Are the Steelers suited for splash free agency? That question came to mind when news broke late Friday that the Steelers were indeed planning to cut Mike Mitchell for salary cap reasons.
- The impending decision to cut Mike Mitchell, paired with the Ladarius Green experiment along with an article by Simon Chester reminded me of a poem I once read.
Yes, a poem penned by Jimmy Carter (yes, that “Jimmy Carter,” but fear not, politics remains a verboten topic on this site) and told of how, when his father first succeeded in the peanut business, he mail ordered an expensive suit only to have it fit badly when it arrived. He titled the poem “Prosperity Doesn’t Suit Everyone.”
Might the same lesson apply to the Steelers and free agency, at least under Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s watch?
- Well, it certainly feels that way now.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have never been big players in free agency. In the 1990’s fans would howl over the Steelers decision to devote their salary cap dollars to resigning stars like Rod Woodson, Dermontti Dawson and Greg Lloyd, while opting to let other teams over pay players like Yancey Thigpen and John Jackson.
Yet One for the Thumb and the Lombardi Six Pack haven’t stopped fans from lamenting the fact that Dan Rooney’s team doesn’t act more like Daniel Snyder’s team the off season Lombardi race.
- Yet, the Steelers started free agency with a bang during two of the last four off seasons.
In 2014 it meant signing Mike Mitchell to replace Ryan Clark, and in 2016 it meant signing Ladarius Green to replace Heath Miller. Both were day one, big money deals which were decidedly out of character for the franchise.
Sure, the Steelers opened free agency in 2010 by signing Antwaan Randle El, Larry Foote, Will Allen, Jonathan Scott and Arnz Battle. But those modest contracts were completely consistent with Pittsburgh’s free agency philosophy even if the timing wasn’t.
The Difference with the Mitchell and Green Signings
The signings of Mike Mitchell and Ladarius Green were different. While they certainly weren’t Albert Haynesworth break-the bank blowup the salary cap type contracts, they also weren’t the type of bargain hunting/best-bang for the buck type free agent the Steeler are known for.
- And both Mike Mitchell and Ladarius Green were disappointments.
In his six games with the Steelers Ladarius Green delivered the “field flipping” capability that Mike Tomlin brought him to Pittsburgh to provide. But the Steelers signed him to a 4 year contract, so they were expecting another 58 games or so. Ladarius Green remains out of football either because his ankle never healed correctly, because of concussions or because of both.
- Mike Mitchell is a little different.
Mike Mitchell earned the wrath of Steelers Nation during 2014, even though he was playing with an groin injury throughout the season. He also failed to jell with Troy Polamalu, which is why the Steelers defense closed 2014 on a high note with Will Allen starting alongside Mitchell.
In 2015 Mike Mitchell made a number of plays, including a few drive killing interceptions in the Red Zone. Mitchell didn’t make as many “Splash” plays in 2016, but his tackle and pass defensed numbers were on par with 2017.
- Consensus by analysts both inside and outside Pittsburgh concludes that 2017 was a disaster for Mike Mitchell. He defensed a total of two passes, and his tackle count was down by more than a third.
Mitchell might unfairly get scapegoated by fans for more things than are actually his fault, but clearly he hasn’t delivered as the Steelers expected, or needed.
What Do the Mitchell and Green Disappointments Tell Us?
A few weeks ago on Simon Chester, the best writer on staff at The Steelers Wire, opined that “Steelers history with free agency far from inspiring.” It certainly feels that way now, given how badly the Ladarius Green experiment failed and how uneven Mike Mitchell’s tenure in Pittsburgh was.
Yet Chester’s analysis literally began with Greg Clark, one of the first free agents the Steelers signed and one who never saw the final roster and wasn’t overly colored by recent events.
- Nonetheless, to declare the Steelers history with free agency as uninspiring is an over reaction.
The Steelers have acquired the services of future Hall of Famer Kevin Greene and perennial Pro Bowlers James Farrior, Jeff Hartings and Ryan Clark through free agency. They’ve also found quality starters like fullback John Williams, defensive end Ray Seals and offensive lineman like Will Wolford and Tom Newberry. And they’ve excelled at finding backups who deliver like starters when called upon, with Arthur Moats and Mewelde Moore providing recent examples.
- But there’s a common thread to all of these free agent moves.
Almost none of them were considered “splash free agency signings.” The Steelers only signed Kevin Greene after the Chargers offered an inane one year restricted free agent tender to Jerrol Williams. The Steelers only signed James Farrior after getting wind that Earl Holmes was shopping Pittsburgh’s offer to the Browns.
In the spring of 1994, Steelers Nation was clamoring for Pittsburgh to poach Daryl Johnson and Alvin Harper from the Cowboys — John L. Williams and Ray Seals were consultation prizes. When the Steelers drafted Anthony Smith in the 2nd round of the 2006 NFL Draft, they planned for him and not Ryan Clark, the free agent they’d signed earlier, to be the long term starter at safety.
- Its not that the Steelers can’t hit home runs in free agency — the can and they have — but it almost seems like they’re more likely to hit them without trying.
Maybe its just coincidence, but its hard not to think of this and remember the lesson that Art Rooney Sr. tried to teach his kids when he admonished them to drive a Buick instead of a Cadillac “Never put on the dog.”
Perhaps its a lesson his grandson would do well to remember as the Steelers approach free agency this spring.