Q: Let's start with a blank check: What do you think of the Pittsburgh Steelers' off-season?
A: Typical. You know, the reality of this whole thing is that the specter of the impending CBA negotiations is the 800-pound gorilla in the room. It cannot be ignored. What's going to happen, I think, just to get off track a little bit here, is that the players are in for – a rude awakening might be strong – but the perception, I believe, among a lot of these guys, fueled by some of the agents, is that the uncapped year will bring them manna from heaven. But I really believe that some of these teams will see this as an opportunity. Yes, there will be no ceiling, but there won't be a floor. I can go through a list of teams that I believe will use this as an opportunity to get well financially: Buffalo, Cincinnati, Jacksonsville, maybe the Bears, the Vikings, the Saints, the Buccaneers, maybe the Rams, the Cardinals. Say the cap now is $120 (million) and the floor is $90 (million), well they could next year pay $60 (million) and make $30 million in one year. Then it's, ‘You want to have a lockout? Fine. I've got $30 million in the bank. You guys want to start missing game checks? Have at it.' There are guys like Heath Miller who are screwed, because he is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent next year, but it won't be his sixth year. It'll only be his fifth year, and without an agreement the rule changes. I'm not saying he's a guy the Steelers will screw, but I'm just saying guys in his draft class or later, who think there's this bonanza for them, they're going to be restricted free agents for a couple of years. Willie Colon; where's he going? Willie Colon's a restricted free agent this year, next year, and the year after that. I take no glee in that. That's not what I'm saying. I'm just pointing out that this is what is coming. So when you ask me about the off-season, I think it was a typical Steelers off-season. I think the Steelers are going to operate pretty much as they have, which is this isn't a throw-big-money-around kind of team in terms of huge signing bonuses and that kind of thing. They pay top rate under parameters that they believe in, and I really don't think that's going to change. So when you look at what this team faced this off-season, the No. 1 priority is (James) Harrison, and until that gets done there really isn't going to be anything else done, and the reason it isn't done is because of the rules that are being imposed on these contracts because of the CBA. You can only increase base salaries 30 percent. What teams used to do was give a huge signing bonus, and then his first couple of seasons into the new contract he'd get paid the veteran minimum (salary). If you get a $12 million signing bonus, you played for the minimum the first year, a little bit more the second year, and maybe in the third year of a five-year deal then your base salary goes up considerably. Well, you can't do that anymore. So, trying to get to a number that is fair for Harrison, that falls under the new parameters, that doesn't cripple your own salary cap, is the problem. I don't know any of this for sure, but I would imagine that there is probably some consensus on what the number should be. But how do you get to that number?
Q: Have you heard about what the Saints have done with the so-called completion bonus? Apparently, paying a big bonus upon the contract's completion gets around this problem.
A: If I'm James Harrison's agent, and he's going to be 31, do I go for that?
Q: Well, if it's a five-year deal, he could complete that, couldn't he?
A: Will he? If you're the agent, do you know that?
Q: Oh, I see. The Steelers could cut him and get out of the bonus.
A: Right. If he were 27, then you would say, ‘OK, if you cut him he'll be out on the open market anyway.'
Q: So, if the Steelers put into the contract that they wouldn't cut him, you'd have a baseball contract, wouldn't you?
A: They won't do that. They won't guarantee a contract. But anyway, back to your initial question, aside from dealing with Harrison you had to do something with your offensive line. Marvel Smith and Kendall Simmons, the fact they have not signed anywhere proves they are not physically capable of playing football. They're incapable of passing physicals, so this team had to do something, and that was they had to franchise Max Starks. The Max thing is an onerous cap situation, but I don't know what else you were going to do. Maybe you can work something out with him long term, but personally, if I were his agent, I would have no interest.
Q: Why wouldn't he want a big lump sum for a five-year contract?
A: How much more are you going to give him than $8.5 million, which is what he's getting? I don't really know, but here's the way the Steelers operate: Signing bonuses are based on status on the team. Max Starks cannot get a higher signing bonus than James Harrison. He cannot. So if you give Max, what, $10 million? Then Harrison starts at $11 million.
Q: What's wrong with that?
A: He might not take only $11 (million). If you give Max, $10 (million), ‘Hey, I'm the Defensive Player of the Year. You're not going to give me 50 cents more than that guy. He wasn't even a starter.'
Q: But he's the starting left tackle now.
