For Steelers fans who sat through half a decade of bargain-bin free agent signings as the cost of retaining a Super Bowl-caliber roster collided with a temporary dip in the salary cap, Mike Mitchell was supposed to be the oasis at the end of the desert.
His $5 million-a-year contract was a significantly bigger chunk of the salary cap than the Steelers gave Jets free agent James Farrior, and more money overall, if he plays out the whole deal, than Ryan Clark has made in 13 seasons in the NFL.
I don't think many Steelers fans made it through the season without wondering what the team was thinking. After all, Clark was an undrafted free agent without remarkable athleticism, and he became a Pro Bowl-level player under Dick LeBeau. Why spend big money on a high-end athlete when a smarter, slower player gets the job done? Why pay a one-year starter to play a position governed by guile instead of, say, Kendrick Lewis, who started 50 of 53 games over four seasons for the Chiefs, lining up the secondary of a base 3-4 defense?
Lewis' one-year deal netted him less than 16 cents on the cap dollar compared with Mitchell's contract. A multi-year deal would've been costlier, but still nothing like what they paid Mitchell.
The big outlay for a free agent safety also dwarfed the deals given to lineman Cam Thomas and linebacker Arthur Moats, an uncharacteristic move for a defense predicated on stopping the run and rushing the passer.
Simply put, the biggest and boldest investments were put into the secondary. The returns on those investments were simply miserable, with the Steelers mounting one of the worst pass defenses in the league by any measure, despite dodging Josh Gordon twice and Julio Jones once.
Former defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau reportedly walked into Mike Tomlin's office expecting to discuss a raise and walked out looking for a new job. But given that return on investment, or lack thereof, how could he possibly think he was getting a raise? To expect a raise, he'd pretty much have to think he got the most out of his roster and exceeded expectations.
It's not too surprising that the people who signed off on the Mitchell and Allen deals disagreed with that assessment.
After all, the offseason involved Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert paying serious money to two starters and sticking with Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu for another year. The entire starting secondary got a stamp of approval in the offseason. Is it likely that the evaluators would turn around and say they whiffed on all four evaluations? Or would they think the players had talent that was untapped by the defensive scheme and coaching?
The differing perceptions aren't necessarily at odds. As I've alluded to before, the roster has moved away from what's best for LeBeau's scheme. As Tomlin put it before the season, "the emphasis in today’s NFL is about sub-package football." And a player like Mitchell, a movable, versatile piece, can offer a lot to sub-packages that Clark couldn't, despite not being the best fit in LeBeau's more fundamental looks.
Not that LeBeau is some fossil who didn't ever modify his ideas to suit his players and the changing game. Much is made of the idea that the game passed him by.
Some of that assertion is valid. His defense has long been about being disciplined and waiting for mistakes by quarterbacks.
In 2014, 28 QBs had a passer rating higher than 80. In 2004, it was 18. Above 85, it's 23 now vs. 14 then. Above 90, it's 16 now vs. 11 then. Above 95, 12 vs. seven. Above 100, it's six vs. four.
At the top end of the spectrum, passers today aren't that much more efficient than they were when LeBeau returned to Pittsburgh. But there are a lot fewer awful and bad QBs, and a lot more good ones.
Most of that is probably rule changes, like the 2007 rule Tom Brady lobbied for that allowed quarterbacks to essentially doctor footballs in any way other than manipulating the PSI. Increased enforcement on contact during coverage. The proscription of routinely laying big hits on receivers going over the middle or up the seams.
And some of it is probably quarterbacks actually being more skilled coming into the league.
But the reason why is not as important as the fact that waiting patiently for mistakes is harder now than it was then.
So of course the evolution of the game has blunted the effectiveness of his defense. The rules makers laid out guidelines that compromise the effectiveness of defenses in general.
But the bigger effect has been a roster that's more geared toward versatility rather than scheme. LeBeau has adapted with new looks. My favorite was a three-man front with James Harrison outside the left tackle, Stephon Tuitt outside the right tackle, and Cam Heyward on the nose. It produced two sacks and a pair of pressures in about 10 or 12 snaps at the end of the season.
And if LaMarr Woodley had stayed healthy and Worilds demonstrated the potential to replace Harrison at ROLB, the defense would've been able to add the sought-after versatility without shortchanging LeBeau's traditional looks.
As is, the key OLB positions have been unsettled for years, and as a result, the roster has evolved faster than the game plan.
Mitchell, to be sure, was an exciting athlete with Carolina, but was much more of a downhill playmaker. And with such a big outlay in free agency, it was hard not to expect the Steelers to incorporate more of that into his role. After all, if you're not going to expand his role, why not sign a cheaper option, such as Lewis, or even just let Will Allen and Robert Golden Duke it out to replace Clark?
