JW: It's been awhile, Answer Man. Let me backtrack and ask you about the Super Bowl. Besides the trophy, what should the Pittsburgh Steelers be happy about?
Answer Man: Well, to me, that trophy in this business says it all. I think they can be proud of the path that they had to take to win it. I think they can be proud of the way that they overcame things and maintained their focus and their poise when a lot of things were happening to them, things that when they happened to other teams they cried about it and folded. The Bengals whined about the injury; the Seahawks whined about the officiating. The Steelers had injuries and bad calls go against them and they just hung together and stuck it out and were able to win. I've said this before, but I think there are as many as 10 teams every year that have, on paper, what you need to win that trophy. But anymore in this league, with the parity, it's the intangibles, the character, the ability to overcome adversity that is the difference.
I don't think if you looked at the Steelers on paper you would make a case they were the best team in the league, but they won all the games they had to win, and that's what I think you can be proud of.
JW: Are you inspired by the fact they could've played better?
AM: I'm going to be honest with you: I really am still enjoying what has happened. I understand that there's a natural tendency for fans to go on to the next thing. Can you win it again? All of that stuff. I just don't know that that does justice to the accomplishment. I mean, it's February the 17th, right?
JW: And you know what? They have two weeks to sign their players.
AM: I understand that, but I'm not ready to stop enjoying the accomplishment. Thankfully there are other people in other parts of the organization who prepare for that kind of stuff, and they are. But for the people who did the day-to-day work through the whole season, I'm still happy. I'm still looking in the rearview mirror. Cowher always talks about the 24-hour rule; well, I want a couple weeks with this at least.
JW: What about free agency? Is there a priority list?
AM: I think the priority list is getting under the cap by March 1st or 2nd, and that won't be a simple thing. There were a lot of guys who got Super Bowl bonuses. The feeling always was, when those clauses were put in the contracts: Well, that'll be a nice problem to have. If we win the trophy, we'll deal with it then. Well, guess what? You won the trophy and you've got to deal with it now. And, hey, that's fine. It's still a nice problem to have because when you walk in and out of the office, you walk past that fifth trophy sitting on the corner of the desk there.
But, really, they have to get that in order before they can think about what their priorities might be.
You know, there are a lot of things at play here. There's a possibility that if there's some sort of a serious movement in the CBA talks, and they think something might happen, they could push back the start of free agency. It's not totally out of the question. Then it's a whole new set of ground rules and everything changes. But as it is right now, you can only spread deals over four years. So that will impact the amount of money teams are going to be able and willing to shell out for these guys. Assuming there's no deal done, and free agency starts the first thing in March, the Steelers have to get their own house in order first. They've got to figure out where they are, re-do some guys – Jeff Hartings and Chukky Okobi are 1 and 1-A – and get those cap numbers down because right now that's a little bit over $10 million in centers, and you can't have that. So before they can look at who they want to sign, they have to get their own house in order.
JW: Who else has a salary that needs re-worked?
AM: There are a lot of guys with big numbers. Some of them know they can still re-do their contracts to clear cap space, like Aaron Smith, because their contracts still go into the future. You can't do it with Hartings because he's going into his last year. There's no manipulating the cap with respect to him. It's $8.1 million. I mean, he has played very well the last two years but that's just ridiculous for a center in this sport, so that has to be something that's done right away. There are guys they can re-do. It's not that hard. Duce Staley, Joey Porter and guys like that have three-plus years left on a deal. You can spread it out and lower the cap number.
JW: Is Staley an automatic to remain on the team?
AM: I don't know that anybody's an automatic, but I think you need him. Jerome's gone, and the situation with Verron Haynes is another situation that will be difficult. With his knees, he did well this season, for the first time in his career, but those knees aren't good and they're not going to get better. So what do you do with a guy like that? To me, keeping Duce is a lot less of a roll of the dice than giving Verron a long-term contract. I'm not saying that Duce makes the team or is a lock to be the starter, or any of that stuff, but I don't think that you're cutting him March 1st based on what you have on your roster.
JW: Are there any big March 1 bonuses due?
