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Starkey: Steelers know when to say goodbye

| Saturday, March 8, 2014, 9:40 p.m.

Brian Urlacher meant well. But in attempting to compliment the Steelers, he insulted them. Not that they are beyond insults these days. They've become thoroughly average.

Still, Urlacher's words were at best naive. He was talking about his old team, the Chicago Bears, cutting ties with Devin Hester when he dragged the Steelers into the conversation — and it wasn't to reminisce about Jerome Bettis obliterating him at the goal line.

“Look at what the Steelers have done signing Troy Polamalu and Heath Miller, some older guys, to a couple more years just so they can retire as Steelers,” Urlacher told FoxSports.com. “The Bears could do that with Devin. He should retire a Bear. It's just the loyalty factor. It's just not there.”

Nor should it be.

The Steelers are like just about every other team: They don't do sentiment. Nor should they. It's bad for business.

We don't need to go all the way back to the cutting of Franco Harris to make the point. Let's stay in this millennium.

In 2001, the Steelers cut their offensive captain (Dermontti Dawson) and defensive captain (Levon Kirkland) in the same week. Bettis had to take pay cuts to stick around. Two years ago, the team cut ties with Hines Ward, James Farrior and Aaron Smith. Ward practically begged to return. I believe he offered to play for Panera Bread gift cards. The Steelers moved on.

Just last week, the Steelers gave Larry Foote his walking papers, and they're not exactly camping on the doorsteps of longtime stalwarts Brett Keisel and Ryan Clark to keep them from testing free agency.

LaMarr Woodley and Ike Taylor could be next. Within days, the Steelers might ask both to take drastic pay cuts (Woodley could be released without the ask). It would be a prudent course of action. It might allow the Steelers to participate beyond the Matt Spaeth-level of free agency for once.

It's nice that team president Art Rooney II wants Polamalu to “retire a Steeler.” The reality is that Polamalu might already be gone if he'd suffered another injury-riddled season. The other reality is that he could be out after 2014 even though his extension runs through 2016.

The Miller and Polamalu extensions were signed in a friendly financial environment, one in which the NFL salary cap — which unexpectedly has risen by nearly $10 million to $133 million — could shoot past $160 million by 2016. Neither player has a guaranteed base salary after 2014.

Polamalu, who turns 33 in April, still can play. He forced more fumbles (five) than any safety in the league. He's still among the top players at his position, even if his position often morphs into linebacker.

Miller, 31, seems like a viable bet to build on a below-average season in which he managed to play 14 games coming off major knee surgery.

These extensions were by no means sentimental gifts to good company men. They were smart, low-risk business decisions.

If anything, the Steelers will part ways with a beloved player a bit too early rather than make the mistake of waiting too long. They did not sign Alan Faneca to a last big contract, for example, and instead let him hit free agency. The Jets cut him three years later. Joey Porter had one more great season in him after the Steelers said goodbye. James Harrison still was a viable player on his way out the door.

The Steelers learned from a drastic error 12 years ago. Jason Gildon was about to turn 30 when he was signed to a five-year, $23 million extension that included a $6.5 million signing bonus — big money in those days. He promptly fell off the proverbial cliff.

One of the only times I've seen this franchise fall prey to sentiment was with Ward in his final season. Even though a division title still was possible in the final week, getting Ward his 1,000th catch became a priority at the expense of running legitimate plays in a win at Cleveland.

The Steelers haven't done everything right, especially not lately. But being too loyal — even if it's meant as a compliment — is an unfair charge.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

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