Steelers Decision Not to Take Back James Harrison Shows Team in Transition

Sometimes a clean break is best.

At least that’s what the Pittsburgh Steelers are gambling when it comes to James Harrison.

Just one month ago the Steelers were negotiating James Harrison’s future with the franchise. The Steelers wanted James to take less. James not so much.

Word was the Steelers offered him a 30% reduction in salary with the chance to earn that back via incentives.

  • James Harrison and his agent Bill Praise said, “Thanks but no thanks.” 

The Steelers granted Harrison his release, and one of the greatest linebackers in franchise history went off in search of greener pastures.

  • Except for the fact that James Harrison is learning that the grass is not always greener on the other side. 

The initial wave of free agency has come and gone, and James Harrison remains unemployed.

The Baltimore Ravens figured to give him a good look but, unfortunately for James, Ozzie Newsome decided to invest his salary cap dollars in Elvis Dumervil. Peter King of Sports Illustrated has gone as far as to say that there is no colder name in free agency than James Harrison.

After Baltimore made their choice, Harrison made it known he would not be adverse to setting aside his pride and rejoining Pittsburgh.

The problem is, reports Ed Bouchette of the Post-Gazette, the Steelers are no longer interested.

Door on The South Side Only Revolves so Much

As Steel Curtain Rising has noted before, Kevin Colbert’s attitude towards departed free agents differs sharply from his predecessor Tom Donahoe. The later took a parochial view, Colbert in contrast doesn’t hesitate to puts the prodigal son parable into practice with former free agents. Just ask William Gay and Matt Spaeth.

  • Yet Colbert takes or at least wants to take a different take with veterans whom the Steelers have waived

A year ago when questions about whether recently released veterans Hines Ward, Aaron Smith or James Farrior might be called back in an emergency Colbert said this:

When we terminated those players [Ward, Smith, and Farrior], it was a termination. We felt that was it, their time as a Steeler was over. It was time for everybody to move forward and that’s where we left it. You never say never but they also know we all understand that was it.

Now that is a principle.

And sometimes circumstances force the Steelers to make policy exceptions to that principle. The most clear cut exception is the Steelers brass declaring their commitment to youth on offensive line after Willie Colon’s 2011 injury only to go out and resign Max Starks after the debacle in Houston.

  • But circumstances have already given the Steelers their chance to make an exception to principle with James Harrison and they have declined to do so.

Time will tell whether their decision was the right one, but one thing is certain…

The Steelers Are a Team in Transition

Kevin Colbert can protest all he wants, but now that Pittsburgh has had the chance to get James Harrison back at a bargain basement salary and said no, the Steelers are officially a team in transition.

No one make a more strident objection to the Steelers decision to cut James Harrison than the Post-Gazette’s Ron Cook, who went so far as to say:

And, contrary to much speculation, the Steelers are built to win now and will be for as long as Ben Roethlisberger is the quarterback. They aren’t rebuilding. They don’t need to get younger. They need Harrison.

While Cook’s overall conclusion may be questionable – that the Steelers needed to keep Harrison at all costs – his essential point is right. James Harrison is a player that helps you win Super Bowls.

Jason Worilds might be one of those players, but he’s far from proven it. The Steelers have committed themselves to finding out.

  • There is no shame to this. 

The Steelers went through a similar process with Franco Harris and Walter Abercrombie in the early ‘80’s, and Kevin Greene and Jason Gildon in the mid ‘90s.

But the simple fact is that if you opt for Jason Worilds over James Harrison, you’re a team in transition.

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Cowboys Court Steelers Safety Will Allen

When free agency opened the Pittsburgh Steelers moved quickly to resign current players Ramon Foster, Plaxico Burress, David Johnson, former players William Gay and Matt Spaeth, and outsider Bruce Gradkowski.

  • But since making those early moves the franchise has shifted into low gear.

The cap strapped Steelers strategy at this point is to see what they can get in the coming NFL Draft and sign players afterwards, and that includes resigning some of their own players who remain on the open market. (Charlie Batch is one such player.)

However, by working out reserve safety Will Allen, the Dallas Cowboys put the Steelers on notice yesterday that not everyone the Steelers assumed would be available will be there.

The Steelers already lost an “we can probably get him back because we assume that no one else wants him” type free agent when Ryan Mundy signed with the New York Giants.

Will Allen was a similar type player, having played very little during his time in Pittsburgh, save for the 2012 season when he replaced the younger Mundy – to the defense’s benefit.