AM: Hartings has a roster bonus coming, but those Super Bowl bonuses are something. I know they always put in something big for the quarterback.
JW: Well, there's that $500,000 bonus for winning the Super Bowl.
AM: That was just for that game. The way those bonuses are built, a lot of times it's an escalation. All of the steps he had to take to get there might've been bonus-covered. What the sum is I don't know but I'd bet it's more than $500,000.
The other thing with free agency is what you have to replace someone you might lose. Let's use free safety as an example: Mike Logan's injury in the Super Bowl was a bad one. He may be done. Whether he wants to come back would be an issue. Whether he can, at his age, rehab that in time, that would have to be an issue as well. So if you don't have him, and you lose Chris Hope, what have you got?
JW: So would they go out of their salary structure to sign Hope?
AM: No. Their salary structure has always been the backbone. You just don't want to do that. When you overpay for players, that's when you get yourself in the most trouble.
JW: So you see safety as a real trouble spot?
AM: Potentially. Here's the other thing: Typically, free agency means teams throw out big money right away. With the CBA and the uncertain nature of it, I don't know how teams will react. All of the sudden the ways you were negotiating contracts have to change a little bit because of this uncapped year (2007). That's something that will have to be factored into it. So I don't know that they will have that big rush right away. But let's pretend you are going to have that big rush: If some team throws big bucks at Hope those first 24 hours, and you're still right at the cap number, you can't get into that negotiation. So what does he do? That's the danger. Someone could come in and throw lot of money before we're ready and he could leave.
JW: How big of a loss would that be?
AM: To me it's a big loss because of what you have there. You know, Chris Hope, for me, needs to make more plays on the football to get more money from me. He's not even Darren Perry when it comes to that. Darren Perry averaged like 4.5 interceptions per year over the course of his career. Chris Hope's never had four in a year. He certainly does a lot of good things and he brings a lot of good things and he knows the defense. All that stuff's in his favor, but you can't overpay a free safety who's not making plays because that's where this team was in 2003. On the other hand, who do they have to play there? I don't think you can just draft a guy and throw him in there.
JW: Tyrone Carter?
AM: Maybe he's your first half-of-the-season stopgap.
JW: How about a quick run-through of the other free agents?
AM: Well, Brett Keisel I think understands, or should, and will very soon, that he's the starter if he stays here. Maybe that has some impact with him and maybe that buys this team a little more time, but I think he's an important guy to re-sign. In a lot of ways, what he plays is tougher to find than what Chris Hope plays.
But here's another thing, and this is a cap-eater: Ike Taylor. You have to tender the restricted free-agents before free agency starts, and you'd better put a tender on Ike because a cornerback like him, who was a fourth-round pick, that's ridiculous.
JW: Do you slap him with the third tender (first and third-round picks as compensation)?
AM: You've got to go at least first round (second tender), and that's like $1.4 million at least. When you get a deal done with Ike, his cap number this year will probably be less than that tender. The fact they want to keep him is not an issue; it's just that Ike will eat some of your cap early.
There's also the Quincy Morgan-Antwaan Randle El question. If you think you can keep Morgan, and you've got Cedrick Wilson and Hines Ward, how much more are you going to spend on Randle El? Not that I don't love the guy. I think he's tremendous for this offense and he contributes in a lot of ways beyond receiver that are valuable. I just don't know how much you can afford.
JW: At least the CBA negotiations will slow everything down.
AM: And if it does, that's an advantage for the Steelers because they played so long. It gives you a little more time. These other teams have been working on their cap since Jan 2, figuring it out, talking to agents, their own guys. The Steelers had to wait to see what happened Feb. 5 because how guys played in that situation has a lot to do, in my opinion, with what you offer them.
JW: And isn't that the Steelers' dilemma with Randle El?
AM: Right. Right. Throwing, returning, clutch catches in critical situations, and I also think he's part of the mix in that locker room. He was a do-it-all quarterback in college, a team leader there. A lot of those qualities translate. You asked me earlier about what they should be proud of. I think that it's the fact that these guys came together and were all pulling in the same direction. Don't underestimate that.