Hide the Women and Children: Steelers Roster Cuts are Coming
In one way, I love this time of year.
It’s so full of hope. Steelers fans look at the Lombardi case, still devoid of No. 7, and wonder if this is The Year.
Fans of franchises who are perennial losers discuss among themselves the spring draft, free agents picked up, who is back from the previous unsuccessful year but perhaps poised for a breakout season, and so on. The cruel reality of the regular season has not yet reared its ugly head.
Think what must it have been like for Detroit Lions fans in 2008. The hapless Lions had made a business of disappointing their fans in the 2000s. (Actually, for a good deal longer than that.) Here is a list of their records since 2001: 2-14, 3-13; 5-11; 6-10; 5-11; 3-13; 7-9.
You can imagine the breathless wonder with which the win-starved fan base watch them beat in succession the Giants, the Bengals, the Browns, and the Bills.
The only hitch was, those were all pre-season games. As you probably recall, in the regular season they reached their nadir, going 0-16. But I expect the pre-season was thrilling while it lasted.
It’s fun for fans of any team to go to training camp and speculate who among the youngsters is going to make a splash. Tens of thousands of words, at least, are written about the possibilities shown by the new guys, whether veterans new to the team or draftees. Many if not most of these words are, in the end, pointless, because the truth is, almost half of those guys will be gone soon.
So as I sit in the bleachers at Latrobe, watching the bright hopeful young faces, there is always niggling in the back of my mind the realization that sooner or later the piper will have to be paid. Or perhaps it would be better to say “the Turk.”
George Plimpton’s classic, ”Paper Lion” describes the Detroit Lions’ method for cutting players, although it may have changed by now. After all, Dick LeBeau was playing on the team during the season Plimpton wrote about.
As he recorded, the man responsible for summoning the players was called “The Hawk.” The players would be culled from the team meeting, thus insuring they had their playbook ready to hand.
Plimpton noted how agonizing that particular team meeting was, feeling it was a “heartless procedure.” He admitted, however, it was entirely possible there was not a kinder way to do it.
Some of the veteran players told him about how it was done in Chicago:
George Halas used to reach out and touch a man on his shoulder, and the players seeing him coming, if they were worried about being cut would tend to sidle away. One day he reached out to touch a quick little scatback, a 170 pounder with speed and fine hands, who saw the hand coming for his shoulder at the last second, and dodging it he dropped to the ground with a groan and began to do a series of quick push-ups.
“Look,” he said, glancing up at Halas, “I’m strong too. I can do these forever.”
Halas was supposed to have been so touched by the player’s desperation that he turned away as if it hadn’t been his intention to tap him at all. He kept the player for an extra week, and then came up swiftly behind him in the locker room when the player was skinning himself out of a sweatshirt and got him on the shoulder before there could be any chance of avoidance.
The Turk will be busy in Pittsburgh soon, as the Steelers have to cut the roster down to 75 players by September 1st. Things will not improve over the next couple of weeks, either. In fact, I’m guessing the first set of cuts are, relatively speaking, the easy ones.
Even if they are easier, though, surely they aren’t fun. Even if the coaches making the decisions have latent sadistic tendencies, how can they know for sure they are making the right choices?
For that matter, how do you differentiate between those who don’t work hard enough, those who work really hard but are just not talented enough, and those who just need enough time and coaching to be special?
The first is a fairly easy call, the second much tougher, and the last almost impossible to ascertain.
And once you decide, you’ll never really know if you got it right or wrong. Even if a player excels on another team, something which is presumably pretty galling, you can never know whether he would have done so in your system.
Take, just at random, the 2010 draft. It’s far enough away to have a little perspective on just how players turned out. Here were the picks:
Maurkice Pouncey, C; Jason Worilds, OLB; Emmanuel Sanders, WR; Thaddeus Gibson, OLB; Chris Scott, G; (Pick 155 traded to Cardinals for Bryant McFadden); Crezdon Butler, CB; Stevenson Sylvester, LB; Jonathan Dwyer, RB; Antonio Brown, WR; (Pick 225 traded to Tampa Bay for Byron Leftwich); Doug Worthington, DE.