As the Dallas Morning News makes clear, the Cowboys couldn’t sign Allen now if they wanted to as the team is more cap strapped than the Steelers. But they wouldn’t bring him in for a workout if they were not interested.

Now, no serious Steelers commentator is going to write “Steelers Lose Will Allen. Super Bowl Window Now Shut.” But with that said, Allen is the only veteran safety with experience in Dick LeBeau’s system backing up Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark.

Dale Lolley, the only Pittsburgh journalist to report Allen’s visit, ironically, or perhaps not so ironically, has the Steelers picking safety Kenny Vacarro from Texas in the first round of the coming 2013 NFL Draft.

Regardless of whether it comes in the first round or later, the Steelers must get younger at safety in the coming NFL draft.

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Second Guessing the Steelers Decision to Cut Willie Colon

The news that the Pittsburgh Steelers have cut Willie Colon is now as old as it has been expected. Just because it was an anticipated move does mean that the decision to cut Colon was the right one.

To be certain, the case for cutting Willie Colon was strong. After all, Colon:

Back of the envelop calculations show the Steelers paying Colon a million dollars per game played over the past three years. Clearly management is looking to cut its losses and move on.

However evidence indicates that the decision on the South Side may not have been as cut and dried as it appears.

Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette reported that two weeks prior to free agency’s start, the Steelers assured Willie Colon’s agent Joe Linta that they had no plans to cut the guard. Of course the Steelers went out and cut Colon, just had been rumored late in the season.

  • What happened? 

Steel Curtain Rising has no sources, but it’s not too hard to speculate:

Kevin Colbert had said that players like Ramon Foster would be allowed to test the market – but the Steelers signed him before free agency began. Foster’s signing make Colon expendable.

Cause for Buyer’s Remorse on Colon?

The case for cutting Colon was strong, however there were both football and business reasons for keeping him.

  • First, when healthy, Colon was the Steelers best lineman. Guard was Willie Colon’s natural position, and after he settled in there he was the ass-kicker that the Steelers have been needing on the offensive line.

Beyond that, Colon was far from the only offensive lineman to be hit by the injury bug over the past several seasons. Even if the Steelers were projecting Ramon Foster and David DeCastro as their starter guards, Willie Colon had enough position flexibility to make him an option at both guard and tackle.

  • Injuries have plagued the Steelers at offensive line since 2008 and the wisdom of carrying 6 starter capable offensive lineman into the regular season is self evident.

Another argument in favor of keeping Colon was the fact that he’d given the Steelers a home town discount, agreeing to take three million less to stay in Pittsburgh then the Chicago Bears were offering.

  • How willing will others be to offer similar home town discounts in the future?

There’s no way to know, but cutting another lineman two years into a long term deal isn’t the way nurture the spirit that leads to hometown discounts.

Should The Steelers Have Taken Their Medicine? 

The Steelers designated Willie Colon as a post-June 1st cut. This allows him to sign with another team, but the Steelers are required to carry his salary against the salary cap until June first.

  • In doing this they can split the dead money penalty between 2013 and 2014.

Perhaps this was a necessity. Perhaps the Steelers cap situation is so dire that they’ll need this money to sign their draft picks.

But given the massive restructurings Pittsburgh has been doing year in and year out, it is fair to ask if the Steelers wouldn’t have been wiser to simply take their medicine now, and absorb Colon’s dead-money hit in 2012.

At the end of the day, all of these are nothing more than academic questions – the Steelers cut Willie Colon and they are splitting the dead money hit over 2013 and 2014.

But from where Steel Curtain Rising sits, both moves appear to be mistakes.

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Watch Tower: Emmanuel Sanders (not) to the Patriots: Anatomy of a Non-Story

Just one week ago the word was not only that Emmanuel Sanders had signed an offer sheet from the New England Patriots, but Steelers management was ready to let him become the first restricted free agent since Kris Brown to leave the team.

  • When the dust settled Emmanuel Sanders was not only not headed to New England, the Patriots hadn’t even tendered him an offer….

…The Watch Tower digs deeper into one of Steelers Nation’s biggest non-stories of free agent era.

Word Breaks the Sanders Signs and Offer Sheet

The interesting thing here is that it is impossible to chalk up the non-story of Sanders non-signing to the flaws inherent to social media.

Behind the Steel Curtain’s Neal Coolong first posted the news of Sanders signing an offer sheet at 6:20 pm on Friday the 15th.