A: I'm just arguing it the way it's going to be argued by an agent. That $8.5 (million) is guaranteed and Max is a free agent again next year. If Max played a position where his performance were more easily quantified, a statistical position, you could have a bad year which is easily seen and your value would go down. Max is a big man. George Young once called it ‘The Planet Theory.' He's a left tackle. If he gets hurt, and has some sort of nagging something, his value does not go down, in my opinion, on the free-agent market as much as it would if he were playing a statistical position. So as his agent, I'm not too worried about the risk, or of Max showing up at 550 pounds. That money's guaranteed this year, and he'll likely get a good deal next year. Walter Jones did that for, what, four or five years.
Q: Do you continue to franchise Max? Or do you draft a left tackle this year? Or do you think Tony Hills is the eventual answer?
A: These are questions for other people, but you can tag Max and then in 2010 you get two franchise tags. It's an onerous situation, but I think you can keep him there the next couple of years if you have to. You have the tags; just keep using them on him. Maybe that brings his agent around to some sort of negotiation, but, hey, if I'm Max Starks's agent, and you want to pay him $9 million guaranteed the next couple of years, I'm in, and I think Max would be in, too. Hey, good for Max. I like him. I think he's a serviceable player. Is he worth it? That's a ridiculous argument. Nobody's worth it. But in the context, you had to have somebody there for this team, and there clearly is no one else. Who are you going to pick 32nd? Who are you going to sign in free agency? Everybody knows how rare they are, so there aren't any.
Q: Have you heard anything about the development of Tony Hills?
A: No, and I don't think that question can be answered until the pads are on. Who knows? I think it would be foolish to go into a season counting on him, but it would also be foolish to say he's a stiff and can't play.
Q: That's like going into a season with Limas Sweed as your No. 3 receiver, isn't it?
A: Yeah. The receiver thing – and I don't know who is out there – but there are Terance Mathises out there. And, hey, Limas Sweed is a second-round draft pick. It's on him. Show me something. He cannot be what he showed in a couple of those games. You cannot drop those passes wide open like that. You can't be Charlie Brown out there.
Q: How could the organization say, ‘It's on him,' after what they saw?
A: I don't know that he is physically incapable of catching the ball. I don't believe that. There are factors involved: nervousness, intensity of the moment, whatever. Maybe it's a physical problem, I don't know. These things need to be checked. What is clear is that Limas Sweed's approach needs to pick up. I don't care how serious he thought he was as a rookie. Troy Polamalu's approach had to pick up after his rookie season. That's just the way it is. Troy did not have a particularly stellar rookie season. It was nowhere near as bad as Limas Sweed's, but seeing Troy around here you could see it bothered him and he was working on it. Limas Sweed needs to take the same approach. He will be better. Will he ever be an All-Pro? I don't know, but he's a second-round draft pick and it wasn't like the Steelers were the only team who thought he was any good. This guy has a lot of the things that scouts look at and like. Certainly, being the No. 3 receiver in his second NFL season should not be too big for him. But …
Q: So, looking at the needs going into the draft, how would you approach it?
A: I don't pick a quarterback first. I don't pick a tight end first. I don't pick a running back first. I'm listening after that. I probably don't pick an outside linebacker first, either.
Q: Or, a safety?
A: Um, you know, I love Ryan Clark, but how many more of those Willis McGahee hits are in him? I think he is one of the best free agents Kevin Colbert ever signed, but the human body is what it is. In that respect I wouldn't say safety is out of the question. Tyrone Carter is a journeyman on the down side anyway with his age. Ryan Mundy?
Q: The coaches like him.
A: That's fine, but I'm not counting on that. Same with Hills and maybe Sweed. I like the potential, but not enough to eliminate the position as a pick. And also, with nine picks, I'm looking to move up to get some people. Whether that's a possibility, it's my line of thinking going in. What, are you going to bring nine guys into camp to cut them? If you're going to do that, let's find undrafted rookies. You need some help in some areas, a lot of areas, but I don't think there are nine spots available on the roster, so based on that I would prefer to use the picks to try and get, say, four or five guys who can make the team and have some promise. That to me would be the way to go, but, we'll see who's available and who's willing to trade.
Q: Are you yet at the stage that the offensive line is a state of emergency?
