Contracts ... the Steeler way

On the cusp of what promises to be an interesting off-season, Ian Whetstone looks at what the Pittsburgh Steelers have done to be so successful in personnel matters over the past several years.

With so many teams looking at cutting productive players solely for cap-management purposes, and with teams like Washington faced with the daunting fact that cutting guys strangely doesn't actually save them any money, the Steelers front office must be doing something right. A handful of teams have really figured this salary cap thing out, like New England and Philadelphia, but Pittsburgh seems to be doing it in a less cutthroat manner than either of those well-run organizations. Would either have found room for a 34-year-old running back, a sentimental favorite, whose productivity had slipped a couple of years prior? I daresay that our beloved Jerome Bettis, the focus of the rallying cry around which the Steelers' championship push took shape, would have been cut loose by either of those other squads years ago.

How have they managed to be so successful? I will preface this examination with the caveat that it's nearly impossible to find perfectly accurate cap data without some serious insider clout, which I obviously don't have. So, some of the specific numbers involve some guesswork and estimation. Unless I'm totally incompetent, though, they should all be reasonably close.

1) They start things off the right way.

The Steelers do a few things well that every good team does well. They have been successful in the draft, particularly in the first round. No team in the league has had a better first-round haul than Casey Hampton, Kendall Simmons, Troy Polamalu, Ben Roethlisberger, and Heath Miller over the last five drafts. Getting good production out of relatively cheap young players is the biggest key to consistent success, because teams simply can't afford to pay veterans at every starting position. Further, the Steelers don't tear up multiple years left on existing contracts just to turn around and give a guy a big boat-anchor extension. The only recent example in which they did this to any extent was Tommy Maddox's contract, and that was a minor token increase for a starting quarterback who was making less than his backup. Compare that to, say, the $50 million deal that Dan Snyder gave Clinton Portis (for whom he had already given up a second-round pick and Champ Bailey), including $17 million in bonus money, or the three years of affordability at quarterback that Cincinnati gave up for the privilege of signing Carson Palmer to one of the two or three richest contracts in league history.

2) They sign deals that can go the distance.

In any examination of a new contract signed by an NFL player, among the earliest notes made are how little of the reported value the player will ever actually see, and at what point will the team be forced to re-do the contract because it gets out of hand. Escalating salaries or outrageous roster bonuses backload these enormous contracts as such that they'll necessarily never last longer than two or three seasons. The Steelers, though, haven't signed players to those kinds of deals. When they expect a player to be productive throughout the length of the deal, they make sure that the numbers never get so out of hand that they'll have to cut a guy for purely fiscal reasons, so long as he maintains his level of play.

Look at some of the salaries of the bigger deals they've signed over the last five or six years. After the first year, the salaries (listed in millions, and including roster bonuses, where I could find them) only vary within a relatively narrow range:

Jeff Hartings - $.75, $2.0, $3.0, $3.7, $4.2, $4.75
Joey Porter - $.45, $2.0, $2.55, $3.5, $3.85, $4.0
Alan Faneca - $.525, $2.8, $3.75, $3.9, $4.2, $4.375
Aaron Smith - $.45, $2.25, $3.55, $3.75, $4.5, $3.5
Marvel Smith - $.5, $2.25, $3.95, $4.4, $4.2, $3.95
Casey Hampton - $.615, $3.25, $4.26, $3.8, $3.075
Hines Ward - $.665, $3.75, $3.585, $4.7, $5.8

Looking at those deals, none of the salaries in any year are twice that of any other year apart from the first year of each deal. Several of those deals see salaries that actually decrease some in later years. That means that, so long as these guys stay productive, they aren't going to have to be cut just because their own contracts balloon out of control.

We've seen the evidence of the sustainability of these contracts in how long so many of them have already lasted. Hartings looks likely to play every year of his six-year deal, and will have received around $22 million of the $24.25 million reported value when he signed. After this season, Faneca, Porter, and Aaron Smith will all have played five of the six years on their contracts. At that time, Faneca will have received around $20 million of the reported $25.5 total value of his deal, Porter will have received $17-18 million of the reported $22.5 million total value, and Smith will have received around $20 million of the reported $25 million total value.

Even Bettis, who at 29—playing a position with a career life expectancy that he'd already surpassed—signed a six-year contract that no one thought could last, played five of those six years and saw more than half of the $30 million total value, despite accepting large pay cuts in two of the juiciest years of the deal. I daresay that Steelers who are currently playing in the earlier years of their big contracts can feel a little more secure that they'll actually see the money for which they signed than the average NFL player should be. Future Steelers can sign for less money up front and be more confident that, as history teaches them, they'll make the money they've been promised so long as they stay productive.

