The Price of Loyalty in Pittsburgh

For generations, the Pittsburgh Steelers have been regarded as the NFL’s model franchise. Sure, they’ve won more Super Bowls than anybody else in league history, but it’s more than that. The Steelers have been the blueprint for organizational success, the drafting-and-development machine that remains competitive, year after year, in one of the league’s smallest markets. Pittsburgh has had three head coaches since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. Three! If that’s not the picture of stability, what is?

Recently, though, Pittsburgh has seen struggles. After losing to Tim Tebow’s Broncos in the 2011 playoffs, the Steelers have been underwhelming. They just finished their second consecutive 8-8 season, marking only the fourth time in the past 40 years that Pittsburgh has failed to post a winning record in consecutive seasons. Their coaching decisions have come into question, as much-maligned offensive coordinator Bruce Arians was let go and gave way to much-maligned offensive coordinator Todd Haley, only for Arians to thrive in Indianapolis and Arizona.

And, perhaps most distressingly, the Steelers have found themselves in dire salary-cap straits for several seasons now. Pittsburgh had one of the worst cap situations in football heading into the 2014 offseason, at which point it was one of just two NFL teams projected to be over the cap. The other team? The Dallas Cowboys, whose cap woes I documented last October. Just like the Steelers, the Cowboys seem to be stuck in a cycle of 8-8 seasons. And just like the Cowboys, the Steelers have a problem: They’re too loyal.

Let the Man Go Through

You know what the Pittsburgh Steelers do. They draft a guy who played well in college. He sits as a rookie and plays limited snaps before moving into the starting lineup in either his second or third season. He’s immediately very good, eventually gets great, makes a few Pro Bowls, and after about 10 to 12 seasons, he either leaves Pittsburgh and plays poorly or retires. There are generations of Steelers players, especially on defense, who have lived that out. It’s a great way to run an organization.

What’s happened over the past few years is similar to what we’ve seen in Dallas. In Texas, Jerry Jones has repeatedly fallen in love with players on his own roster and given them massive extensions, only to find that the players either weren’t very good or went south awful fast. Having spent heavily to lock up as many Pro Bowl–caliber starters as possible, Jones was then forced to rely on undrafted free agents and late-round picks on rookie deals to fill much of the second and third string. When those stars played poorly or got injured, the backups would be forced into starting roles, where they would be abysmal. Ask a Cowboys fan about Jeff Heath sometime.

When Jones moved on from those players, the prorated signing bonus remaining on Dallas’s cap in future seasons would accelerate onto the current cap, drowning the team in dead money. Eventually, the Cowboys were going to have to take a stand and move on from talented players or field a 40-man roster. That moment happened this offseason, when they had to release DeMarcus Ware, pass on Jason Hatcher, and restructure a half-dozen more contracts just to get under the cap. Of course, they still managed to find enough cap space to give kicker Dan Bailey an extension through 2020, which should show you how much the Cowboys have learned.

This isn’t about the Cowboys, but I bring up their mistakes to put what the Steelers have done in context. The Steelers aren’t quite as bad as the Cowboys because they haven’t been as aggressive about dumping contracts to try to regain cap space in each given year. The Steelers have done plenty of restructuring, especially over the past two seasons, but their list of players who were given big contracts in recent seasons without coming close to finishing them is nowhere as long:

Admittedly, those are some terrible deals. Starks gets the asterisk because he actually came back to the Steelers on a one-year deal after being released, but it wasn’t a planned restructuring; he showed up to camp greatly out of shape, was released, and came back on a much smaller salary. You’ll note that three of the players are offensive linemen, the position that has been Pittsburgh’s biggest weakness for several seasons and required a staggering amount of draft capital to fill. Since 2010, in part because the deals for Kemoeatu, Starks, and Colon didn’t work out, the Steelers have invested two first-rounders (Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro) and two second-rounders (Marcus Gilbert and Mike Adams) on offensive linemen. Through injuries and poor play, those picks haven’t yet fared very well. And because Pittsburgh had to use those picks to replace its missing offensive linemen, the team suffered the opportunity cost of being unable to draft players to fill other positions of need.

The most egregious early release belongs to Woodley, Pittsburgh’s most recent cap casualty. If you would have bet on any player following the previously mentioned 10-year plan, it’s LaMarr Woodley. The Steelers are a veritable linebacker factory, having seemingly developed outside linebackers into superstars for decades. Woodley was their most recent creation, a second-round pick who recorded double-digit sacks in each of his first three seasons as a starter. Pittsburgh gave him a six-year, $61.5 million deal before the 2011 season, at which point … Woodley simply cratered. He had nine sacks across 10 games in an abbreviated 2011 campaign and hasn’t been the same since, totaling just nine sacks over the next two seasons while missing eight games.

With Woodley limited by injury, the Steelers turned to backup Jason Worilds, who had eight sacks in 11 starts during an impressive 2013 campaign. That led to Woodley’s release (and Worilds’s transition tag this offseason), but the Steelers will pay heavily for getting it wrong. Pittsburgh couldn’t actually afford to cut Woodley this offseason and absorb the entire cap hit because the team didn’t have the space, so the Steelers had to designate him a post–June 1 cut, which pushes 60 percent of the dead money onto next year’s cap. As a result, they have $5.6 million in dead money on their cap for Woodley this year and a whopping $8.6 million in dead money for Woodley on their 2015 cap. Pittsburgh has nearly 9 percent of its 2014 cap tied up in players who are no longer on the roster, with most of that money going to Woodley and Colon, whose ghost is making $4.3 million.