A tweet by Antonio Brown appeared to confirm the report on Behind the Steel Curtain:

Guess AB the last guy standing ! #SteelersNation
— Antonio Brown(@AntonioBrown84) March 15, 2013

The Boston media then got into the act when Mike Gambardella of Big 3 Boston Sports appeared to confirm the signing on their end:

Getting word that Emmanuel Sanders has signed an offer sheet with the #Patriots. #Steelers will have a chance to match. No $/years yet.
— Mike Gambardella (@BIG3Sports) March 15, 2013

As the story evolved, Behind the Steel Curtain informed that sources from Pittsburgh had confirmed the offer to Sander which was said to only be pending a physical. Furthermore, BTSC reported, the Steelers were ready to let Sanders walk (Full Disclosure: I also write for Behind the Steel Curtain but have neither access nor knowledge of the sources in question.)

  • Sanders, it appeared was a goner.

Mark Kabloy of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review wasn’t ready to jump the gun, however, tweeting that the Patriots had not informed the Steelers of any offer:

#Steelers WR Emmanuel Sanders very well could’ve signed RFA offer with Pats, but if he did, the Steelers haven’t been informed yet.
— Mark Kaboly (@MarkKaboly_Trib) March 15, 2013

Behind the Steel Curtain countered with a link to the NFL-NFLPA Collective Bargaining Agreement that stipulates that it is the restricted free agent’s responsibility to inform his current team of an offer.

Throughout the afternoon and evening of the 15th the Pittsburgh Post Gazette remained silent on Sanders, until Gerry Dulac posted an article in the wee hours of the 16th, where he reported:

Three days after top receiver Mike Wallace signed a $60 million contract with the Miami Dolphins, No. 3 receiver Emmanuel Sanders has signed an offer sheet with the New England Patriots that will force the Steelers to match the offer or let him go, too.

The news sent Steelers Nation into a frenzy, as fans alternatively panicked over Sanders loss or celebrated at the prospect of an additional third round pick.

Sanders Stays Put in Pittsburgh

At 6:20 pm on Saturday the 16th, 24 hours after Antonio Brown’s tweet, Dale Lolley of the Irwin Observer-Reporter weighed in, indicating that Sanders had not been offered a contract by the Patriots, and sharing his opinion that the Steelers might be wise to let him go.

  • Earlier in the day Sanders himself had in fact taken to Facebook to inform fans that he’d gotten no offer.

By the morning of Sunday the 17th, the Post Gazette had changed their tune too, citing a source no less authoritative than Kevin Colbert himself to say that Sanders had not been signed by the Patriots.

What was interesting about the Post Gazette story was they seemed to imply that the news of Sanders bolting had been a product of the national media while completely ignoring their own story that confirmed the signing:

Colbert also said the Steelers have not received any official notification that wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders has signed an offer sheet with the New England Patriots, despite national reports. [Emphasis added]

The operative words there are “despite national reports” which incidentally are used in the URL. (While ESPN is hardly the only national outlet, they never reported that the Patriots had made an offer – quite to the contrary.)

While the Watch Tower’s analysis of the Post Gazette’s coverage of the Steelers has been generally positive, the incident was reminiscent of 2008, when the Post Gazette reported that the Steelers signed Anthony McFarland when in fact, no such signing took place.

So What Exactly Is It That Happened, or Didn’t Happen?

The untold portion of this story is of course why did the news of the non-story gain such currency.

  • Where the reports simply wrong, based on bad information?
  • Had the Patriots told Sanders made a verbal offer to Sanders only to get cold feet?
  • Did Sanders fail his physical?

None of these questions are have been addressed, and it appears that Steelers Nation will never know at this point.

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Steelers “Loss” of William Gay in Free Agency Results in Compensatory Pick

William Gay is turning out to be the gift that keeps on giving for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

A year ago the Steelers lost Gay to Pittsburgh West aka the Arizona Cardinals in free agency. Less than a year later, William Gay was headed back to Pittsburgh East aka the Pittsburgh Steelers. But he was gone long enough to get a compensatory pick in the 6th Round of the 2013 NFL draft, according to Behind the Steel Curtain.

  • Adding to the irony of it all is the fact that Gay himself was a 5th round compensatory pick in Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert’s 2007 inaugural draft class. 

For those of you taking notes, Gay “loss” nets the Steelers the 38th pick of the 6th round of the draft, giving the Steelers the 206th overall pick.

The Steelers history with compensatory picks is checkered. On one end they’ve used compensatory  selections to pick players like Jahine Arnold and Tee Martin and on the other players like Antonio Brown and David Paulson have come to the Steelers via compensatory selections.

