It pains me to see Steelers defensive end Aaron Smith limp off into the sunset now as he likely will do now after being placed on injured reserve yesterday with a bad foot, but there are not many of us who did not see this coming based on his recent injury history and inability to stay healthy an entire season. I think even General Manager Kevin Colbert knew the extreme risk involved in keeping Smith along with his high 2011 cap charge this season, but he chose to do it anyways.
Colbert is great at what he does, but this decision will not go down as one of his top ten best, regardless of how the 2011 season plays out. The Steelers will not even be at the half way point of the 2011 season after playing the Cardinals today and injuries have run rampant this year on both the offensive and defensive lines.
The Steelers had all of training camp and the preseason to pull the trigger on Smith and his $6.1 million cap charge, but didn\’t. I absolutely love and respect Smith and what he has done over the span of his career in the black and gold, but he should have been forced to play for a lower 2011 number. Sure the Steelers had three $1 million cap credits at their disposal via the new CBA, but a source informed me that they used them on Casey Hampton, Hines Ward and James Farrior instead. Not that it really matters who they used them on as they were going to use them anyways.
The offensive line was ignored outside of the re-signing Willie Colon and Trai Essex and Jonathan Scott, but those moves, along with the decision to keep Smith at his current number, cost Max Starks his roster spot as well as the $5 million one belonging to Flozell Adams. I agree Colon needed to be brought back, but the other two were predicated by the lack of cap room.
Now Adams is old and certainly an injury risk too like Smith, and he surely was not going to re-sign at a lower number to back-up Colon. He made that clear a long time ago. Adams is also far removed from his best days at left tackle and I suspect he would have suffered the same fate to Dwight Freeney that Scott did back in week 3, even if he had been allowed to stay initially or re-signed after Colon went down in week 1. The Steelers still won that game however.
After week 4 the Steelers went crawling back to Starks and Colbert restructured roughly $1.75 million of the Smith contract by turning base salary into signing bonus money and adding an additional year to his contract. The move freed up some needed cap space to get Starks back in the fold and now Smith is on the books for 2012 with a $875K dead money charge if he does not play another down. In the world of salary cap monies, that is a fly on an elephants ass compared to other dilemmas the Steelers face cap wise next year. Smith is scheduled to earn an estimated $2.1 million base salary next year with cap charge of nearly $3 million, but there is no way Colbert makes that same mistake twice. At least I hope not.
Perhaps this was the parachute Colbert had packed all along as far as Smith and Starks went and should the Steelers win today against the Cardinals, they will be 5-2 despite the ugly path it took to get them there. As bad as the offensive line has looked at times this season, they are not the main reason the Steelers lost against the Ravens and the Texans. The defensive line gets a good part of the blame. The same defensive line that Smith started 4 games on. It is unfair to blame it all on Smith however, but he did look like he was wearing concrete boots and often times over matched through the first 4 weeks.
Should the Steelers win today and return home to beat the Patriots and Ravens, they will be poised to make another run at a division crown. In reality they can only lose to the Patriots and still have an outside shot if they run the table after that. Two losses would put them square in a run at a wild card spot.
Perhaps it was extreme loyalty and reward for great play from Smith from years past that led to the decision to keep Smith and pay him his big 2011 number. Lord knows if there was one man that deserved that type of loyalty it is indeed Smith. He is twice the man off the field in addition. The Steelers have made some hard cuts and personnel decisions over their storied history with bigger names than Smith, but he is the one we will focus on now, because it is fresh. Plain and simple, Colbert gambled and lost. We still have a ways to go however and it is way too early to point to this decision as anything more than what it was, a lost bet. Let\’s leave it at that until the rest of the 2011 season plays out. Be respectful to Smith and reflect on the good times and great play he gave Steeler Nation, as it was not his gamble. He was merely the poker chip.