It is no secret that the Pittsburgh Steelers had serious salary cap issues heading into the 2012 season and it was easy to see the pending salary cap hell that was coming. I wrote about the forthcoming hell last September as the numbers told the story pretty easily.
Lately several have been questioning the abilities of Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert and chief contract negotiator and capologist Omar Khan and wondering how they could let things get to where they are right now.
Most of the issues that the Steelers have right now date back to the 2010 uncapped season. Both Colbert and team president Art Rooney II have said in recent interviews that the team took some liberties in the 2010 upcapped season in an effort to keep together a veteran team so that they could make a run at a few more championships in 2010 and 2011.
Colbert said just last week in an interview on 105.9 The X when asked if the current hell that they are in salary cap wise was intentional and Colbert replied, “I don\’t know if it was intentional, but it certainly wasn\’t unknown. We knew in the uncapped year we probably took some liberties, that in a capped season we probably wouldn\’t have been able to do, and that of course was the year we ended up getting to the Super Bowl. We knew that by doing that we probably were going to face this situation. Not last year. We knew last years group, that was probably the last run for that group of players. Now we\’re going to have to make changes to get in compliance this year, but it was something we anticipated, we were willing to do because we think that obviously that the goal is to win a championship. We came up short, but we don\’t think we\’ve crippled ourselves as we move into this 2012 season.”
In light of the comments that Colbert, I thought I would look back at a few of the so called liberties that the Steelers took. First off they signed nose tackle Casey Hampton to a new three-year contract worth $21.3 million that included a $6.5 million signing bonus. Hampton was getting very close to becoming an unrestricted free agent and looked destined to be hit with the franchise tag, which was $7 million for defensive tackles in 2010. His 2010 cap hit ended up being about $6.167 million with the new contract, so basically the liberty was to lock him up a few more seasons in the upcapped year. Of course now his 2012 cap hit is scheduled to be nearly $8.057 million and his name has been talked about quite a bit as possible player that might need to take a huge pay-cut or be cut himself. It does not help that he also is looking like he will start the 2012 season on the PUP list following the ACL surgery on his left knee that he injured in the AFC Wild Card game against the Denver Broncos.
Next up on the liberty list was safety Ryan Clark, who was an unrestricted free agent at that time. Clark had even made a visit to the Miami Dolphins before the Steelers signed him back to a four-year contract worth $14 million that included a $3 million signing bonus. Clark is scheduled to count $4.25 million against the cap in 2012 and there is no reason to think he will be a salary cap casualty.
Third up on the liberty list we have linebacker Larry Foote. Foote had been released by the Steelers after the 2008 season and he promptly signed a one-year contract with the Detroit Lions in 2009. The Steelers brought him back in 2010 on a three-year, $9.3 million contract that included a $1.8 million signing bonus. He is now scheduled to count $3.6 million against the Steelers cap in 2012 and his name has been speculated around as one that could be an upcoming cap casualty.
After Foote we have wide receivers Antwaan Randle El and Arnaz Battle, who were both also signed at the start of the 2010 free agency period. El signed a three-year, $7 million contract that included a $900 thousand signing bonus and Battle signed a three-year, $3.9 million deal that included a $975 thousand signing bonus. El played just one of those three years but is still on the books in 2012 as a $300 thousand dead money hit to the cap. Battle was released earlier this offseason after playing two of those three contracted seasons and the Steelers are left with a $325 thousand dead money cap hit on him in 2012 as well.
Bringing up the rear on our list of liberties is safety Will Allen and cornerback Bryant McFadden. Allen signed with the Steelers as an unrestricted free agent before the 2010 season. It was a three-year contract that was worth $4.495 million and it included a $975 thousand signing bonus. He is scheduled to count $1.605 million against the 2012 cap and if his contract is terminated it will create a $325 thousand dead money cap hit. McFadden, who was released a short time ago with Battle, was acquired back by the Steelers from the Arizona Cardinals during the 2010 draft and promptly signed to a new three-year, $7.5 million contract that included a meager $500 thousand signing bonus. Now that he has been released he is on the 2012 books as a dead money hit of nearly $167 thousand.
Adding up all of those liberties above it totals out to be almost $18.5 million where we currently sit with the roster right now. When you throw in the looming free agent decision with wide receiver Mike Wallace, and the possible franchise tag of $9.4 million, you can see how the pieces of this salary cap puzzle come together. The Steelers managed to get around the 2011 problems pretty easily with a few contract terminations and several restructures, and in the process locked up Ike Taylor, LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons, Troy Polamalu and Willie Colon. The contracts of the first three have already been restructured this offseason and there figure to be a few more restructures on the way.
As Colbert said, the liberties they took were done because they felt that it would give them the best chance to win Super Bowls in 2010 and 2011. Unfortunately they didn\’t and now it is time to pay for a few of those that they took. It is not a reflection on both he and Khan not doing their jobs well, as they clearly had the permission to take those liberties. None of the contracts that those players I listed above were outrageous either. It would have been interesting though if they would have franchised Hampton instead of giving him a new deal, but they had nobody really groomed at the time to take over at nose tackle last season, had that been the case and they not been able to resign Hampton back after the 2010 season.
The salary cap is designed to help keep the league competitive and to prevent owners from just buying championships year in and year out. The Steelers managed to stretch it to its limits over the years by drafting smart and retaining their own players. They are never big players in free agency and it has been a winning model for years. 2012 will see changes as the shift to a much younger team begins. Luckily there seems to be enough talent on this roster though that the team should still be competitive. You can\’t blame them for trying to win. I know I don\’t.