The Steelers finally drew a line in the sand Saturday, and released outside linebacker James Harrison when he became too expensive.
But over the past few years, they’ve stretched out a number of contracts, willing to push money onto future caps to keep a core of players together.
According to Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the Steelers have restructured 13 deals since the lockout ended in August 2011, pushing $54.7 million onto future salary cap ledgers.
During that span, they’ve adjusted the deals of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger three times, linebacker Lawrence Timmons twice; and once each for Antonio Brown, Heath Miller, Chris Kemoeatu, Harrison, Brett Keisel, LaMarr Woodley, Ike Taylor and Willie Colon once.
That works, as long as the group of players they’ve chosen produce together. But there’s an inherent risk as well, as it creates a top-heavy roster that’s hard to fix if a bad thing happens, especially with the salary cap flattening in the post-lockout world.
“They are trying to get as much flexibility as they can during the transition years,” said Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College in Massachusetts. “(The fact that) they are engaging in this more than they have in the past is attributable to adjustments to the … cap.”
Playing kick-the-can with the salary cap can lead to a disaster at some point. But the Steelers are able to get away with this institutionally for two main reasons.
One, they have a quarterback in Roethlisberger who is good enough to raise a team a level, from average to good or good to great.
Secondly, they have scouted and drafted well enough to have star players and also find contributors deep in drafts to replace players when they get too expensive.
If a Jason Worilds can replace Harrison’s production (as Harrison did when he replaced Joey Porter), and Roethlisberger never gets hurt again, it’s a system that can work, considering they have an excellent coach and general manager.
But it does leave one of the league’s most stable franchise vulnerable to the one thing even the smartest team can’t account for — bad luck.