Editorials

Steelers Fever – The Axe Finally Falls, Steelers’ Porter Gets The Boot

The Axe Finally Falls, Steelers’ Porter Gets The Boot

Steelers Fever Exclusive Editorial

Saturday, March 03, 2007
By Mike Spell
Steelers Fever Columnist

Weeks speculation and debate about Joey Porter’s future with the Steelers are over: Porter will not be wearing the black and gold when the 2007 season rolls around.

Joey PorterFans seem to be divided as to whether or not this is a good move, as Porter is one of those polarizing players. People either see him as confident and unafraid to speak his mind or as another arrogant athlete who loves to draw attention to himself. Whichever side of the fence you’re on, no one can deny that Porter was one of the most dominant and valuable members of the Steelers defense and usually backed up his talk with his play on the field.

As is usually the case in the NFL these days, money seemed to be the most significant factor in the decision to release Porter. He was due a roster bonus of $1 million on March 6 and a $4 million salary next season. Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert insists that this move was solely the result of needing more cap space. While money most certainly plays a role in any player’s roster spot, I believe other factors were also at play here.

The Steelers are tight against the cap, but Porter is also going to be 30 years old before the start of next season. There was some question as to how much Porter has left in the tank, and injuries dogged him last season. The team has several other players who are approaching 30 and are entering the final year of their contracts, including outside ‘backer Clark Haggans, starting offensive guards Alan Faneca and Kendall Simmons, as well as starting fullback Dan Kreider. Decisions need to be made about the future of these players.

Defensive end Aaron Smith has already received an extension, locking up a core player and giving the Steelers some short-term cap relief. It appears that they will attempt to re-sign a few more of these players to extensions now, which follows team policy of the past. Due to their salary cap situation, hard decisions must be made.

Most likely the Steelers will not be able to keep all of these players unless they want to sign for the old hometown discount. It is unlikely that this was the case with Porter. Rumor has it that he planned to hold out last off-season until Bill Cowher talked him out of it. It is very possible that Porter was contemplating a similar move this year.

Troy Polamalu’s contract is also set to expire next season and the Steelers will almost certainly want to lock him up with a long-term deal.

It was also not in Porter’s favor that he is a 3-4 linebacker. If Tomlin and the coaching staff want to begin shifting to a 4-3 scheme, as is most likely, it made sense to make the move now rather than later. The Steelers have created cap space and can draft a replacement, or perhaps shift James Farrior to the outside.

Porter, who is not shy about speaking his mind, could have been a big distraction this season if the Steelers had kept him without offering a contract extension. The last thing Mike Tomlin needs are distractions, as it is going to be hard enough following the successes of Chuck Noll and Cowher without having to worry about Porter ripping him in the press.

Tomlin could also use Porter’s release to send a message to the rest of the team: No one’s job is safe. It doesn’t matter what you have done in the past, you are going to have to earn your spot this season. But that could also backfire and alienate the rest of the team, as Porter has been a very productive player and a defensive captain. Either way, the Steelers are faced with the fact that they have a defense that is beginning to age. They cannot wait too long before trying to inject some youth or suffer a fate similar to that of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

I cannot help but think that if Tomlin were convinced of Porter’s dominating presence in his defense, surely he would be willing to find a way to keep him around for at least one more season. You just don’t cut football players that are that talented unless you feel they don’t fit or they are on the downside of their career.

Maybe the coaches used the salary cap as an excuse to avoid painting Porter in a bad light, but I have to think that the coaching staff just didn’t see Porter fitting well into its plans. Or maybe they wanted to avoid tipping their hand on defensive style.

The Steelers chose to keep Aaron Smith — a defensive end who is a quiet, productive player — over a linebacker who has been even more productive, a signal that the shift to a 4-3 is coming a lot sooner than later.

I have no problem with this. I think Tomlin should be allowed to use whatever style of defense he feels will be the most successful. He was hired to be the head coach. If the Rooneys wanted to keep the 3-4, then they should have promoted offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt or assistant head coach Russ Grimm, as they would have focused more on offense and let defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau do his thing on defense.

But this is not what they did. They hired a defensive coach whose background is the 4-3. He should be allowed to adjust the roster to fit that style and bring in players that will flourish in that system.

My guess is Tomlin didn’t think Porter fit that mold. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Remember the “Tampa two” that Tomlin learned is the same style of defense the Steelers employed during the 70’s.

Anyone remember that defense?

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