Worst performers reaping big rewards

Ivan Pavlov once had a dog who learned that the sound of a bell meant food was coming. Psychologists call this the learning of conditional behavior.<br><br> The Steelers also have some dogs who are learning that playing poorly means much more food is coming. Sportswriters are calling it modern-day free agency.

Make a list of the Steelers' poorest performances -- without leaning on excuses -- compared to expectations for the 2003 season.

First on the list would have to be Marvel Smith. He signed a $26 million contract before the season and played in only six games because of a pinched nerve in his left shoulder. In the games he played at the new position of left tackle, Smith was average at best.

Second on the list would be linebacker Joey Porter, who, after averaging 9.5 sacks per the second, third and fourth years of his pro career, dropped off to 5 sacks last season, the second on a $22.5 million contract.

Porter, of course, was shot in the butt before the season started and missed two games. It's a legitimate excuse, yet Porter disappointed with only 4 passes defensed and 1 forced fumble to go along with his 5 sacks.

Next on the list is defensive captain Jason Gildon, who, while making $2.8 million, recorded only 6 sacks, 1 interception, 6 passes defensed and 1 forced fumble. He was healthy all season and had 3 sacks handed to him by the misbegotten Arizona Cardinals.

Next is cornerback Chad Scott. The 29-year-old former No. 1 pick played 12 games and had 3 interceptions with only 10 passes defensed. He hauled in $3.9 million for his efforts.

Rounding out the list are Amos Zereoue and Kendall Simmons. The former was handed the starting tailback job and gained only 433 rushing yards at 3.3 per tote. Simmons, the former No. 1 pick, learned he had developed diabetes a week before training camp and struggled all season. Yet, the second-year pro played in all 16 games, thus the disappointment of his play must be curtailed by an admiration for his toughness.

Of course, we know all of this. The above disappointments have been pointed out repeatedly during the 6-10 campaign. The problem today is the rewards that are being handed out, particularly to Nos. 1 and 2 on the list of disappointments.

Smith had his contract ripped up and the Steelers handed him a lump sum of $1.72 million. He has that money today. In his pocket. Before the first day of rookie minicamp.

Porter was also given a lump sum of cash last week. His reward was $2.215 million.

Neither of these "rewards" were due. They were the result of restructured contracts, meaning the players would've received the money in salary by the end of the year. The restructuring was done to lower the Steelers' salary-cap number.

The case can be made that these were smart financial dealings by the Steelers, but the reality of it is that these players are being given unexpected huge sums of money after disastrous seasons.

What are they learning?

As for Gildon, his fate remains up in the air. He's due $3.65 million this year and, unlike the previous examples, is at an age when players typically decline in productivity, so his decline should continue and the Steelers know it.

Scott, on the other hand, is still in his prime and will likely be paid the outrageous sum of $4.085 million by the end of the season. He hasn't learned a thing because the Steelers instead cut Dewayne Washington, the other corner, due to a similar decline.

It may be smart business, but it's not smart psychology. So it may not be fair to put all of the blame on either Smith, Porter or Scott next year if, after an injury, they begin to salivate. They won't know why, but they'll think that more food's on the way.

------- Offensive tackle Mathias Nkwenti could easily have found his way onto the list of the top disappointments of the season if he hadn't carried such low expectations going in.

Nkwenti, considered a developmental project when drafted in the fourth round of the 2001 draft, was needed for the first time in his career last season but had to opt for injured reserve because of a back injury.

Nkwenti could've just blown away and been forgotten this off-season because his contract has expired. But the Steelers saved this dog's day late last week by offering him a one-year contract tender of $628,000, or more than most of us will earn in a lifetime.

We've heard of player's coaches, but never player's front offices. Unless, of course, one and both are the same.

------- There've been at least five trade rumors this off-season involving Plaxico Burress. There's also one involving Porter and another involving Gildon. All of course are baseless, but the latest trade rumor ranks right up there.

The Steelers have, the rumor mill reports, offered a third-round pick for Carolina running back DeShaun Foster.

That's not difficult to believe since the Steelers need a running back. The difficult part is that the Panthers are allegedly considering it.

Don't bet your rights to Steven Jackson on this trade happening. Carolina was lucky to get a great year out of Stephen Davis last season, but they're not about to depend on the old war horse to finish next season. With all due respect to Pitt's Nick Goings, the third-team back, Foster is the future in Carolina. It would take much more than a third-round pick to land him.

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