Spaeth’s Return Official 

The ranks of the Steelers 2007 Draft Class officially grew by on yesterday, as Matt Spaeth signed a two year contract to return to the Steelers.

The Steelers originally drafted Matt Spaeth in the third round of the 2007 NFL Draft, but lost to Chicago as a free agent. Spaeth’s signing had been reported late last week, but only became official yesterday.

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Confusion Shrouds Emmanuel Sanders “Offer” From the Patriots

Rumors of Emmanuel Sanders restricted free agent defection to the New England Patriots have been greatly exaggerated.

Just a few days ago Steelers Nation was a flurry with rumors that Emmanuel Sanders visit to the New England Patriots had resulted in a offer being tendered.

The news threatened to render the concept of “Young Money” to “Penniless Pensioner” overnight. In a single season the Steelers wide receiving corps would go from being led by the youthful trio of Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, and Emmanuel Sanders, to being led by Brown, Plaxico Burress, and Jerricho Cotchery.

The news of Sanders signing was broken on multiple social media outlets, with Behind the Steel Curtain confirming the report via sources. The Post-Gazette’s Gerry Dulac also confirmed the news in the wee hours of the next day.

However, on Monday morning both Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin confirmed that the Steelers had not been notified that Sanders had signed an offer sheet, and the Boston Herald reported that Sanders had mentioned on his Facebook page that he’d yet to get an offer from New England.

New England did take the step of waiving receiver Brandon Lloyd, with Behind the Steel Curtain speculating that the move was to clear space to tender Sanders.

So Sanders might be New England bound. But so far the Patriots appear to be reluctant to pull the trigger.

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Steelers Resign… Matt Spaeth?

The Pittsburgh Steelers attitude towards departing free agents during the Tom Donahoe era was “Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.” A player no less the stature of Rod Woodson left and wanted to comeback but were firmly told that the door did not swing both ways.

Kevin Colbert took a different approach welcoming back role players such as Ainsley Battles, Myron BellTom Myslinski, Willie Williams and Chad Brown during Bill Cowher‘s tenure.

  • But perhaps the word to departing free agents in the Mike Tomlin era now should be “We’ll see you again.” 

Two years ago the Steelers brought back Antwaan Randle El, Larry Foote, and Bryant McFadden. A week ago they did the same with William Gay.

  • And now apparently they’ve done it again with Matt Spaeth, according to ESPN Chicago.

The Steelers drafted Matt Spaeth in the third round of the 2007 NFL draft. During his first three years with the Steelers Spaeth was primarily a blocking tight end who caught touchdowns when the Steelers threw to him.

However, in 2010 when Heath Miller was injured Spaeth struggled to perform Miller’s role in the offense, and left for Chicago via free agency.

In Chicago he was used again as a blocking tight end, and NBC’s Pro Football Talk sighted a Pro Football Focus evaluation that named Spaeth as the top blocking tight end in football.

Why Bring Back Spaeth?

The move to bring back Spaeth will likely underwhelm the masses in Pittsburgh, and for good reason. Speath is nothing special. He doesn’t even know Todd Haley’s offense.

But if Spaeth’s run blocking has improved as much as Pro Football Focus suggests, then he almost undoubtedly offers more than Leonard Pope.

With Heath Miller still ailing the Steelers opening day depth chart at tight end could easily raid David Paulson, David Johnson, and Matt Spaeth. That will scare no defensive coordinator, but could be worse one would suppose.

Post Gazette Reports Spaeth Signing to Occur Monday

The Pittsburgh Post Gazette’s Gerry Dulac is reporting on Saturday March 16th the the Steelers will bring Spaeth to the South Side with the intention of signing him to a contact.

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Emmanuel Sanders Reportedly Gets Offer From Patriots

Restricted free agents rarely move around in the NFL. In fact, one has not switched teams in two years.

  • But that could change fast.

Pittsburgh Steelers restricted free agent Emmanuel Sanders visited with the New England Patriots today and according to several reports, he has received an offer.

As a restricted free agent the Steelers would have the right to match any offer for Emmanuel Sanders, but their salary cap situation might preclude them from doing so.

  • Or the Steelers could let Sanders walk, and get New England 3rd round pick in the upcoming NFL draft.

Losing Sanders would be a blow to the Steelers, virtually forcing them to take a wide receiver early in the draft. Sanders has shown himself to be an capable, if not quiet yet consistent receiver. He has also had injury issues.

