Back to the future for Steelers quartet
Under the glare of an unrelenting sun, James Farrior and Larry Foote ran sprints together following a recent Steelers practice.
"Shake and Bake," as they are known to some of their teammates, looked every bit in sync with one another as they had while playing side by side on a pair of Super Bowl-winning teams.
The sight of the two adding more perspiration to their sweat-soaked T-shirts isn't the only reason Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor has already labeled 2010 the "throwback season."
Foote is one of four former Steelers - wide receiver Antwaan Randle El, cornerback Bryant McFadden and quarterback Byron Leftwich are the others -- that the team either signed or traded for during the offseason.
The Steelers rarely pursue players that had gone elsewhere for another tour of duty in Pittsburgh. Had Vegas set odds that the Steelers would bring back four of them within a two-month span, they would have been astronomical.
"It's definitely not like Pittsburgh to be doing stuff like that, so I was definitely surprised and pleased," Farrior said. "It really made my day having Foote and Randle El and B-Mac (return). Those guys helped us out tremendously when they were here."
All three are expected to play prominent roles this season. And Leftwich, who played the least among the four when they were first with the Steelers, may be counted on the most at the start of the regular season.
Leftwich has emerged as the frontrunner to start at least the first four games of the 2010 season while Ben Roethlisberger serves a suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy.
The Steelers traded for Leftwich, who backed up Roethlisberger in 2008, when they became convinced Big Ben would receive a lengthy suspension from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
Leftwich, Dennis Dixon and Charlie Batch have engaged in a supposed three-man competition to lead the Steelers' offense while Roethlisberger is out. Leftwich has gotten the majority of the work with the first-team offense.
"I've got confidence in myself and I believe they have confidence in me," Leftwich said of his teammates. "I'm not new to these guys, I've been around these guys, I think they see the work I put in."
Leftwich signed with Tampa Bay last year because the Buccaneers offered him something the Steelers couldn't: a chance to start.
He opened the 2009 season as the Buccaneers' quarterback, but when Tampa Bay lost its first three games Leftwich gave way to younger players at the position.
With the Buccaneers committed to 2009 first-round pick Josh Freeman, Leftwich became expendable enough that the Steelers only had to give up a seventh-round pick in this year's draft to bring him back to Pittsburgh.
The Steelers had to pay a steeper price to get Foote back in a black and gold uniform. The biggest surprise about his return is that Foote actually pursued it.
Foote had played primarily on running downs here in 2008. His desire for a bigger role prompted the Detroit native to force the Steelers to release him with a year left on his contract.
Foote signed a one-year deal with the Lions with the idea that he would help turn around his hometown team.
He started at inside linebacker and racked up 99 tackles in 2009. But the Lions won just two games, making Foote homesick for the city he had also grown to love.
He could have signed with a team that could offer him both a chance to start and win -- Arizona, a.k.a. Pittsburgh West, showed serious interest -- but Foote said it was a no-brainer to return to the Steelers when they offered a three-year, $9.3 million contract.
"Last year when I left, I wanted to be the man, wanted more playing time," Foote said. "At this point in my career, it's not about that, it's about winning and enjoying yourself. I know I can still play at a high level. My film showed that. That's why they wanted me back."
Foote is one of the most popular players in the Steelers' locker room, and after a minicamp practice at the end of April, team president Art Rooney II approached him with a broad smile and extended right hand.
The Steelers were just as welcoming with Randle El, who returned to the team at the beginning of March after spending the previous four seasons with the Redskins.
Randle El, who left for a big payday after helping the Steelers win a Super Bowl in 2005, will play a similar role to the one he had in first stint with the team. But Randle El, 30, is also relishing a new role with the Steelers.
"I'm the true vet, I'm doing what Hines (Ward) was doing to me when I came in and Terance Mathis as far as giving me knowledge and understanding about the coverages," Randle El said, "because some young guys, they get it over time but you want them to get it as early as possible."
Rounding out the returners
The Steelers traded for McFadden in late April with the idea that he could mentor their young cornerbacks and also stabilize the position.
McFadden didn't have an interception in 2009, his only season with the Cardinals, and he was part of a secondary that was torched in two playoff games.
McFadden, 28, said he played with multiple injuries at the end of the 2009 season. He is confident he can still compete at a high level.
The Steelers obviously feel the same way.
While they were passing on cornerbacks during the early rounds of the NFL draft, they were also talking to the Cardinals about McFadden.
He first learned of the trade talks on the second day of the draft when Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt called.
The next day the Steelers shipped a fifth-round draft pick -- it was the selection they had received for trading wide receiver Santonio Holmes to the Jets -- to the Cardinals for McFadden.
"When I found out everything was finalized, I had a sense of relief," said McFadden, who has been working primarily with the first-team defense during offseason practices. "I'd rather be here than any other place."
As soon as the trade became official, McFadden's old/new teammates started calling his cell phone. Among the messages was this one by Foote: "What if I would have signed with Arizona and you came back here?"
Fortunately, neither has to answer that question.
Back in black
The Steelers were unusually busy during the offseason and among the players they either signed or traded for are four that previously suited up in Pittsburgh. Here is a look at those players:
Larry Foote, LB
Ht/Wt.: 6-1, 239
Last time around: Started at inside linebacker from 2004-08 and averaged just over 81 tackles a season during that span.
This time: Will provide depth at inside linebacker along with Keyaron Fox.
Byron Leftwich, QB
Ht./Wt.: 6-5, 250
Last time around: Helped the Steelers beat the Redskins in 2008 when he threw for 129 yards and a touchdown while filling in for the injured Ben Roethlisberger.
This time: Will start at least the first four games of the season if he holds off Dennis Dixon and Charlie Batch for the No. 1 job while Roethlisberger is out.
Bryant McFadden, CB
Ht./Wt.: 6-0, 190
Last time around: Started eight games in 2008 and helped Steelers lead the NFL in pass defense; saved Steelers 21-18 win over the Colts in a 2005 divisional playoff game with a late pass break up.
This time: Looks like he has the edge in the competition to start opposite Ike Taylor in the Steelers' secondary.
Antwaan Randle El, WR
Ht./Wt.: 5-10, 185
Last time around: Excelled as a No. 3 receiver and return man; showed his versatility in Super Bowl XL by throwing a touchdown pass to Hines Ward.
This time: Will reprise his role as the No. 3 wideout and could be a candidate to return punts if Stefan Logan doesn't make the team.