A: No. Last year taught me that. I still think that one of the principles they tried to apply last year in adding a running back, that the offensive line could improve that way, hasn't changed. I mean, (Rashard) Mendenhall's loss was a big loss. He was gone the whole year. The first couple of games he hardly played, and then on the 29th (September) he was lost. The Ravens game, bang, that's it. So I think that can be a factor. I think that the one thing that needs to improve is the goal-to-go stuff. You can't be a team that can't run the ball into the end zone, because if you're a team that can't run the ball into the end zone you throw interceptions that are returned 100 yards for a touchdown in the Super Bowl.
Q: OK. So do you see an offensive philosophical shift?
Q: A fullback being brought in?
A: Well, I think some obvious concessions need to be made to the reality of what is here. Somebody who knows a lot about offensive line play once told me that you can't run a one-back (formation) unless you've got five guys up front that are very good. And I don't think that's the case here. Obviously, Bruce Arians has said that they want to create gaps along the line of scrimmage, make the defense defend more gaps, and that's the explanation for the tight ends on the line of scrimmage. He's spreading it out that way. In theory, that may be fine, but I don't think with this particular personnel group that it's the best way to go. And, you can't not be able to run it into the end zone from the one-yard line. You just can't.
Q: So you don't see philosophical changes; you see concessions.
A: Well, see, this is the issue when you get with coaches: The egos are just beyond whatever you might even think of, so when you use a word like ‘concessions' then they dig in their heels. So, no, it's not a concession. But whatever they want to call it so they can leave the room feeling good about themselves is fine with me. The goal-to-go offense was not good enough. However you want to fix it, you need to fix it. When you start getting into words like ‘concessions' or ‘he was wrong,' to me, that's counterproductive. It's resisted, and it's not about that. Hey, that's Mike Tomlin's job, and he's a blunt enough guy that he might use the word ‘concessions' in a coach's meeting. If that's the way he chooses to go, good, I'm all for it. And I wouldn't be surprised that if it's ever brought up publicly, he denies it. I don't think he'd spank any of his assistants in public.
Q: To wrap it up, how about a quick-hitter on the new Hines Ward Rule?
A: OK, the rule change. First, let me dig this paper out. I just printed it out and it's the most asinine thing I've ever read in my life. (Reading) ‘Mike Pereira said that his officials got it right 98.1 percent of the time.' Nobody gets it right 98.1 percent of the time, in anything.
Q: Is that on calls relating to Hines Ward? What?
A: No, on all calls all year.
Q: That is asinine.
A: So this is what we have, in my opinion, running the NFL. You were here for the big show last year, the big video screen, sitting in the dark judging football. And now we have the Hines Ward Rule to go along with the Rooney Rule and the Mel Blount Rule. I still don't know how that can be adjudicated at full speed on the field. You're going to tell me that you can see this stuff. A guy uses his helmet to hit a guy in the chest, and that's OK, but if the shoulder slides up and the head goes down and it brushes up against his helmet now that's a penalty and probably a fine? I heard Mike Golic on TV, and he's a player, and he said it's too much. Whatever they're trying to do league-wide – and there are all kinds of theories, conspiracy theories – but I just don't understand putting more on the officials' plate to try and make these decisions, where the way they end up judging it is in super slo-motion. I'm all for not going for the head, but I don't see too much of that intent anymore, the Chuck Cecil, head-hunting kind of thing. The Ryan Clark hit on Wes Welker hit, the McGahee hit, you could see him getting his body in position to throw shoulders into people. Now when you do it at that high rate of speed, your neck and head is not iron. You get some torque whiplash, so there's going to be contact. And, hey, if it's not violent anymore, people don't want to see it!
Q: So you can't go for the knees, or the head-and-shoulders area, all the while athletes are taught to lean forward when they run. So that gives very little room in the middle of the body to block or tackle.
A: And how many helmet-to-helmet hits take place within the line of scrimmage on running plays that are never called? It happens every play. Are those helmet-to-helmet hits not as damaging to those brains as the other ones? Again, I think a lot of this is PR, and it kills me when, as soon as it happens, the slappies in the press box, right away, declare ‘fine him' or ‘penalty.' What the hell do you know about it? Seriously. The rush to judgment to pronounce things, to declare ‘this is the way it's supposed to be,' that's the talk-show environment that we live in now. I would hope that people running the best sports league on earth would be above that, but apparently not. Why should they when the head of the league's officials has his own g-- damned talk show!