One of the peculiarities of being a Steelers fan first and a football fan second is that it is easy to forget how differently the rest of the NFL operates. In fact, when I read that a team has resigned a player during the season, my first reaction is often “…But wait a minute, players don’t get signed during the season.”
- But of course they do – It just doesn’t happen in Pittsburgh.
Reading Andrew Brandt’s column in MMQB on the Kirk Cousin’s “How do you like me now?”call out to Washington Redskins General Manager Scot McCloughan, brought home just how wise Dan Rooney was to install the Steelers regular season contract negotiation blackout policy in 1993.
- Can you imagine something like the Kirk Cousin’s incident happening in Pittsburgh?
No, neither can I. That’s not to say that the Steelers are immune to contract malaise. Alan Faneca was not happy about not getting his extension in 2007, and he grumbled about it loudly in the off season, but that ended when the games started.
- But by and large, you don’t see these types of contract-based stories popping up in Pittsburgh during the regular season.
Reporters certainly ask players in their contract years if they want to come back, as they did with Lawrence Timmons after the Steelers win over the Giants, but answers usually run along the lines of “I’d like to stay, but we’ll see what happens in March.”
It wasn’t always that way, however….
Free Agency Comes to Pittsburgh….
1993 was the first season that the NFL experienced free agency, thanks to the Freeman-McNeil verdict. The new era saw the Steelers say good by to long-time stalwarts like Tunch Ilkin, but allowed them to bring in veterans like Hall of Famer Kevin Greene.
- At the time, most fans thought that Dan Rooney was cheap, but the Steelers also pioneered success in the salary cap era by resigning their own players.
During that 1993 off season, the Steelers came to terms with Neil O’Donnell, Greg Lloyd and Dermontti Dawson a year before their contracts expired (O’Donnell had been a RFA). They also wanted to reach similar deals with Rod Woodson and Barry Foster, but couldn’t get them done in the summer. So negotiations continued, as the 1993 Steelers got off to a 0-2 start.
- Week 3 saw them resign Barry Foster and then resign Rod Woodson. The Steelers also blew out the Bengals 34-7 that Sunday.
Patricia Rooney is the only one who knows if her husband Dan watched ESPN PrimeTime that night, but Chris Berman’s lead on the Steelers game talked about the Woodson and Foster contracts, and showed in image of a guy handing out money….
…If Dan Rooney did see that ESPN, he could not have been pleased.
1993 the Year of the Locker Room Lawyer
While the Steelers had locked up their best defensive player and, at the time, best offensive player the rest of the locker room was not happy, particularly because after inking Woodson and Foster, Dan Rooney and Tom Donahoe decided to cut off further negotiations until season’s end.
Tight end Adrian Cooper went as far as to tell Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “If everyone’s contract would be done, I think we’d be 4-0 instead of 2-2. It has something to do with it. We’re unbeaten since they signed the two big guys.”
Big things had been expected of Adrian Cooper, so much that the Steelers openly discussed trading Eric Green. Cooper’s breakout season failed to materialized, and after the season he explained to reporters, “I feel neglected. As a result, my performance was a reflection of how they treated me.”
- As soon as Tom Donahoe heard that, Cooper was on the next bus out of town, heading to Minnesota via trade.
But even Merril Hoge, a man whose ethics are beyond question, confided, “When we went 0-2, I think they thought players were more concerned about their contracts. That may have been true.”
After the season Bill Cowher, Dan Rooney and Tom Donahoe all agreed that contract issues had been a distraction for the Steelers in 1993. Their solution was to use the regular season to focus on winning, not negotiating.
The results speak for themselves. Although he may have wanted his contract extension sooner than he got it, Ben Roethlisberger certainly never considered walking off of Heinz Field and screaming “How do you like me now?” at Kevin Colbert, because the focus in Pittsburgh during the season stays where it should, on winning.