It was an extraordinarily large class, as it contained three compensatory selections and two picks received from other teams [No. 155 from the Jets for Santonio Holmes and No. 195 from the Cardinals, along with McFadden. That’s the one which netted Antonio Brown.]
As it played out, they drafted a number of players which gave them short-term value, several which gave them long-term value, and, oh, by the way, the current best receiver in the NFL.
But what if you had decided in camp that Antonio Brown was just a little too raw, and besides you had Emmanuel Sanders and Mike Wallace, who already filled the “small speedy receiver” slots on your team? I think Steeler Nation is probably eternally grateful to Mike Wallace for holding out for more money.
That’s great, but what happened to the ones who got cut?
Thaddeus Gibson knocked around the league for several years, even being on other rosters for a while. Strangely, he played exactly two games with the Steelers and was cut, two games the same season for San Francisco and was cut, and two games the next season for the Chicago Bears before being cut. After that he was on practice squads, and ended up in the CFL, where he is still playing. So it would seem the Steelers made the right choice.
Guard Chris Scott also played two games with the Steelers before being cut. He knocked around on four other practice squads before landing with Carolina in 2013. He played a lot, although not terribly well, in 2013, and only a few games in 2014. So once again it’s hard to see the Steelers made a bad call. This was obviously a guy with some upside, but who disappointed in the end.
Crezdon Butler has also been on a number of teams. He played for the Steelers for a year before being cut, and although he has moved around a lot (eight different teams, to be precise) he has always been on someone’s roster, and is currently at Detroit. So again, it looks like a lot of people see something in him which he doesn’t quite fulfill.
Doug Worthington has been on a lot of practice squads and occasionally on a team’s roster, and he still has a job (at training camp with the Rams) as of this writing, but obviously hasn’t wowed anyone. So you have to feel the Steelers did pretty well with their decisions that year. I’m not going to go into the UDFAs, because only three of them actually even made it onto the practice squad. The one exception is Da’Mon Cromartie-Smith, who is still knocking around after an almost year-long hiatus without a job. As of this writing he is at camp with the Washington Redskins.
I realize that was a rather long digression, but I was interested to see if we could make some determination as to how well the Steelers did in making these decisions in a given year. I expect some years would look worse. Probably not many look much better, as this year seems to me to represent pretty good value and good judgment as to who to keep or cull.
In the end, if a player isn’t producing, or producing enough, you have to make the call. This, despite knowing he might go on to be a very good player for some other team. You can’t wait forever. (“Forever” in NFL terms meaning “a whole season.”)
But although these decisions have to be made on a business level, are surely sometimes agonizing on a personal level. For instance, how do you cut a guy like B.J. Finney? The video he made of telling his family about signing as a UDFA last spring went viral. This is a kid who longed his whole life not just to play in the NFL but specifically to play for the Steelers. As he said at the beginning of the video, “I stand here in front of you today as proof that dreams do come true.”
I have no idea whether Finney will make the roster or the practice squad. Finney spoke to Chris Bradford of the TimesOnLine last week, and seems realistic about his chances:
Finney said his next step is to make the active roster, but he realizes the odds are stacked against him when he looks at the interior linemen who are ahead of him and what he needs to do.
“You look at guys like (David) DeCastro, (Ramon) Foster, (Maurkice) Pouncey and you’re trying to emulate what they do because it’s successful at a high level and that’s what we all want,” he said. “When you have those role models in front of you and see what they do, why wouldn’t you try to do what they do?”
The pain will only intensify from here on out. I really look forward to getting this unfortunate portion of the season over with and marching ahead with the chosen band. I wish all the best to the players who are departing. Hopefully you learned lessons in Pittsburgh which will serve you well elsewhere, whether on another team or in your life’s work.
Oh, and the guy in the photo which heads the article? Dorian Brooks was picked up as a UDFA in 2010, signed to the practice squad, and signed to the active roster right before the Super Bowl as an insurance policy, as he could play either center or guard.
He reported to training camp the following summer, but walked out of practice one day in early August, never to reappear. I am unable to tell you what happened to him, but I can tell you this—he finished his NFL career without getting cut that final time. He found a way to beat the Turk.