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Kovacevic: Time to end the Woodley mistake

| Saturday, Dec. 21, 2013, 10:39 p.m.
Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley plays against the Dolphins on Sunday, Dec. 8, 2013, at Heinz Field.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley plays against the Dolphins on Sunday, Dec. 8, 2013, at Heinz Field.

MILWAUKEE — At whichever point makes the most fiscal sense following the coming flip of the calendar, the Steelers front office should — no, must, if it is to be taken seriously — release LaMarr Woodley.




Sure, it'll sting. It would represent, at least from this view, the most expensive mistake in franchise history at $36 million for three lousy seasons and a contract extension cut halfway through its six-year, $61.5 million term.

Actually, I'll go further and suggest it would represent the most expensive mistake in our city's sporting history, eclipsing the $10.1 million buyout the Pirates paid a noodle-armed Matt Morris to go enjoy his Florida beach house in 2008.

But even so, even with all the embarrassment that will follow, even with all the residual damage to the Steelers' cap structure, this move shouldn't be accompanied by a sliver of regret.

Not now, anyway. What's done is done.

And Woodley needs to be done here.

The money

I won't lie. I applauded when the Steelers signed Woodley to this extension on the eve of the 2011 season. I'm betting most of the fan base did, too.

And why not?

Woodley was 26, an All-Pro at the critical outside linebacker's spot in a 3-4 defense and had 39 sacks in 60 games. There were times he was unstoppable.

But we all know how it has turned out: Woodley has just 18 sacks in three seasons since, a sad rate of $500,000 per sack. He would get blocked by undersized running backs. He would make it through an entire game without a tackle. And when the Steelers take to Lambeau Field on Sunday, they'll do so for a 13th time without Woodley since the contract. The following week, in the finale against the Cleveland Browns, it'll be a 14th time as he's on injured reserve with a calf injury.

He's been a ripoff in every regard.

The damage only deepens when looking at the Steelers' salary cap situation: If they release Woodley right away, he still will cost $14.17 million against their 2014 cap. That plus Willie Colon's $4.3 million in equally dead money would represent 15 percent of the payroll. If they wait until June 1 to release Woodley, as they did with Colon last summer, Woodley's cap hit gets staggered over the next two seasons.

I'm no capologist, so I wouldn't touch the timing issue. But as for fretting over dead money as it pertains to a Woodley release, hey, isn't that kind of what the Steelers have been getting out of him for three years now?

Time to acknowledge a mistake.

The priority

Jason Worilds must be kept.

That's what matters now the most, I'd say, of any decision the Steelers must make this offseason.

That's not to make Worilds out to be the next Derrick Thomas. He has played seven strong games in three NFL seasons, all in the past two months. But he's only 25, he took off as soon as he was moved to his natural left side at outside linebacker in place of Woodley, and the Steelers can ill afford to lose the one player who consistently has pressured the quarterback in the past two years.

That might mean franchising Worilds, which would be hugely expensive at $11 million for one year, but it also might not.

I've spent a lot of time with Worilds in recent weeks and am plenty comfortable characterizing his position this way: He wants to play. Sure, he wants to get paid, but he has zero issues with staying in Pittsburgh except that he wants to know he'll play.

Given that a first-round pick was just invested in another outside linebacker, Jarvis Jones, I'll say right here what Worilds never would: Woodley has to go.

If Worilds knows Woodley will be gone, he would entertain signing a long-term extension.

If Worilds isn't assured of that, he would be a fool to stay and risk getting buried again.

As for Jones, he hasn't shown as a rookie, to put it kindly. But he also needs to play to take that step.

Time to move on.

The change

The best these Steelers can finish is 8-8 for a second consecutive year. Change is needed, especially on an old, slow defense.

A change is needed in attitude, too, which provides yet another compelling reason to be rid of Woodley.

His failure to keep himself in peak condition has infuriated the Steelers at all levels, especially the coaches, who look to veterans to lead, not lag, in that area. He has reported to camps overweight. He's visibly slower and weaker than ever. And, most maddening of all for those involved, this latest calf injury was another of the soft-tissue variety, the kind that drive coaches nuts.

Woodley got paid, got fat, got hurt. It'll happen again.

There's more: Upon joining the Steelers from Michigan, Woodley was among the most approachable, amicable players in the team's circle. But he has changed dramatically, no doubt coinciding with his dropoff. He has become abrasive and aggressive with people inside and outside the team. He has also consistently found a way to blame everyone for his dropoff except the man in the mirror. It's been ugly and uncomfortable to watch.

Any team will tolerate the most boorish of personalities so long as they perform, but this personality combined with this performance?

The Steelers will be a far healthier franchise for acknowledging a mistake and moving on.

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