Teasers And Pleasers - By Viktor Figeczki
Steelers Fever Exclusive Editorial
|You may have one of these working in your office; a flirty little gal (or guy, depending on your gender and inclination) who spews out innuendo like a Pez-dispenser, only to knock back your advances when you eventually make a move.
NFL teams who pursue their luck in the crapshoot that is free agency are a lot like that. They make headlines during the offseason, before the commencement of any hands-on action; they shoot up power rankings; they satisfy the desperate hankerings of their fans with shiny promises; and one of them usually gets picked as the surprise franchise to battle it out in the Super Bowl.
But then, somehow, something goes wrong. All the happy conjecture that appears like a prophecy of Allison Dubois in May crumbles to dust in September as fans throughout NFL-land realize they've been teased; their beloved team isn't quite ready to take the next step.
This year, the effervescent presence of the infamous T.O. has made the Cowboys the hot pick of Sports Illustrated's Peter King to win the NFC. Similarly, in the eyes of many, Steve "Air" McNair will ensure that the Ravens soar to past heights in 2006, regardless of what division rivals Cincinnati or Pittsburgh have to say about it. Oh, and let's not forget Daunte Culpepper and the Dolphins, who could well topple the Patriots in the AFC East.
Is signing a single high profile player supposed to be more desirable than having solid starters return for their second or third year in the same system? I think not. A player who has only limited talent but plays to his utmost ability will have more impact than a gifted but confused athlete who hesitates carrying out an assignment or gets caught out of position.
Free agency, in many cases, is like swapping the 426 Hemi of a Plymouth 'Cuda for the 4-cylinder VTEC that resides in an Acura Integra Type-R. Both cars go like scolded cats, but the engines aren't exactly interchangeable.
There a numerous reasons why an established star might not live up to expectations in a new environment; complacency (for those who have cashed in and no longer feel the need to prove themselves); dejection (a player's drive and determination can vanish like a virgin on prom-night when his new team kicks off the season 1-3 before embarking on a hostile 2-game road-trip); lack of talent (players' stats are inflated if they play alongside someone drawing double-team attention, or perhaps they're simply a product of a system such as Dick LeBeau's zone-blitzing 3-4, which makes stars out of outside linebackers); or perhaps the player is indeed good - just not good enough to compensate for the failings of weaker cogs in the machinery.
Another problem is that teams who pursue highly paid stars often lack a solid foundation beneath their big names, as Cleveland has been kind enough to demonstrate for us. They lured New Orleans C LeCharles Bentley to the brown side, which made former starter Jeff Faine feel less than wanted. He packed his bags and joined Brees, Bush & Co. in New Orleans. Bentley has since sustained a season-ending injury, and now the starting snapper for Cleveland is some guy named Bob Hallen.
A team that sought to inject talent into its roster instead ended up contracting a debilitating disease.
Luckily for the bleeders of Black-and-Gold, Pittsburgh has traditionally given free agency a wide berth. Whilst other Super Bowl winners got picked apart like a carcass providing nourishment for a pack of hyenas, the Steelers have done everything within their power - and sanity - to re-sign their own. In fact, only one starter from the offense and one from the defense will (possibly) be missed; WR Antwaan Randle El, now a Redskin, and FS Chris Hope, now a Titan. DE Kimo von Oelhoffen, who went to the New York Jets, was always poised to relinquish his starting spot to protege Brett Keisel in 2006, which means his absence should not hamper the defense.
To counterbalance this exodus of three, the Steelers brought in FS Ryan Clark from Washington, the sole outsider projected to start in a Steelers uniform in 2006. Clark appears the right fit to fill Hope's shoes; like Hope used to partner with roving SS Troy Polamalu, so Clark partnered with Sean Taylor in 2005. And like Hope, Clark is a young, hungry up-and-comer who hasn't received an invitation to Hawaii yet.
As for Randle El's replacement? No free agents need apply. Cedric Wilson will play Robin to Hines Ward's Batman in his second year of catching Ben Roethlisberger's passes, and behind them will be rookies Willie Reid of the 3rd round and first-rounder Santonio Holmes (provided Pittsburgh's schedule doesn't clash with Holmes' myriad court-appearances).
All in all, there are no new famous faces for Pittsburgh fans to get excited about as the Steelers embark upon the defense of their title. But that, of course, is exactly the way things are supposed to work in the Steel City. Established players leave for greener pastures, but no prima donnas are brought in to plug the holes. In fact, it has become somewhat of a tradition in Pittsburgh to sign only one contributing free agent each year. In 2004, it was RB Duce Staley. 2005 saw the arrival of Cedric Wilson, and Ryan Clark is Mr. 2006.
Director of football operations Kevin Colbert has evidently taken the teachings of the good book to heart; "give and thy shall receive." Pittsburgh's practice of letting players go and promoting others from within is one the NFL has deemed detrimental to the well-being of the franchise. To combat this "disadvantage", the league has bestowed compensatory draft-picks upon the Steelers, playing right into the hands of a team whose lifeline is the draft. This year, they were given three extra picks, two in the 4th round and one in the 5th.. None of them could be traded, but they freed up regular picks to be used as bargaining chips, ensuring the Steelers got the players they were after.
For now, Pittsburgh's sound approach to building and maintaining a team appears to matter little. Patiently grooming young unknowns simply isn't as sexy as signing the likes of Terrell Owens, Daunte Culpepper and Randy Moss (remember how the Raiders were widely tipped to wreak havoc upon the AFC West last year?). Shooting up the hypothetical charts are those teams whose front offices have been busy little bees in the off-season. Fans of the Browns (until recently), Redskins, Cowboys, Cardinals, Saints, Ravens and Dolphins all harbor great expectations.
The summer months are their time.
Winners don't make noise until September.