregious early release” (to use Barnwell’s term) or not depends on Michael Mitchell, as it was the Steelers decision to sign Mitchell that forced their hand on Woodley.

Of Troy and Ike…

Where Barnwell’s critique really gets problematic is with Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor’s contracts. Both men were entering the final year of the deals, and both men had cap value too high for 2014. Polamalu restructured. Taylor took a pay cut. A big one.

Barnwell structures his argument like this:

Most notably, the Steelers invested heavily in a pair of veteran defensive backs who have not delivered on their deals. In 2011, the Steelers gave 30-year-old Troy Polamalu and 31-year-old Ike Taylor new contracts, deals that locked each up through the 2014 campaign. Coming off of their Super Bowl loss to the Packers, Polamalu received a three-year, $29.6 million extension that left him one of the highest-paid safeties in football, while Taylor’s four-year, $28 million deal left him paid just below the level of top cornerbacks….
Since then, the defense somehow keeps getting worse while staying the same age. (Emphasis added.)

Barwell backs up this up with a table showing how the Steelers DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) Rank has dropped form number 1 in 2010 to number 19 in 2013 while remaining the NFL’s oldest defense.

Notice, Barnwell couches his argument in saber metrics rather than traditional defensive metrics, such as yards and/or points allowed.

This is convenient, as from 2012-2013 Dick LeBeau’s defense has held up better using traditional measures. If we concede there’s a little of truth in both, there’s a problem with his explanation for the decline. First, he declares “Health hasn’t been a problem, but age has.”

Really?

But he drivers deeper arguing, “Polamalu and Taylor are at the heart of that problem.” So Barnwell think Polamalu and Taylor fueled the decline of the Steelers defense, from 2011 to 2013?

Not exactly, as he’s dismissive of Polamalu’s health issues, and concedes that Polamalu played above average in ’11 and was still one of the AFC’s better safeties in 2013.

After that, he conveniently skips over Ike Taylor’s 2011 and 2012 campaigns (and the team’s struggles when Taylor was injured in 2012) and simply states “Cornerback charting stats are shots in the dark at best, but Taylor’s numbers have gotten horrible, and they’re matched by how he looks on tape.”

  • Agreed. Taylor had a rough 2013 and is only 1-1 two games into 2014. 

But ironically, Barnwell uses saber metrics to rip down Taylor, while ignoring similar saber metrics rated Polamalu fairly well in 2013.

Immediately after the NFL lockout ended in 2011, Art Rooney II and Kevin Colbert decided to keep the core together that had taken them to 3 Super Bowls in 6 years. Yes, 20/20 hindsight, the team overspent. But that’s an easy observation. Suggesting what should have been done differently far more difficult.

Barnwell  doesn’t “go there.” Perhaps that’s because he understands full well the absurdity of suggesting the Steelers should have shown Polamalu the door after an AFC Defensive Player of the year performance.

The Road Forward

Barnwell closes by attacking the Steelers for resigning/restructuring Polamalu and Taylor. He’s right on the money when he raises the specter of the 6.75 million in dead money the Steelers will have to eat if this is, as it appears it will be, Polamalu’s final year.

  • Barnwell’s solution? Part ways with Polamalu, Taylor and Heath Miller.

While Heath Miller was shaky at times last year after the injury and has been shaky this year, the suggestion that the Steelers should have given up on him in 2013 was inane.

Barnwell makes it sound so simple:  “The Steelers could have moved on from either of those players without owing a dime after this season.” That’s a bold suggestion, but Barnwell leaves two other questions untouched:

  • Who would  take the place of Polamalu, Taylor and Miller in 2014?
  • How exactly would the Steelers manage all of those dead money hits in a single season? 

Again, Barnwell ignores the issue, knowing full well the Steelers couldn’t do that and pretend to be competitive.

It’s real easy to suggest that when you’re sitting there with only your lap top to answer to. When you’re actually charged with making roster and salary cap choices to stay competitive, it becomes more complicated.

Steelers Salary Cap Situation Still Sticky

At the end of the day, Barnwell has a point. The 2014 Steelers are suffering from salary cap mistakes and still have significant do have salary cap issues to manage. But his overall analysis his short sighted and overly simplistic.

  • Ben Roethlisberger still has a couple of three years of his prime left (barring, God willing, a major injury).

The Steelers are trying to thread the needle of staying competitive while reloading. They don’t have the luxury blowing up the cap and starting over. Nor does the franchise, which plays to win, operate that way.

  • That doesn’t mean the Steelers haven’t made mistakes, or that the choices their left with because of those mistakes don’t carry their own complications.

Steel Curtain Rising will address this issue in more detail, as the match up with Carolina brings one of those salary cap choices to the forefront.

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