3) Everyone gets paid.

Looking over the aforementioned contracts, does a certain similarity between them strike you? Like, as in, they're all basically the same deal: 5-6 years for $22-25 million with $5-6 million to sign. You could throw Jason Gildon's 5-year/$23 million/$6.5 million bonus, Chad Scott's 6-year/$25.5 million/$5.45 million bonus, and Dewayne Washington's 5-year/$20 million/$5.25 million bonus deals that didn't really pan out into that mix, as well. Ward and Hampton got a little more up front because they signed the most recent deals, and because they're the MVPs of the team. Every top player on the team got paid around the same amount in his big-money deal.

Why is that important? It's true that players (and especially their agents) look at the league as a whole to gauge their value, but on a day-to-day basis, they see what the other guys on their own team are making. When the Steelers show all of their top players that they value them all pretty equally, is it any wonder that the team plays unselfishly? That they all seem to get along? That we don't hear about jealousy, particularly as it relates to contracts, causing rifts in the locker room?

Indianapolis just made Reggie Wayne the third-highest paid receiver in the league. Yeah, they overpaid. They had to do so in part because they had just grossly overpaid for Marvin Harrison, and would have had a tough time explaining to Wayne that he's considerably less valuable than his teammate when he puts up similar numbers and is considerably younger. Cincinnati tore up three years of both Carson Palmer's and Marvin Lewis's contracts and handed them both a bunch more money. How will they ever be able to tell Chad Johnson that they won't tear up his three remaining years? Players react to the events around them, and the lesson learned by Pittsburgh players is that if you prove your worth, you'll get your money and stick around.

4) They don't get married to individual players.

Of course, that will change when Ben Roethlisberger comes up for extension in a couple of years. But, as it is, they don't give out contracts that force them to hang on to guys for years and years before they can reasonably cut them, or to face a bloodbath one year followed by a painful rebuilding process. On the surface, that sounds like a negative for the players … and maybe it is, at least for an individual player. On the other hand, for the players as a group, they can be secure in the knowledge that they aren't going to get cut because of an ill-advised commitment made to someone else a couple of years before. Further, they can be pretty confident that their chances to compete year after year won't be hamstrung by cap mismanagement, like the situations with which players in Tennessee and Washington must now deal.

Let's go back to Harrison's contract with Indy. I kept hearing that it wasn't such a large contract, really, and that Harrison would never see most of the reported value. That doesn't mean, though, that it was a good contract, or one that Indy would ever be able to deal with painlessly. They simply gave him too much guaranteed money. He's a great player, without question … but he's also on the back nine of his career, and now his contract will prevent them from re-signing Edgerrin James or making any real moves in free agency to bolster a still-suspect defense or general team depth.

It's true that his contract could be renegotiated, and that he could agree to take less money, but he holds all the cards in that matter. He'd have to be willing to do it out of the goodness of his heart, because Indy doesn't have much leverage. They can make virtually no credible threat to cut him, because almost $10 million in prorated bonus money would hit the books if they did so. After next season, and another $10 million in bonus money, that number could jump to almost $15 million to cut him (which could or could not matter, depending on how things work out with the CBA and the salary cap). Since when is any contract that relies upon the eventual generosity of one party a good deal? It isn't … and I don't think that you'll see the Steelers signing any players to such a deal any time soon. Compare Harrison's deal to Ward's, who won't be higher than the eighth-highest cap hit at receiver in the league until 2009 … and that's only factoring in existing contracts.

5) They're lucky.

We shouldn't overlook the luck factor. The overwhelming majority of big deals that the Steelers have signed have worked out well. Out of the eleven or so big veteran deals signed in the last six years, only Gildon's, Scott's, and Washington's didn't pan out well, and even those guys gave at least a productive year or two as starters. Very few mid-tier free agents flopped, like Jay Riemersma or, as some other than myself might argue, Duce Staley. More often, those mid-tier contracts yielded adequate (Clark Haggans, Deshea Townsend, Larry Foote) or exceptional (James Farrior, Ward's previous deal) production. None of their big-dollar players have suffered terrible, career-impacting injuries. None of their recent first-round picks have been busts (and since they were never picking that high, they weren't tying up a lot of money in those guys, anyway).

We've all heard that it's better to be lucky than to be good. As it turns out, the Steelers are both.

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