The Salary Cap And The Decline Of The Meritorious Contract
By Matthew Marczi
Yesterday, I utilized a quick study from the salary cap specialist website Over the Cap to discuss the nature of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ financial roster-building philosophy and how it was altered, understandably, following recent Super Bowl success over the past decade, which includes two championships in three appearances, with four AFC Championship appearances in total.
In the early stages of the free agency era, the Steelers were more scrupulous with their cap spending, often passing rather than allowing high-valued players to acquire their market value in Pittsburgh. There are many, many examples that come to mind, though the only one that the organization has publicly regretted was Rod Woodson.
Since then, the front office has become much more charitable with its veteran players who have helped lead this team back to the top of the profession, reaching a zenith they had not seen in a quarter of a century.
Players like Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, and Brett Keisel, Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor, have all played into their 30s, even mid-late 30s at times, largely out of a desire of keeping that championship roster together—as well as the fear of letting it go.
In the aforementioned Over the Cap quick study, which revealed that the Steelers have the highest top-five cap commitment figure in the entire league, they revealed that of the top 10 teams in that category, only one had gone to the playoffs this past season, that being the New Orleans Saints. Additionally, the only team from that list that made the playoffs last season was the Baltimore Ravens, though that was before Joe Flacco’s enormous new contract.
On the other end of the spectrum, they find that three of the bottom five teams in this category—the Indianapolis Colts, the San Francisco 49ers, and the Cincinnati Bengals—have all gone to the playoffs for the past two seasons—three in the cases of the latter two. This is somewhat misleading, given the significant amount of youth on these three rosters, made up of players yet to hit their second contracts.
More problematically, the study offers up the following generalization about the top ten teams on the list:
What is interesting to note is that none of the seven top heavy spenders was a playoff team in 2013 and none had a winning record. The Saints are the only team in the top 10 to have made the playoffs last season or had a winning record. These are teams that need changes not large investments in the same group of players and they all need to keep that in mind when giving up more future flexibility to keep a mediocre team together.
While this could certainly apply to many, if not most of the teams that top the list, I question how accurate it truly is in Pittsburgh’s case, at least in 2014. Perhaps I skew overly optimistic, but I don’t believe that arbitrary change in favor of cap savings is the right move at this point in time.
To begin with, I believe that the era of the meritorious contract is nearly over. Players like Smith and Hampton, James Farrior and Hines Ward are already gone, while still more (Brett Keisel and Ryan Clark) are on their way out the door.
Additionally, I believe that the vast majority of ‘changes’ have already occurred. Players like Cameron Heyward, Le’Veon Bell, Cortez Allen, Antonio Brown, David DeCastro, and, assuming he’s re-signed, Jason Worilds have emerged over the past couple seasons as the new core of this team, the new leaders around which the team will be shaped as the old guard fades away.
Of course, the two big elephants in the room are LaMarr Woodley and Taylor. Many would also argue Polamalu; some might even throw out Heath Miller’s name. Speaking in more realistic terms, however, Woodley and Taylor are the two primary candidates to address the ‘changes’ alluded to.
Reading between the lines, the 29-year-old outside linebacker doesn’t seem to be the future of the team, given the stated desire to re-sign Worilds and the recent first-round investment in Jarvis Jones. Even though he has continued to play at a high level when healthy, it’s hard to argue that the team has gotten its money’s worth in recent years.
Taylor, meanwhile, gave up more yards in coverage last season than any cornerback in the league, allowing more than 60 percent of passes in his coverage to be caught, with six going for touchdowns. He, too, is not the same player he once was, but he is somewhat more problematic to replace, since both Allen and William Gay are seemingly number two corners.
Regardless of what decisions are made on these players this offseason, I don’t believe it’s accurate to say that they must move on from them in order to rebuild a successful roster, and I believe the evidence lies in the tape from the second half of the season.
Many of the trials the Steelers faced this season are well-known, from losing Maurkice Pouncey in the season opener to the delayed debut of Bell, the less than 100 percent Miller at tight end, the loss of Larry Foote and the adjustment away from James Harrison and Keenan Lewis.
The Steelers may not have had a winning season, but they had a very successful second half, in which they went 6-2. While they will likely need a new starting receiver and free safety, I don’t see the momentum of that finish being derailed significantly by roster shakeups.
Therefore, I don’t think further arbitrary changes will be overly beneficial. The old guard living off the meritorious contracts are nearly extinct; the majority that remain are still performing at a high level, so parting with them in the name of change is not the solution.