If a tree falls in the forest, will we sign it?

Maybe it's a good thing for the Pittsburgh Steelers that a war is about to break. Good thing they don't have to carry the news since it would only mean depression for fans expecting more free agency action this off-season, other than slow tight ends, special-teamers, and fourth offensive tackles.

Not that the Steelers would comment, war or no war; Pitt basketball or no Pitt basketball. There's been a gag order in place, and what could be more appropriate for a team that's, well, gagged in the playoffs on what's becoming a consistent basis?

Yeah, it's easy to take shots when no one knows whether these free agents make a sound when they fall in the forest, but who really wants to comment on Todd Fordham? He did stone Jason Gildon cold as a third-team fill-in when the Jacksonville Jaguars hosted the Steelers last December. But now we know the rest of the story, that Gildon can't even blow by bouncers who shoulda' known who he was. But that's another story on which no one will comment since we're all wrapped up in the war and basketball tournament and all. Great timing by the Steelers, who haven't moved this deftly in the PR department since the great Joe Gordon was whispering in the Chief's ear.

But really, does the signing of a third-team tight end – who's a GREAT kid but just another slow-moving target down the seam – warrant general depression among the fandom at this time of the season? Last year at this same time, fans in Tampa Bay let out a protracted yawn at the signing of the equally plodding Ken Dilger on April 17. But Dilger didn't sign for the minimum wage. No, he was THE man of a Tampa Bay FA class which up to that point had consisted of guard Kerry Jenkins, quarterback Rob Johnson, tight end Marco Battaglia, defensive end Greg Spires, running back Michael Pittman, and wide receiver Joe Jurivicius.

"Egad," the Tampa fans wondered. "The window of Super Bowl opportunity is closing and you give us these stiffs?"

Sounds familiar, doesn't it? Sure, we know now that Pittman, Spires, and Jurivicius went on to become Super Bowl heroes and that Jenkins and Dilger were championship-day starters.

But no one in Tampa guessed that through the first six weeks of last year's free-agent season those players would turn out to be key signings.

Let's compare that to what the Steelers have done; and, no, just because the Steelers ended up with Battaglia (and have since let him go) there shouldn't be any type of common karma drawn. What's common is that both teams proceeded slowly in the off-season. So far, the Steelers have re-signed Cushing, Jerame Tuman and Charlie Batch; and brought in Fordham and Clint Kriewaldt.

"Egad," Steelers fans are wondering. "The window of Super Bowl opportunity is closing and you give us these stiffs!"

Well, we saw the results in Tampa Bay. You could say that even those Tampa stiffs last year are better than this bunch. Well, let's counter with the early free-agent class of the 2001 champion New England Patriots.

Through the first six weeks of the 2001 free-agent season, New England signed Larry Izzo, Mike Vrabel, Marc Edwards, Anthony Pleasant, and Terrance Shaw. Think those fans were thinking Super Bowl at the time?

It didn't get much better for the Pats that off-season, at least on paper. They signed Mike Compton, Damon Huard, David Patten, Charles Johnson, Riddick Parker, Antowain Smith, Hakim Akbar, Leonard Myers, Terrell Buckley, Je'Rod Cherry, Bryan Cox, and Roman Phifer (perhaps the best of the bunch - and he wasn't signed until Aug. 3).

The rest of Tampa's class didn't look much better last summer, either. Tom Tupa became the punter and Roman Oben, cast off by the wretched Cleveland Browns, became the team's starting left tackle. Buckley was also signed for good luck.

The point is that free agency is not what it was once thought to be. It's not a panacea, and that's been proven two years in a row. Hey, even the eventual 2000 champion Baltimore Ravens brought in Trent Dilfer in mid-March, much to their fans' chagrin.

No, set teams don't work. We saw that last year when 21 of 22 positions were set going into the Steelers' training camp. This year's team, which missed the No. 1 seed by an uninspired home loss to an expansion team, has its guts back but will have competition this year at safety, all offensive line positions, running back, and probably tight end. There are some holes but nothing drastic, except maybe left tackle. And Roman Oben still has a few months to fulfill his annual free agent wait-see.

By Jim Wexell
Steel City Sports

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