In a league where finding marginal value is critical to team success, the Steelers have strangely cultivated a veteran middle class. Players like Brett Keisel, Larry Foote, Casey Hampton, and Levi Brown1 have occupied meaningful cap space in recent years without delivering distinguished levels of play. Every team has a player or two like this, but the Steelers have had more than most the past few seasons.

Most notably, the Steelers invested heavily in a pair of veteran defensive backs who have not delivered on their deals. In 2011, the Steelers gave 30-year-old Troy Polamalu and 31-year-old Ike Taylor new contracts, deals that locked each up through the 2014 campaign. Coming off of their Super Bowl loss to the Packers, Polamalu received a three-year, $29.6 million extension that left him one of the highest-paid safeties in football, while Taylor’s four-year, $28 million deal left him paid just below the level of top cornerbacks. The Steelers had fielded the league’s top defense in 2010 and surely expected Polamalu and Taylor to be the cornerstones of that defense through the better chunk of their new deals.

Since then, the defense somehow keeps getting worse while staying the same age. The table below notes how Pittsburgh’s defense has fallen off since the Super Bowl run:

While the Steelers have been riddled by injuries and gotten much younger on offense, that hasn’t been the case on defense. Health hasn’t been a problem, but age has. The Steelers have been the oldest defense in football four years running, and while that was fine when they were a dominant unit, they’ve fallen steadily and were actually below average in 2013.

Polamalu and Taylor are at the heart of that problem. Injuries were a natural fear for the Polamalu contract, given that he had played just one full season out of the previous five before signing that extension, but he’s actually been available more often than most would have expected, playing 16-game seasons in 2011 and 2013. The problem is that he hasn’t been very good. Polamalu was above average in 2011, but he missed nine games in 2012 with a calf injury and was below average when he returned. While Polamalu made the Pro Bowl during a full season in 2013, it was a scholarship pick amid a horrific crop of safeties in the AFC; Polamalu still has the preternatural football instincts, but now his brain is faster than his feet, and he’s not really a great fit in the rover position he once defined for Dick LeBeau’s defense. Too often, Polamalu is solely limited to guessing the play from a pre-snap read, which works out great when he guesses right, but he’s no longer quick enough to outrun his mistakes and recover when he shoots the wrong gap or runs in the wrong direction. He’s probably a better fit as a pure strong safety these days, but after adding Mike Mitchell in free agency this offseason, the Steelers look like they’re continuing to cast Polamalu as a free safety.

Cornerback charting stats are shots in the dark at best, but Taylor’s numbers have gotten horrible, and they’re matched by how he looks on tape. LeBeau has asked a lot of Taylor in the past in terms of covering the other team’s top wideout, but Taylor no longer has that ability. Per Football Outsiders, Taylor was targeted more than any cornerback in football besides Cary Williams last year. Opposing offenses averaged 8.9 adjusted yards per throw in Taylor’s direction last year, the third-worst figure for any cornerback in football.

When they needed to clear out cap space this offseason, the Steelers naturally looked at Polamalu, Taylor, and tight end Heath Miller, who was anonymous last year after recovering from a serious knee injury. To clean up their cap for years to come, the Steelers could have released all three of their former superstars. Instead, well, they just kicked the can forward. Polamalu signed a two-year extension to his deal that will serve to restructure the final year of his current contract while pushing the cap charge for eventually cutting Polamalu into 2015 ($4.5 million in dead money) or 2016 ($2.25 million). The deal still pays him like he’s one of football’s best safeties, with a cap hit of $6.4 million in 2014, $8.3 million in 2015, and $8 million in 2016. Miller got a two-year, $8 million extension under a similar guise; it’ll now cost Pittsburgh $3.3 million to release Miller in 2015 or $1.7 million in 2016. The Steelers could have moved on from either of those players without owing a dime after this season. The only player Pittsburgh squeezed was Taylor, who was forced to reduce his 2014 base salary from $7 million to $2.8 million to stay with the team.

And then, perhaps, the Steelers are stuck between stations with their most expensive player of all. Ben Roethlisberger is now technically seven years into his second contract, a deal that has already been restructured three times in three years and has one year left to run. Roethlisberger does not come cheap these days; with nowhere left for his money to go, the Steelers have $18.9 million of their cap dedicated to him this year, the second-largest cap hit of any quarterback in football.2

Roethlisberger clearly isn’t the second-best passer in football. He’s obviously good enough for Pittsburgh to win, but his contract is sufficiently onerous enough to prevent the team from spending money elsewhere. At 32 and with a history of both taking big hits and getting injured, it’s not clear that signing him to an extension would be a wise move, even if there isn’t an obvious Roethlisberger replacement on the roster. A team with cap space would give Roethlisberger a deal similar to that of Jay Cutler or Alex Smith, one that guarantees him more money over the first two to three years of a longer contract, but the Steelers don’t have that luxury and won’t in 2015, given that they already have $130 million committed for just 38 players. I’m not sure what the right thing is to do with Roethlisberger. After looking at what they’ve done with their veteran extensions over the past few years, I have to say I’m not sure the Steelers know what to do, either.

Filed Under: NFL, Pittsburgh Steelers, Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell