Aging Steelers team could be at end of line
Thirty years ago this week, the Steelers realized nothing lasts forever.
Their 38-10 playoff loss to the Los Angeles Raiders marked the end of the Steelers careers of Hall of Famers Franco Harris, Mel Blount and Terry Bradshaw. Bradshaw blew out his elbow playing in his only game of the season a few weeks earlier and would retire, as would Blount. Harris played a few more games with Seattle the following season before retiring.
The Steelers reached the playoffs the next season, but their dynasty of the 1970s was long over. They reached the postseason only once more in the next seven seasons before Chuck Noll gave way to Bill Cowher in 1992.
Now, the evolution of the Steelers' second Super Bowl era is ongoing as they finish the regular season Sunday against the Cleveland Browns (4-11) at Heinz Field.
Unlike last season's finale against the Browns, the Steelers (7-8) have the slimmest of chances to sneak into the playoffs with a win, but they also need losses by the Miami Dolphins, Baltimore Ravens and San Diego Chargers. It's a quadfecta with the longest of odds.
Even if it falls into place and the Steelers make the playoffs with a .500 record for the first time, it's not likely to alter the reconstruction of a team that won two Super Bowls in four seasons — and went to three in six seasons — but owns a 9-13 record since the middle of last season.
The Steelers from those Super Bowl teams are getting old — the average age of the defense is an NFL-high 29 years old — getting slower and nearly are done in their current configuration.
One-third of the players on their 53-man roster are unrestricted free agents after this season, including starters Ryan Clark, Brett Keisel, Ziggy Hood, Emmanuel Sanders and Jason Worilds.
“You're going to go in and out of cycles,” said former Ravens coach Brian Billick, a Fox and NFL Network analyst. “An organization will do that, particularly one that is so committed to the draft and has never been big in free agency. They're going to let certain players get away to free agency. That's their style, and they've been very good at it. But you can get into a valley with the loss of a few players because you can only replenish so quickly.”
The Steelers learned that while trying to move on without players such as James Harrison, James Farrior, Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton and Hines Ward. Now the names of Keisel, Clark, Sanders and likely others could be added.
Even Troy Polamalu, perhaps the most visible of these Steelers, doesn't know what to expect. His contract will count more than $10 million against the 2014 salary cap, and the team hasn't told him whether it will ask him to take a pay cut — one he's not inclined to accept.
“My intention is to play on Sunday, and we'll see what happens after that,” Polamalu said.
Steelers players don't seem to know how much of a makeover is coming following two consecutive nonwinning seasons with a high-salaried roster.
“They have a policy where they don't talk about (contracts) during the season, so you really don't know,” said receiver Jerricho Cotchery, another unrestricted free agent.
Part of the Steelers' conundrum is what it's been for years: the salary cap. As they won, they had to keep paying their stars more, and many of those deals have been restructured time and again.
Those reworkings have added years and millions onto many deals. Linebacker LaMarr Woodley, for instance, has more than $14 million of dead money that counts against the cap even if he is cut, about $10 million that was added in the past two seasons.
“That (dead money) kills every team,” said NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger, a former lineman. “When you pay your quarterback a lot of money like they pay Big Ben (Roethlisberger), you just have a lot less money to work with. A player like (Woodley), you almost have to bring him back because you can't let that money go against you.”
Baldinger said franchises almost must choose between having a franchise quarterback or an elite defense.
“Look around the league right now. Every team that is paying a quarterback $20 million or thereabouts, none of their defenses are top-10 defenses,” he said.
The New Orleans Saints and their fourth-ranked defense are the one exception: Quarterback Drew Brees has a $17.4 million cap hit. Quarterback Joe Flacco signed a $120 million deal with the Ravens after winning the Super Bowl last offseason, but he counts only $6.8 million against the 2013 cap. The Ravens defense is No. 9.
The Steelers have been so cap strapped during recent seasons that they have had to redo deals, such as with Ike Taylor at midseason, to stay under the cap.
One immediate problem next season is that of the 25 NFL players whose salary cap hits take the biggest jumps, three are Steelers: Taylor from $5,882,401 to $11,942,401; linebacker Lawrence Timmons from $5,816,260 to $11,816,260 and Roethlisberger from $13,595,000 to $18,895,000.
A reworked contract for Roethlisberger is expected to be one of the Steelers' offseason priorities. Otherwise, Roethlisberger will consume almost 15 percent of the team's salary cap.
“Welcome to the NFL,” Billick said. “They are classically a team that is not going to pay for past performances. They are going to pay for future performance. They've got tough decisions to make, but they've been able to keep their consistency.”
What they won't be able to do is keep nearly all their players. They have tried reloading through the draft, but that hasn't always worked. Only one player from the 2008 and '09 drafts — Hood — was with them all season.
“Their drafts are a little like the (New York) Giants', solid, a lot of singles and doubles,” Billick said. “Not the home run. They're not going to stretch. They're not going to trade around. That's been the hallmark of what they've done.”
Such a plan might not work during the offseason. The Steelers might need to be more active in free agency than they have been in years, but doing that would require jettisoning multiple big contracts.
“We've seen this transformation slowly,” Baldinger said. “Does the philosophy of Pittsburgh building through the draft, does that hold up?”
That's only one of countless questions the Steelers will face in what might be an offseason like none other of recent vintage. Maybe not like one since three Hall of Famers departed 30 years ago.
Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.
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