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NFL insider: Steelers' sales pitch becoming harder to buy

| Sunday, March 17, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

When coach Mike Tomlin met with backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, he gave him the traditional pitch the Steelers make to all free agents: You come to Pittsburgh to win, and not just once in a while.

“We are here to win championships,” said Gradkowski, the Dormont native. “You talk about other places, but here it's a reality.”

Only the reality for the Steelers on March 17, 2013 — six months away from their first game — is that more players are departing than arriving. The Steelers might be able to sell tradition and success and fan worshipfulness, but they're not able to buy players of substance — top-line, difference-making players — given their salary-cap straits.

“It's a challenge every year,” team president Art Rooney II said.

So who have they brought in? Gradkowski, who already has been with four teams since 2006 and certainly doesn't need a sell job to return home to Pittsburgh. William Gay, who was here before. Matt Spaeth (come Monday), who has been here before. (And you can add in Plaxico Burress, who was free to sign anywhere but chose to stay.) It's showing up on their depth chart, too. Regardless of the fact they lost five games by three points, the Steelers were an 8-8 team in 2012. And does anyone think the depth chart below signifies an upgrade?


WR: Mike Wallace ($60 million deal with Dolphins) out, Emmanuel Sanders in — unless he signs an offer sheet from New England. If that happens, then Burress is a starter. Wallace has 16 touchdowns of 40 yards or more since 2009. Sanders? None.

TE: Heath Miller out, at least until he's healthy following a serious knee injury, Matt Spaeth in. Miller caught 71 passes last season. Spaeth has 49 catches in a six-year career.

LT: Max Starks out, Mike Adams (10 career games) in.

RB: Rashard Mendenhall out, who knows who's in?


NT: Casey Hampton out, Steve McLendon in.

OLB: James Harrison (five Pro Bowls) out, Jason Worilds (five sacks last season) in.

CB: Keenan Lewis ($26.3 million deal with Saints) out, Cortez Allen in.

Nickel back: Allen out, William Gay in.

The Steelers' immense fan base will hear from general manager Kevin Colbert and Tomlin this week about the state of the Steelers, as both will address the media at the annual owners meetings in Scottsdale, Ariz. It should be interesting.

Wallace restructure already?

It's not just the Steelers who renegotiate contracts. Look for the Dolphins to rework Mike Wallace's $60 million, five-year deal after this season.

Wallace's salary cap hit is only $3.25 million in 2013, but it jumps to a whopping $17.25 in 2014. No team can afford that.

Tuck rule reversal?

Al Davis is gone, Jon Gruden is in the broadcast booth, and the New England Patriots are three-time Super Bowl champions (and probably should be five-time champions).

But 11 years after the fact, the NFL finally could rectify one of the greatest misdeeds of its playoff history at the owners meetings.

The tuck rule may vanish.

The rule states that if a quarterback loses the ball while bringing it forward in a passing motion or is bringing the ball back to his body, it is an incompletion rather than a fumble. The rule was barely known until Tom Brady's obvious fumble was ruled an incompletion during the famous Raiders-Patriots playoff game Jan. 19, 2002, in snowy Foxborough, Mass.

The competition committee is recommending that the tuck rule be altered so if a quarterback is bringing the ball back to his body, it's a fumble.

So what took so long?

“We have talked about this for many years, and we've always struggled with the answer, “said Rich McKay, the Falcons' president and the head of the competition committee. “I think this year we were swayed by the officials themselves. They said they're very comfortable with this change; this change fits a little more into how college football calls it. ... (The officials) understand when a passer lost control of the ball and (was) still trying to throw it versus trying to begin to tuck the ball.”

Davis, who was on the losing end of that game and the Immaculate Reception, never forgave the NFL for either game before he died Oct. 8, 2011.

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.

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