As of 11:54 eastern time on Friday March 16th, neither the Post Gazette, nor Tribune Review, nor ESPN.com are reporting that Sanders has an offer.

However, Behind the Steel Curtain (full disclosure, I also write for BTSC) is reporting that the Sanders signing has been reported by “multiple sources” and that the offer is pending a physical, which is why it is not official.

Moreover, BTSC reports that a source inside the Steelers front office indicates that Sanders will be allowed to walk should the offer materialize.

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Steelers Lose Lewis to Saints, Mundy to Giants

Now it starts to hurt. The Pittsburgh Steelers lost Mike Wallace and Rashard Mendenhall in rapid succession on days one and two of free agency. Both moves hurt the team, but both were expected.

  • Day three brought the defections of Keenan Lewis to the New Orleans Saints and Ryan Mundy to the New York Giants. 

Keenan Lewis’ departure was some what expected, particularly after the Steelers resigned William Gay, after William Gay’s release from Pittsburgh West, aka the Arizona Cardinals.

But it Keenan Lewis defection nonetheless hurts and hurts badly. After languishing deep down the Steelers bench in 2009 and 2010, and looking almost every part the misfit, Keenan Lewis blossomed under the tutelage of Carnell Lake.

In 2011 he rose to third down back and in 2012 he became a starter and with each week he seemed to surpass himself in his ability to defend passes. Indeed, by year’s end Lewis led the league in passes defensed.

  • This is normally the kind of player the Steelers would lock up to a long term deal

But circumstances are not quite normal, Art Rooney II’s protests to the contrary.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are in salary cap purgatory and are trying to avoid salary cap hell – a situation where management would be required to essentially liquate the team to stay under the cap, and their ability to offer long term, big bonus deals is limited.

By all accounts Keenan Lewis’ contract in New Orleans was not break the bank level. But the Steelers are already projecting Cortez Allen as next year’s starter and hence the team’s next big investment at corner. On the opposite side the team has big money invested in Ike Taylor, who is aging.

In a perfect world they’d lock Lewis down with an eye towards starting him and Allen in 2014 or 2015.

Instead, the Steelers calculate that the trio of Allen, Gay and Taylor can give them more bang for their salary cap buck in 2013 while hoping for the best after that.

What Mundy’s Move Means

Ryan Mundy’s decision to sign with the New York Giants was a minor surprise, but as mentioned in our free agent focus article on Ryan Mundy, its perhaps time for the Steelers to cut their losses with Mundy, who saw himself demoted behind veteran Will Allen.

The move nonetheless robs the Steelers of the final member of their 2008 Draft Class, something which Steel Curtain Rising will be focusing on in the near future.

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Steeles Sign Gradowski, Warren – Lose Mendenhall

The Pittsburgh Steeles signed their first unrestricted free agent yesterday when they came to terms with   Bruce Gradowksi to serve as at least one of Ben Roethlisberger‘s back ups.

Gradowski is a Dormont native, and graduate of Pittsburgh’s Seton-LaSalle high school and is probably perhaps best known to Steelers Nation to leading the Oakland Raiders to and upset over the Steelers in week 4 of their five game late season swoon in 2009.

Gradowski has played for 5 NFL teams, including the Cincinnati Bengals, since being drafted in 2006 by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Gradowski’s arrival almost certainly spells the end of Byron Leftwich’s time in Pittsburgh and could possible also spell the end of Charlie Batch’s tenure with the team as well, depending on whether the Steelers find a capable young quarterback in the draft.

Mendenhall and Arians Reunite

Bruce Arians once said that Rashard Mendenhall reminded him of Edgrin James and he obviously still feels the same way as, after trying and failing to lure Larry Foote to Pittsburgh West aka Arizona, came to terms with former Steelers number one pick.

Mendenhall’s departure was not a surprise, and the Steelers made the right move by not bringing him back, despite the fact that he was the team’s most talented rusher.

And in other free agent news, Keenan Lewis is being courted by the New Orleans Saints while the Baltimore Ravens are wooing James Harrison. Ryan Mundy was reportedly set to visit the New York Giants.

Steelers Sign Long Snapper Entertain Free Agents

Steelers long snapper Greg Warren signed with the team as expected. The Steelers also offered exclusive rights free agent tenders to Baron Batch and DeMarcus Van Dyke.

The Steelers however are not finished, as reports indicate that tight end Kellen Davis and outside linebacker Victor Butler are set to visit the South Side.

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