Steelers Change In Philosophy, Part 2: The Colbert Tomlin Years

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December 4, 2011; Pittsburgh,PA,: Pittsburgh Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert (left) talks with Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin (right) on the field before playing against the Bengals at Heinz Field. The Steelers won 35-7. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USPRESSWIRE

This article is Part 2 of 2 examining the front office philosophies of the last 20 years. Part 2 examines the Kevin Colbert Mike Tomlin era (2007- ).  Part 1 which was in Saturday’s edition examined the Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher era (1991-1999) and the Bill Cowher Kevin Colbert era (2000-2006).

When Mike Tomlin was named head coach in January of 2007 the Steelers had been in the midst of a great run of success from 1992 through 2006. This was due to the front office philosophy’s they had used  since Tom Donahoe had become the General Manager in 1991. When Kevin Colbert took over in 2000 he tweaked some of Donahoe’s philosophy’s while adhering to the rest. This became commonly known as “The Steeler Way”.

Re-cap of Steelers Front Office Philosophies

Through the past 20 years the Steelers under General Manager’s Tom Donahoe and Kevin Colbert  were consistent in how they ran the organization: Build through the draft, don’t trade away draft picks, don’t reach for draft picks, stick to the draft board, don’t go after expensive free agents including their own, don’t negotiate with a hold out, don’t negotiate with a player in season,  don’t  re-do contracts for cap purposes, cut a player rather than asking that player to take a pay cut, don’t negotiate with a player until he has one year left, negotiate with the quarterback and head coach with (2) years left on their contracts and retain younger inexpensive players over aging more costly veterans. Because the Steelers have stuck to these philosophies it has given the Steelers the reputation as one of the best front offices in the league and rightfully so.

By using this philosophy the Steelers kept most of their stars together and since the Colbert era began in 2000 the Steelers played in (5) AFC Championship games, (3) Superbowls and were in contention for the playoffs until week 17 of every season except for 2003 & 2012.  Under Tom Donahoe’s reign (1991-1999) year in and year out stars left the Steelers. Up until this season only (3) of the main players in the Colbert era were let go:  Plaxico Burress, Alan Faneca and Joey Porter. Although many Steeler fans hated to see those (3) players leave it does not compare to the mass exodus of pro bowl caliber type players that left in the 1990’s. However despite the yearly off season heartbreak of Steelers fans seeing their best players leave, Donahoe and Cowher were able to keep the Steelers in contention through the draft and free agency well into the Tomlin and Colbert years.

When Kevin  Colbert arrived in Pittsburgh Bill Cowher had (9) seasons as Head Coach and had just won a power struggle against the man who had hired him: General Manager Tom Donahoe.  Undoubtedly Cowher carried a lot of clout with the Rooney’s. When Tomlin arrived as a first time head coach, Colbert now had a (7) year track record of competing for Superbowls, was widely respected as one of the league’s best GM’s and he held the clout with the Rooney’s.  Now that Tomlin is entrenched as the Head Coach and appears to be gaining more voice in the organization, there seems to be another philosophy change ongoing.

The Steelers  Recently Have Scrapped Some Past Philosophies

A philosophy once followed but no longer  is:  Not re-doing contracts for cap purposes.  The Steelers have recently  re-worked many of their stars contracts, some even several times pushing cap money into future years. Eventually it was going to catch up to them and it finally did when Steelers fans saw some of their favorite players released after the 2011 season: James Farrior, Aaron Smith and Hines Ward.  This year the salary cap issues effectively cost them to lose  younger talent such as DB Keenan Lewis, WR Mike Wallace and RB Rashard Mendenhall. It almost cost them young rising stars WR Emmanuel Sanders and DT Steve McClendon who were restricted free agents but the Steelers tendered each the lowest offer thus risking the chance another team could come in and make an offer the Steelers could not match. New England did make an offer to Sanders but inexplicably made it easy for Pittsburgh to match the 1 year offer. Green Bay brought in McClendon for a visit but the Steelers immediately signed McClendon to a 3 year contract before Green Bay made an offer. Had the Steelers not been so strapped salary cap wise,  they could have given both Sanders and McClendon the higher tenders which would have assured their return to the Steelers in 2013. As it turned out the low tender gamble cost the the Steelers more money than had they tendered both at the highest level to begin with.

North Dallas Forty

One of the best football movies ever made “North Dallas Forty” delivered a quote that I will never forget. John Matuszak, former NFL bad boy and Oakland Raider DT, played the character of Offensive Tackle O.W. Haddock who after a brutal game in Chicago comes to the aid of his fellow Offensive Tackle Joe Bob Priddy (played by actor Bo Svenson) who had been manhandled all game long by Chicago Defensive End L.C. Weaks.  As  Coach Johnson (played by Charles Durning) gets all over Priddy,  Haddock explodes in an irate profanity laced rant on Coach Johnson and as they argue back and forth with each other Haddock with outraged passion says:

"“Every time I call it a game, you call it a business. And every time I call it a business, you call it a game.”"

If you have never seen the movie and you are a fan of the NFL  I highly recommend that you watch it as it gives a great insight about the fine line between the game and the business of football.

North Pittsburgh Forty

Before the 2012 season when the Steelers negotiated with Mike Wallace unsuccessfully, they immediately turned around and re-signed Antonio Brown 2 years before his contract was up. Something they had only done for their 3  Head Coaches in the last 40 years and their quarterbacks.  The signing of Brown was interpreted by many fans and media as a “take that” to spite Mike Wallace for not taking their offer. Because of the Brown contract it was a foregone conclusion that Wallace would be gone after the season and the Steelers would not try to sign him. Both assessments turned out to be true.

This year the Steelers negotiated with James Harrison unsuccessfully. When they couldn’t reach an agreement the Steelers slammed the door shut not leaving any wiggle room as many teams would. After getting no offers in free agency just a few weeks later Harrison expressed a desire to return but the Steelers immediately dead bolted and double locked the door ending any possibility of a Harrison return even though they could have gotten Harrison for much less than they were originally offering just (3) weeks earlier.

While sticking with a Steelers philosophy of not overpaying for talent they seemed to create a new philosophy and an uncharacteristic stance which appears taking it personally when they can’t sign a player they negotiate with. The handling of these 2 negotiations is even more confusing when they bring back  players who have actually left and signed elsewhere such as WR’s Antwaan Randle El and Plaxico Burress, LB Larry Foote, and lesser talented players like CB Bryant McFadden, CB William Gay, QB Byron Leftwich and TE Matt Spaeth in recent years.