Free Agency never fails to stir the passions of Steelers Nation and 2017 has been no exception.
That’s fine, but it is always good to apply a health perspective towards how the Steelers manage free agency and to provide that perceptive, we take a look back, way back, at Pittsburgh’s inaugural foray into free agency by grading the Steelers 1993 Free Agency effort. So here it goes. In the 1993 off season the Pittsburgh Steelers:
- Lost a perennial Pro Bowl inside linebacker,
- Lost a veteran starter who provided stability during a long rebuilding phase,
- Lost a former first round pick edge rusher who never met expectations,
- Rolled the dice by giving a measly third round restricted free agent tender to a key starter
Sounds ominously familiar, right? Seems like the Steelers got schooled by the harsh reality of NFL free agency?
That’s what a lot of people, including both Pittsburgh journalists and national ones such as SI’s Peter King, concluded at the time. So how would you grade would the Steelers 1993 Free Agency effort?
- How about with an A+ ?
Yes, that’s correct, and to be bluntly honest, one doesn’t and/or shouldn’t have needed 20/20 hindsight to realize the Steelers were on to something.Here’s what the Steelers 1993 Free Agent tracker would have looked like:
The restricted free agent in question was none other than Neil O’Donnell who had done an impressive job as the Steelers starting quarterback in 1992 and was a restricted free agent, whom the Steelers lowballed with a 3rd round tender.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers smelled blood in the water, and made an offer to Neil O’Donnell setting off a firestorm in Steelers Nation the likes of which was not seen until September 2014 when the Steelers cut Doran Grant….
So, OK, so the Kevin Greene signing worked out pretty well, but even if you take that into account, how could anyone look at that chart above and grade the 1993 Steelers Free agent effort with an A Plus?
It is easy – by looking at the full range of the Steelers activity during that free agency period.
Steelers 1993 Free Agents: The One’s the Got Away….
While fans looked at Hardy Nickerson’s departure and lambasted Dan Rooney for “being cheap,” the truth is that a year earlier the Steelers had made Nickerson a competitive 3 year offer. Nickerson, knowing free agency’s arrival was imminent, balked and insisted on a one year deal.
- The Steelers didn’t, and don’t do business that way.
They’d also picked Levon Kirkland in the 1992 NFL Draft. While one could run fiery Nickerson vs. Kirkland debate and you might even conclude that Nickerson was the better linebacker, you cannot claim the Steelers downgraded their defense by starting Levon Kirkland in 1993.
You always want a Tunch Ilkin type player to retire in Black and Gold, but when Green Bay made its 2.2 million dollar offer, Bill Cowher informed Ilkin that if he stayed in Pittsburgh, he’d be backing up Leon Searcy for a lot less. Ilkin took the money.
Aaron Jones’ defection amounted to addition by subtraction. Prior to free agency, the Steelers would have been stuck with Jones, instead they were able to upgrade and move on by drafting Kevin Henry. Jones did “OK” in New England, but in no way was worth the 1.8 million dollar two year contract he got.
Steelers 1993 Free Agents, the Ones that Arrived or Stayed
Jerrol Williams had underachieved under Chuck Noll, but flourished during Bill Cowher’s first season in 1992.
The Steelers wanted to keep him, but the San Diego Chargers made a 1.7 million dollar one year restricted free agent offer for Williams, an exorbitant sum at the time which the Steelers had no intent on matching. So instead, they went out and signed Kevin Greene.
Although Kevin Greene arrived in Pittsburgh with 72.5 sacks to his name, or one less than then franchise record holder L.C. Greenwood had, he wasn’t well known in the NFL. Time would show that NFL Hall of Famer Kevin Greene represented an upgrade over Jerrol Williams, but few fans or sports writers wanted to c
oncede it in the spring of 1993.
Peter King described the Steelers decision to give Neil O’Donnell a low-ball restricted free agent tender as “unwitting” and he was right. The Steelers had wanted to resign O’Donnell, but badly miscalculated by only tendering him $300,000.
