The “Steelers Way” is at once palpable and nebulous. The Pittsburgh Steelers march to their own drummer, how they do it eludes precise definition.
The “Steelers Way” extends far beyond contract negotiation and salary cap management, but COVID-19 will soon test those aspects of the team’s MO like never before.
- To illustrate how, we’ll revive an anecdote shared here before.
It was the summer of 1993. Free agency had just arrived and was transforming the league. Free agent shopping sprees where the norm in the NFL with that year’s top free agent, Reggie White, being wooed by gifts of city keys and ticker tape parades.
Free agency forced Pittsburgh to say goodbye to franchise stalwarts Hardy Nickerson, Tunch Ilkin as well as young upstarts like Jerrol Williams. Tampa Bay almost signed away starting quarterback Neil O’Donnell. And while Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe responded by bringing in players like Kevin Greene and John L. Williams, those signings failed to quiet “the sky is falling” mantra mouthed by fans and the press.
- The Steelers also made two curious moves.
First they extended Greg Lloyd’s contract, a year before he was set to become free agency. Then they did the same thing same thing for Dermontti Dawson, prompting on one fan to rip Rooney on an AOL message board:
Someone needs to sit Dan Rooney down and EXPLAIN to him that the whole point of free agency is to get better by signing OTHER TEAMS players instead of wasting time signing your OWN PLAYERS.
Had social media existed then, this post would have certainly secured hundreds of Retweets and Facebook likes. Fans in those days weren’t any more shy about castigating Dan Rooney as “cheap” than they are today about criticizing Art Rooney II for being too patient with Mike Tomlin.
Today, resigning your own players before they reach free agency standard NFL practice. The Steelers showed the way, and the rest of the NFL copied. It is easy to see why.
Since that summer, the Steelers have suffered just 3 losing seasons, been to the playoffs 17 times, won 13 AFC Central or AFC North titles, played in 8 conference championships, won 4 AFC Championships and taken Lombardi’s back to Pittsburgh following wins in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII.
Sure, the Patriots have more hardware, albeit some of it is tainted, and the Cowboys have one more Lombardi, but those are the only two franchises that can remotely touch the Steelers.
- But the COVID-19 crisis is making it impossible for the Steelers to do one of the things they do best.
Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, it was conventional wisdom that starters such as JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner wouldn’t see contract extensions, in part due to salary cap considerations. When it became clear that COVID-19 wouldn’t “go away” before the NFL season, serious talk of extensions ended for most players, but some in the press still held out hope for a new deal for Cam Heyward.
- Public comments by Art Rooney II and Kevin Colbert now even seem to rule that out.
Cam Heyward isn’t the only starter the Steelers would normally be targeting for training camp extension. Bud Dupree’s asking price might be too steep, but starters like Matt Feiler and could be starters such as Zach Banner would be obvious candidates.
And while the smart move for a player like Mike Hilton would be to wait to test the open market, Cam Sutton is exactly the sort of under the radar player the Steelers would typical target for a 2nd contract heading into his fourth year.
But next year the NFL’s salary cap could and likely will drop to $175 million dollars. Per Jim Wexell’s calculations on Steel City Insider, “the Steelers have 40 players signed for 2021 at a cost of $197 million.”
Those types of numbers point to painful cuts and difficult departures as opposed to contract extensions designed to prop Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl window open.
The Rooneys have adpated the “Steelers Way” over time. For a long time, Dan Rooney balked at renegotiating contracts. Yet, when he renegotiated Kordell Stewart’s contract in the spring of 1999 he quipped that maybe you to things in 1999 that you didn’t do in 1933.
For a long time, the Steelers resisted the practice restructuring contracts to free salary cap space. Since Art Rooney II took over the reigns from his father, contract restructures have become a Steelers staple.
COVID-19 figures to give the Art Rooney II’s adaptation skills a far stiffer test.