Whetstone: The key to champs was 2002

A look back at the critical off-season that built the world champion Steelers, and how 2006 is shaping up as 2002 re-dux.

The off-season began unremarkably, with backup linebacker/special teams captain John Fiala signed to a modest extension in mid-February. It was followed, though, by a five-month blitzkrieg of activity that saw the signing or extension of, in total, fifteen players, many of whom would form the nucleus of the perennially-contending and eventual world champion Pittsburgh Steelers for years to come.

After Fiala, the organization worked toward what at the time was perceived as among the more important off-season maneuvers in signing franchise-tagged linebacker Jason Gildon to a long-term deal. Early March saw the extension of starting tight end Mark Bruener, followed by the retention of backup tackle Oliver Ross when the Steelers decided to match the offer sheet to which the Cleveland Browns had signed the restricted free agent. The organization had by this point already made several moves, but, maybe surprisingly, none of the contracts that had drawn their earliest attention would have nearly the long-term impact as what was yet to come.

In late February, backup cornerback Deshea Townsend signed a reasonable four-year extension, leading into March, when the Steelers brought in that year's most significant free agent from outside the organization; James Farrior replaced productive-but-unspectacular starting linebacker Earl Holmes, who was allowed to leave for better money in Cleveland. Things then stayed quiet until after the draft, when the team extended long snapper Mike Schneck and, far more importantly, signed restricted free agent linebacker Joey Porter to a long-term deal.

June saw a tremendous flurry of activity, though little of it had to do with the annual rite of veteran cuts made throughout the league early in the month. In that vein, kicker Kris Brown was replaced with veteran Todd Peterson, and longtime Atlanta receiver Terrance Mathis signed a one-year veteran minimum deal that would provide him with an opportunity to pursue a championship, and the Steelers with a productive mentor for their young receiving corps. Around the same time, in rapid succession, guard Alan Faneca, backup quarterback Tommy Maddox, defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen, and running back Amos Zereoue all signed long-term extensions. On the eve of training camp, the final piece of the off-season puzzle fell into place when young defensive end Aaron Smith signed a lucrative extension.

By the time training camp opened in 2002, the Steelers had dropped $36.525 million in signing bonuses alone on free agency additions and contract extensions, a number that, in a year of a $71.1 million salary cap, probably made even Dan Snyder proud. Unlike Snyder's annual free agency bonanzas in Washington, though, the money was not spent sniping wildly at other teams' flavors-of-the-week. Of that $36.525 million, only $2.55 million was spent acquiring players from outside the organization; the rest of that considerable sum went toward locking up key components who already were wearing the black and gold.

These weren't mercenaries who had to suddenly learn to co-exist and play cohesively on the field with strangers; they had already formed personal and playing relationships in the locker room. This was a group of players who would continue to grow together, and learn to win together, and eventually win a championship as much for their teammates as for themselves.

History would show the Steelers' 2002 signings to be overwhelmingly positive moves. Not every single deal panned out; Gildon, Bruener, and Zereoue did not last long under their new high-profile deals. Twelve of the fifteen, though, would start for Pittsburgh at some point over the next four seasons, even though four of the twelve were not starters at the time of the signings. Five would make the Pro Bowl over that span. More importantly, six would start in Super Bowl XL—the game that would make them all world champions—four seasons later.

The Draft Helps, Too

No NFL off-season can be ultimately successful without a solid draft. Pittsburgh made eight selections in the 2002 draft: guard Kendall Simmons, quarterback-turned-receiver Antwaan Randle El, safety Chris Hope, linebacker Larry Foote, running back Verron Haynes, receiver Lee Mays, defensive end Brett Keisel, and defensive back Lavar Glover. Seven of those eight would prove solid enough to stick on a roster that had gone 13-3 the previous year.

Simmons, Randle El, Hope, and Foote all would eventually start for Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XL. With Keisel in line to take over von Oelhoffen's vacated starting spot on the defensive line, that draft will have yielded five starting players. Two others, late-rounders Haynes and Mays, would make significant contributions on special teams and in situational roles.

Ironically, the Steelers might have been least successful in the 2002 draft with their first selection. Simmons, who has battled with diabetes early in his career, has been a mostly capable starter in his tenure with the team, but doesn't meet the standard of Pittsburgh's other recent first-round selections like Casey Hampton, Troy Polamalu, Ben Roethlisberger, and Heath Miller. The top-to-bottom success of that draft, though, cannot be questioned when seven of the eight drafted names showed on the roster sheet for the Super Bowl four years later.

In total, ten of the 2005 Steelers' starting twenty-two players—a full 45%—were signed, retained, or drafted by the organization in the 2002 off-season. Other important pieces of the championship team would certainly be added later, like defensive dynamo Polamalu and the last missing ingredient, franchise quarterback Roethlisberger. Largely because of 2002, though, those players became the final pieces to the puzzle, not merely the beginnings of their own budding nucleus.

Then and Now

Not every off-season can be a 2002. However, the organization can (and does) approach each off-season just like it did then, as they are doing again this year. They concentrate on retaining their own players, even beginning once again with an unspectacular retention of a backup linebacker/special teams captain; this time, Clint Kriewaldt. They've retained the players that they've targeted as most important, like Keisel and Townsend. They've allowed their own players who have outgrown the organization's pay structure to leave for greener pastures, and will seek to replace them with value-priced targets. I don't know if new safety Ryan Clark will be the next Farrior, but his similarly frugal $1.65 million signing bonus ensures that he at least won't be the next big free agent bust.

If history holds true, the Steelers should be due for another solid draft. Who know ... maybe they'll even lock down an important young restricted free agent defender—say, Ike Taylor—to a long-term extension somewhere in the NFL doldrums of May, just as they did with Porter four years ago.

Retain your own. Draft well. Target the bargains. Don't overspend.

After the 2002, Steelers Director of Football Operations Kevin Colbert noted that it felt good to "[secure] a good bit of this team for more than one season and more than one run." Four seasons and 48½ wins later—including a Super Bowl victory—he hasn't been anything but right about that. One important difference presents itself between this season and 2002, though: this time the Steelers aren't looking to build a champion… they're looking to maintain one.

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