- But if the Steelers mistake quickly became clear, the franchise also refused to panic.
The team gave a long look at keeping Bubby Brister. The also considered bringing in Jeff Hostetler. But Bill Cowher and Ron Erhardt lobbied for Dan Rooney to match the Tampa Bay’s offer and he did, remaining a Steeler until Super Bowl XXX.
If another Steelers free agent pickup, linebacker Greg Clark, didn’t make it out of training camp, Mike Tomczak provided veteran stability at the backup quarterback position for seven straight years.
1993 Steelers Free Agency Complete Picture
While we haven’t finished painting the Steelers 1993 free agency picture yet, it should already be obvious that Pittsburgh clearly didn’t belong in Peter King’s “They Got Hurt” category.
- And the moves already discussed might not have even been the most important moves the Steelers made.
Weeks after making Kevin Greene the highest paid defensive player in Steelers history, the Steelers did it again, by resigning linebacker Greg Lloyd to a 3 year contract. What was notable about the move wasn’t the money, however it was the timing.
- In the spring of 1993, Greg Lloyd still had a full year remaining on his contract.
Resigning in your own players before their contracts expire is now common in the NFL, but it wasn’t in 1993. In fact, fans and commentators attacked the Rooneys for failing to grasp that “the point of free agency is to sign other team’s players, not your own.”
And while the move didn’t come until September, the Steelers did it again with Rod Woodson, reupping the Hall of Famer cornerback a year before he became a free agent. The Steelers also resigned Barry Foster, although that move didn’t work out quite as expected (even if it did indirectly open the door to the Jerome Bettis trade.)
So for those who haven’t kept score, the Steelers 1993 free agency effort saw the franchise:
- Promote two, lower salaried draft picks in favor of retaining more two more costly starters
- Practice some addition by subtraction by allowing a chronic under achiever to walk
- Extend the contract of a legendary linebacker
- Come to terms with two future Hall of Famers
Although the 2017 free agent signing period is far from over, there’s no shortage of people to passing judgment on the Steelers efforts, ominously observing how Patriots are getting stronger while the Steelers are getting weaker.
That might be the case, but before freaking out remember that in 1993 Peter King ranked the Steelers free agency effort at 24th and there were only 28 teams in the league then. While his number 1 team, the Green Bay Packers certainly helped themselves with Reggie White, he also listed the Falcons, Cardinals, Browns, Buccaneers, and Colts as “Leading the Way.”
- None of those teams sniffed the playoffs that fall. The 1993 Steelers did.
And, as 1993’s lesson applies to today, James Harrison deserves Hall of Fame consideration, Antonio Brown is building a Hall of Fame worthy resume and Le’Veon Bell clearly has Hall of Fame caliber talent.
And the Steelers have taken steps to keep those 3 players in Pittsburgh. Just Say’in….
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4 thoughts on “Historical Perspective: The A+ Steelers 1993 Free Agency Effort Didn’t Look that Way at the Time”
I heard a rumor that Joe Montana was interested in signing with the Steelers before 1993. Any truth to that?
Thanks for commenting. The simple answer to your question is “No.”
Joe Montana wasn’t a free agent in the Spring of 1993. He was still under contract with the San Francisco 49ers. Steven Young had started all season, but the 49ers let Montana play the 2nd half of their season finale. That showed that Montana still “Had it.”
There was a lot of back and forth (I can only imagine it playing out on Social Media), but the 49ers ended up trading Montana.
The rumor was that Montana wanted to go to Pittsburgh, but Pittsburgh never positioned itself as a contender in the trade.
Gotcha. O’Donnell was a decent QB but I believe even old Montana could have won a SB in Pittsburgh. Brister was a capable backup. ’93 would have been the best chance. Imagine Montana vs Young in the last game of his career. I think the 94 49ers were too strong overall. What did the Chiefs give up to get Montana?
I believe that KC gave up two first, although you can Google that. I agree, Montana could have been a real difference maker for the Steelers.