Steelers adept at keeping their own their way

Having returned from a brief offseason sabbatical and with contract news on the horizon, Ian Whetstone casts a watchful eye outward, comparing and contrasting the front office philosophies of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles.

Last month, the Philadelphia Eagles signed third-year offensive guard Shawn Andrews to a lengthy contract extension in a manner similar to what they've done with their other young performers in recent years. The extension reveals an approach to contracts and roster building very different from that of the in-state, cross-conference Pittsburgh Steelers, although both teams have realized considerable on-field success following their own blueprints.

The Steelers' approach relies on solid drafting and internal development. Every successful franchise does, but Pittsburgh leans on those principles more heavily (and more exclusively) than other teams. Young players are given as long as possible to demonstrate their worth, and contracts are almost never extended with multiple years remaining so as to both get maximum value out of the earlier, cheaper deals, and to give the organization as much time as possible to gauge the players' talents and future prospects. There is an expectation that young players be patient and honor their existing contracts, and that in turn their patience and hard work will be rewarded in due time. It is a gradual, paced approach that minimizes the risks taken on any individual player investment.

Another aspect of Pittsburgh's model has been a flattening of the pay structure across the positions on the field. By de-emphasizing the more premium positions like defensive end and offensive tackle in favor of some less highly-regarded positions like those along the interior offensive line, and by operating an offense that generates more winning football than it does impressive statistics, they've accomplished an arrangement by which their best (non-quarterback) players all make similar money, regardless of position. The Eagles approach the roster quite differently, with a preference to pour their money and premium draft picks into the positions that they regard most highly: quarterback, defensive end, offensive tackle, wide receiver, and throughout the secondary. That's not unusual, though, in the NFL; the Steelers' flatter value scale is much more the exception.

A less common central tenet of the Eagles' approach, on the other hand, is something that the Steelers are loathe to do: early evaluation and long-term retention. Philly's front office prefers to decide as soon as possible whether a young player fits into their long-term plans, and lock him up for a very long time. This has several interesting cap consequences, and requires tremendous confidence in the team's talent evaluation process, but in recent years the organization has worked the model so well that no team has fielded such a consistently competitive roster while maintaining such present and future cap health.

Look at Andrews' new deal as an example. Drafted 16th overall in 2004, he signed a six-year, $10 million contract that paid him a $1 million signing bonus and a $4.5 million second-year option bonus, with a voidable final year. Heading into 2006, the Eagles already had him signed for three more seasons at affordable cap charges between $1 and $2 million per year—a bargain for a very productive starting interior lineman. But they decided that Andrews is in their plans beyond just the next three seasons, and committed to him to the tune of a seven-year, $32.5 million extension that pays him $10 million in first-year bonuses. The new deal, which runs through 2015(!), looks generally like this:

2006: $5,000,000 signing bonus, $5,000,000 roster bonus, $600,000 salary, $7,666,666 cap charge
2007: $675,000 salary, $2,741,666 cap charge
2008: $780,000 salary, $2,846,666 cap charge
2009: $750,000 salary, $2,816,666 cap charge
2010: $2,000,000 salary, $3,000,000 cap charge
2011: $2,500,000 salary, $2,500,000 cap charge
2012: $2,750,000 salary, $2,750,000 cap charge
2013: $3,750,000 salary, $3,750,000 cap charge
2014: $5,250,000 salary, $5,250,000 cap charge
2015: $6,250,000 salary, $6,250,000 cap charge

(Note: the above contract information is official only in terms of the base salaries. The bonus information came from newspaper reports, and is unofficial. There have also been reports of workout bonuses in various years, but the details have been unclear and the amounts are relatively insubstantial for the purposes of this article. There may additionally been "Deion" charges that impacted the proration of his rookie option bonus, but those amounts are similarly inconsequential here.)