The same people who pumped almost $50 million in contracts for two starting DBs must have had broader plans than that. And they wouldn't look at those players' disappointing seasons and say, "Well, we screwed the pooch on signing those guys."
Which is why I expect Allen will be back next season, despite the implications of a $3 million roster bonus before the season.
The "panic" contract given to Allen, like all panic contracts, involves paying him more than you want to now because you're afraid you might not be able to afford him later. Last year, four cornerbacks signed deals that average more than $12 million, pushing the franchise tag for corners to $12.7 million, if I have my math right.
With such a lucrative offseason for corners, if Allen's fourth season matched what Lewis did in his fourth season, the cost to retain him would've been substantially higher than Lewis' deal, and perhaps beyond the Steelers' means.
Meanwhile, in a cornerback market in which the price just spiked, there's no way the small cap savings after eating $5.4 million in accelerated bonuses would offer you necessary room you don't already have to pursue a free-agent solution at the position.
If the roughly $1.5 million you can save against the cap by cutting Allen became absolutely necessary, you could also renegotiate $2 million of his $3 million roster bonus to a prorated signing bonus to free up about the same amount of cap room. And since you're eating $5.4 million in dead money by cutting him anyway, what's the harm in eating $5.55 million next season if Allen doesn't come around?
So while there might or might not be something to be gained from keeping him, there's almost nothing to be gained from cutting him, $3 million roster bonus or no. Cutting him just doesn't make much sense.
He's at his best when he's able to put his hands on a receiver at the line of scrimmage. He thrived, particularly in 2012, as a slot corner who stayed close to the line. Back then, it was easier to see him as a corner/safety hybrid who thrived on length and strength and had the ability to come on the blitz. The role that came to mind was Charles Woodson's in Green Bay. Allen in his prime isn't the athlete Woodson was when he was entering his mid-30s, but he's got the same main ingredients.
It's hard to see a team with a returning starter who's barely 5'10" and another who's not even 5'9" putting the 6'1" guy on the inside. But even in a season in which Allen gave up plenty of plays, he still showed the ability to make them. Whether he's on the field as a starter and moves inside against three wides or comes off the bench in sub-packages, having him up on the line and close to the center of the field should maximize his playmaking and minimize his play-surrendering.
I think he can play outside, as well, but only if he's allowed to press a lot as he hones his reflexes. He's a different cornerback altogether when trying to react to a receiver than when he tries to dictate to them. In off-man, he's generally a beat slow in reacting to a receiver's break. This isn't so much of a problem if he's able to redirect the receiver within five yards.
Allen and Mitchell look like misfires a year after their big deals. But, along with 2013 draft pick Shamarko Thomas, they're fast, physical players who can attack the line of scrimmage and create havoc. LeBeau had them playing cushions and tackling the catch. Or, in Thomas' case, doing nothing at all.
Tomlin had one season as a defensive coordinator. His Minnesota Vikings defense gave up the most passing yards in the league but posted 21 interceptions, despite a bottom-of-the-barrel pass rush. That's as many picks as the 2013 and 2014 Steelers combined. Or the 2011 and 2012 Steelers combined. It's as many as the best season of LeBeau's last stint with the team. In terms of total turnovers, those 2006 Vikings ranked third in the league, again equal to LeBeau's best finish.
LeBeau's defense was geared toward team cohesiveness producing opponent mistakes. He asked his players to put trust in the system.
Tomlin seems to have put together a much more aggressive roster, and one in which he'll trust his players with assignments that trade smaller margin for error with a greater chance of forcing turnovers. It's surely no coincidence that Jarvis Jones and Ryan Shazier amassed 18 forced fumbles in 68 college games (excluding Jones' time at USC).
No one was happy with the results last year from the greenhorn linebackers. But with NFL free agents, the evaluation is supposed to be much easier. Particularly for someone like Allen, who spent three years on your squad.
Mitchell and Allen, I think, will find game plans more to their liking now that LeBeau has moved on, with more press coverage and blitzes. It might lead to big plays for opponents, as well, but after a season in which those came even against the most conservative of coverages, that's hardly a deterrent.
It's like the oft-repeated Tomlinism: "We don't live in our fears; we live in our hopes." It might be hokey, but it explains why a one-year wonder like Mitchell was the big free agent acquisition. He's a pretty good fit for a team that lives in its hopes. Watching a press corner like Allen play 12 yards off the line looks a lot like a coach living in his fears.
That might be the biggest reason why LeBeau is gone, and it'll probably be a key reason why Allen will have every chance to win a starting job.
The head coach who famously unleashed hell in 2009 surely knows his words are empty platitudes unless the players perform. My guess is that, if he employs a defense as aggressive as his Brad Wing fake punt call that everybody hated, he'll find a defensive roster full of versatile pieces who'll deliver on his hopes, with Mitchell and Allen (and Thomas) pulling more than their weight in the secondary.