Steelers Fever Exclusive Editorial
|Wednesday, March 07, 2007
By Christopher Stout
Steelers Fever Columnist
I love Joey Porter. I always have. Sure his loud mouth contrasted greatly with the blue-collar, just-get-it-done image of the Pittsburgh Steelers, but he was still one of the most impressive, physically-threatening players to ever suit up for the Black and Gold. Now, eight years and three Pro Bowl appearances after he was drafted, Joey joins the long list of Steelers linebackers that have been cultivated to Pro Bowl perfection and cast off to make room for the next guy in line.
Pittsburgh’s linebackers represent the very essence of the team’s toughness and physical style of play. The Steelers made me fall in love with their bone-crushing LBs. That’s why I became a Steelers fan as a teenager (thanks, Greg Lloyd!). Bruising, QB-eating sack-machines are what the Steelers are all about.
Inevitably though, the premier performers at linebacker are always unceremoniously kicked to the curb. Standout Pittsburgh castoff linebackers (such as Lloyd, Kevin Greene, Levon Kirkland, Chad Brown, Kendrell Bell) always resurface elsewhere, but they never seem to regain the dominating stature that they enjoyed in the Steel City. Based on previous history, it’s clear that when it comes to aging linebackers, the Steelers know when to fold ’em.
The Steelers take time to develop linebackers. Players have to earn their spot over a period of years. When the abilities and contract demands of these players peak, however, they’re already pushing the dreaded 30-year age limit.
In 2002, Jason Gildon got a $23 million contract when he was 30 years old. After his skills rapidly deteriorated, the Steelers decided that no linebacker over 30 was worth a fat new contract. The Steelers just don’t like to fork over large sums of money. Just look at the Cowher situation, or the extreme measures that Hines Ward had to take to secure a new contract a couple seasons ago.
These shrewd measures help to maintain the blue-collar, team-first mentality of the Steelers. But if the Rooneys are so shrewd, why let Porter walk without any sort of compensation whatsoever? I mean the organization couldn’t even parlay his departure into a draft pick or a role player or anything. If cutting him was really an attempt to give Joey the ability to choose his next landing spot, then the Steelers are a pretty accommodating, loyal and decent organization. But if they are in fact all of these things, then why not just keep Joey around for one more season? Why be so practical and miserly about dumping your defensive co-captain? Was a long and bitter hold out already on the horizon? Did everyone else in the league know that he’d be cut anyway (making any sort of trade talks futile from the get go)?
Look, I’ve always loved Joey Porter, but in all honesty, he disappeared in way too many games last season. The absolute worst Joey Porter play I’ve ever seen happened on November 19, 2006. In Pittsburgh’s first game against the Browns, Joey attempted to tackle Kellen Winslow and got stiff-armed about five yards out of bounds. That play shocked me, like mouth-wide-open-I-can’t-even-speak-right-now shock. It was the first time I ever entertained the notion that maybe – just maybe – Joey Porter’s best days as a dominating defender were behind him.
I thought Mike Tomlin was going to take a very gradual approach to his reshaping of the Steelers base defense. I figured that after a few years of drafting and a couple rounds of free agent signings, the Steelers D would switch from an exclusively 3-4 front to a flexible hybrid scheme, and then make the complete transition to a 4-3 defense. I guess I was wrong.
At this point, who knows what will happen? If Joey Porter isn’t part of the new scheme, who will be? Are the days of bruising sack-machine linebackers gone in Pittsburgh? Who will be the new face of the eventual 4-3 unit, Cato June?
The Steelers always rebound from these types of maneuvers, but this one still hurts. Just one year ago, Sports Illustrated dubbed Porter the “Most Feared Man in the NFL.” Now, in the blink of an eye, he’s the most surprising cap casualty in the NFL.
But all hope is not lost. History suggests that the Steelers know what they’re doing. I think Porter’s successor, James Harrison, will impress quite a few people with his abilities. Harrison has been an absolute stud on special teams. When he was injured last year, the Steelers sorely missed his timely tackles on kick and punt returns.
Director of Football Operations Kevin Colbert said that the Porter cut was “definitely a salary cap-related issue.” The decision apparently has nothing to do with performance, payment or scheme. With Troy Polamalu, Alan Faneca and others needing new deals next season, the Porter cut brings much needed cap relief for this year and next. Still, money isn’t the only thing at work here.
Tomlin has enough worries already. A drawn-out contract dispute in training camp is not what the new coach needs. Cowher may have been able to persuade Porter not to be a distraction to the team, but there were no promises that Tomlin would be able to keep Porter happy with his current contract situation.
Without a doubt, the Porter cut hurts. Having your favorite player cut from your favorite team is difficult to swallow for any fan, but the Steelers will rebound from the loss of another great linebacker. They always do.