The most obvious aspect of that contract is its significant length. By extending an existing deal with three years remaining an additional seven seasons, they've locked up Andrews for what could well be his entire professional career. In a league in which few franchise quarterbacks will ever be inked for that length of time, the Eagles make a habit of doing so for players at any number of positions. They have eleven players currently signed through at least 2010; for comparison, the Steelers have not one player signed beyond 2009 (presumably, Santonio Holmes and—I hope, I hope—Ike Taylor will become the first). Andrews' contract is not unique for that team; they took a similar approach in locking up young players like Sheldon Brown, Greg Lewis, and Lito Sheppard when they still had years left on their existing deals.

The second aspect that jumps out is the $7.7 million cap charge in 2006 that is more than double the cap charges for any of the subsequent seven years. The Eagles have parlayed their terrific cap management in recent years into huge surpluses, which they've used in part to push Andrews' cap charges into 2006, when they know they have it to spare, and keep more space available in future years. Since they didn't increase his base salaries in the existing contract years, what they've essentially done is to pay the bonus money now on an eventual 2009 extension so as to get the signing bonus proration out of the way during the lower salary years.

They've traded cheap rookie contract years for reduced veteran years. It's a trade that makes all the sense in the world so long as they have the space available now (which they do) and Andrews continues to play at a high level (as they hope). A seven-year, $32.5 million deal, at an average of about $4.6 million per season, would be a reasonable contract for a top guard in the current market. That the Eagles are functionally getting a ten-year, $35.8 million deal, at an average of $3.6 million per season, makes it that much better.

That's not to say that's it's an approach without pitfalls. The potential problems seem two-fold, starting with the demands it places on early and accurate talent evaluation. If the organization whiffs on an evaluation and hands out money needlessly early to a player who doesn't pan out, they're eating that money that could have been saved if they'd taken their time. To Philly's credit, though, they've been overwhelmingly successful when it comes to identifying players with long-term potential. And the risk is mitigated by the fact that they've put themselves in such good cap shape that mistakes can be rectified through free agency.

The other pitfall might be more difficult to manage. Although the distribution of cap charges across the lengths of these contracts is more even, the actual payout to the players is not. Through this off-season, Andrews will have been paid more than $17 million since entering the league in 2004; but he's scheduled to be paid less than $3 million in total from the start of the 2006 season through 2009. The Eagles paid him a lot of money up front for future play, but will he see it that way? How will he feel in 2011, when $2.5 million is well below the going rate for a top-end interior lineman? In the atmosphere of modern professional sports—and the NFL in particular—a contract like that could lead to unhappiness on the part of a player (or his agent) down the road.

The Eagles experienced exactly that with John Welbourn a few years ago when he became dissatisfied in 2003 with the 8-year contract that he'd signed in 2001. They shipped him off to Kansas City as a consequence, and they'd have the leverage to do the same with Andrews, if it ever came to it, because they'll have eaten the big cap hit early. Philly's front office has been successful, but it has taken a measure of that kind of ruthlessness to be so. And that's another consequential difference between the Eagles and the Steelers. For Pittsburgh, as for all NFL teams, the business side of football is an unfortunate necessity; in Philadelphia, however, that business aspect has taken over more fully. It's been a successful approach for that franchise, but not one that has come without a cost to the Eagles "family." Just ask any Philly player over the age of 30… if you can find one.

Some fans would like the Steelers to be more aggressive and proactive toward contract extensions for young star players like Ben Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu, as it seems likely that a team like the Eagles would be. But they've found just as much success operating under their own structured approach as the Eagles have using theirs; given the outcome of last season, it's no stretch to say that they've been the more successful of the Pennsylvania teams. And further, unlike what's done in Philly, it's an approach that allows for some measure of sentimentality with older players. It seems unlikely that a player like Jerome Bettis would have been able to stick around to collect a long-deserved Super Bowl ring had he played his career in Philadelphia, and I don't think that very many fans of the Steelers would trade the sight of the Bus finally hoisting the Lombardi Trophy for anything.


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