Mike Florio was on 93.7 The Fan a week ago and was talking about the LaMarr Woodley contract situation. Florio had a quote that intrigued me when he said, “Is it the system or is it the player? Sometimes they decide it’s the player and they pay the player. Sometimes they decide it’s the system and they let the player walk away.” I went back and compiled the stats of Steelers left outside linebackers going back to 1994 and the numbers have been fairly consistent for the most part over the years. For years that players did not start all 16 games, I added the stats of the players that started in their place and combined the total stats for those years as you will see in the table of stats below.
Looking back at the Jason Gildon years from 1996-2002, you can see what a force he was and he only missed starting 3 games in that time span. All 3 missed starts came in the 1996 season. From 1998-2002, Gildon tallied 53 sacks and an eye-popping 72 in games he started during his Steelers career. Clark Haggans followed after Gildon was released and while his tackles were fairly consistent his sack totals paled as he totaled only 25 in four seasons. He also missed 7 games in that time frame and was spelled by James Harrison. Harrison only recorded 1 sack in those starts and really was never a fit on the left side that he is on the right, so score one for the system and player combined here.
Now onto LaMarr Woodley. Woodley has been a full time starter for just 2 seasons and has already totaled 25 sacks as a starter in that time. While two seasons do not make a career, he has established himself as a premier pass rusher from the outside left linebacker spot. If not for CBA uncertainty, the Steelers might have already locked him up for 4 more years based on those numbers, but on the flip side they might be waiting to see LaMarr put up a third straight type season before making him the highest paid man on defense and the second highest paid on the team. Can you blame them?
The Steelers on the flip side might think that it is the system as looking all the way back to 1994, one must admit that the left outside linebacker spot has produced. The Steelers drafted Thaddeus Gibson in the fourth round of the 2010 NFL Draft as possible insurance. Gibson was not drafted to threaten Woodley, he was drafted because the Steelers have no depth behind Woodley right now. If Woodley stays healthy in 2010, he very easily can put up another 12 sacks and 60 plus total tackles and that would more than solidify him as worthy of the big, big money. Unless Gibson switches sides or moves inside, we may never know what his potential is or isn\’t at the position, but you always need depth.
So back to the question on if it is the system or the player, I think it is both. The Steelers do a great job of drafting these tweener, stand up college defensive ends that can play the run as well as pass rush. These types of players excel in the 3-4 defensive schemes and the Steelers have a long, long history of these types of players. In no way am I advocating the Steelers not find a way to get a long term deal done with Woodley, but you have to like their track record over the last 15 years at the position. While Haggans was statistically the worst of the bunch, he certainly was no slouch. He also has a Super Bowl ring in his possession, while Gildon and Kevin Greene do not.
Hopefully we do not need to find out if Gibson is or isn\’t anything more than a serviceable backup, but if we do, you better hope it is the player, because as of right now, Woodley is the player putting up numbers that will be hard to be beat, regardless of the system.