Tackling the Big Questions, No. 1: To Keep or Not to Keep

Photo via Steelers.com, illustrating some of those intangibles…

I’m launching another new offseason feature this year, because as Kevin Colbert said in his recent press conference, if you keep doing the same thing, why would you expect a different result? (Although why we would want a different result than a 13-3 season and winning the division was not stated, except, I suppose, for that little “first-round playoff exit” thing…)

And I don’t know what different result I’m aiming for, either. Truth to tell, I just like the sound of the headline, and you’re going to see it a lot, exploring different issues. Today’s issue, as you might suspect, is the potential free agents whose status is still very much up in the air at the moment.

As I pondered this, it occurred to me that the real heart of the matter is not “Do the Steelers have enough cap space to keep Player X” but “should the Steelers keep Player X.” This isn’t as simple as it seems.

Let’s take Mike Mitchell, for instance. (And yes, I’m deliberately picking a rather polarizing example.) It’s easy to say Mitchell has never really played up to the contract he signed with the Steelers, one of the splashiest free agent signings the Steelers had made in a long time, back when he was signed. (I use the word “splashy” in the context of the Steelers’ usual free-agency signings.)

This isn’t really the fault of anyone, as far as I can tell. Mitchell played hurt more often than not—and I don’t mean he had a few achy muscles, I mean he had two torn groin muscles a couple of years ago. And despite the surgical repairs he had done after the season, it would not surprise me in the least to hear that they never really recovered—perhaps in part because he did play through it rather than shutting down. Is this commendable or dumb?

I don’t know. I do know I played at least one organ recital in which I had to wipe blood off the keys between pieces because I had cut my hand earlier that day, and the show had to go on. I probably didn’t play my best. But I think that if the cut wasn’t healing after a few weeks, I perhaps would have wimped out and cancelled some obligations until it did. But then again, I’m not a football player.

Mitchell is a polarizing figure in Steeler Nation. He’s outspoken, for one thing, and unless we agree with their opinions, we tend to like the players to keep quiet. Just think about the treatment Rashard Mendenhall got for exercising his God-given right to have an opinion on something. Of course, if Mendenhall had been more productive on the field he would have been forgiven a great deal more off of it, I suspect.

But it’s definitely a different story in the Steelers’ locker room. Mitchell is, I gather, a very well-respected figure, one whom the other DBs call “Coach” and who they admire for his football acumen. In a room full of very young guys, he (and William Gay, another player in today’s discussion) have provided invaluable veteran leadership.

“But,” you may grumble, “we pay coaches for that. Mike Mitchell and his $5 million cap hit are surplus to requirements!”

This is, however, not actually true. I can tell you, as a former “coach,” that if the members of your team or ensemble or what-have-you are not receiving help and leadership from within the team or ensemble, you are not going to be able to coach them nearly as effectively. And I can also tell you as a former “coach” that this can lead to some personnel decisions which may not seem entirely obvious to an outsider. In theory, you want to have the 24 or 32 or 53 best people in your ranks. In practice,they may function much better, as a team, with some people whose skill set is more heavily balanced towards other skills than strictly vocal or musical or athletic or what-have-you.

David Freese, former hero of the World Series, if you’re a Cardinals fan, made some disconcerting comments about his tenure with the Pittsburgh Pirates last week. He said, in effect, that he thought the major problem with the team over the past few years was a lack of commitment to winning. This was, of course, his perception. But combined with the apparent lack of urgency of the ownership, this would indicate a rather unhealthy situation in the clubhouse.

And team “chemistry” is something that, at least so far, no one can quantify, but everyone realizes actually exists. What is it about the Pittsburgh Penguins that makes them push the “on” switch right around the midpoint of the season? They’ve done it for some years, or at least as long as I’ve been noticing. Their play is everything from lackluster to actually bad, and then all of a sudden BOOM, they look like the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions again. Mike Sullivan, the head coach, must be pulling out his hair.

The one thing I can say for sure is, it isn’t their coaches suggesting that they take it easy until they fall to the bottom of their division, then floor the gas pedal. And their coaching staff is clearly exceedingly good. You don’t win two Stanley Cups in a row, much less look like a possible contender for a third, by accident. And to those who would blame the shortcomings of the Steelers on their coaching staff, I would say you don’t go 13-3 by accident either.

None of this is to imply that Mike Mitchell must be kept at all costs. I wouldn’t know. But that’s the point—I wouldn’t know, and neither do most people outside of the Steelers’ facility. With a player like Mitchell, you have to weigh what he brings to what he doesn’t any more, divide by the cost (both in terms of cap and roster space) of keeping him, and make your decision. It has to be difficult. I can’t even imagine how difficult it was with a player like Troy Polamalu, but the Steelers moved on. Some would say a year too late. Troy thought it was a few years too early.

Mitchell is only one of the many decisions still to be made. The biggest and most truly polarizing one is—sign Le’Veon Bell or let him walk.

I moseyed on over to Steel City Insider earlier today, and in reading the first two columns found two completely divergent views on the topic. The happily-monikered Matt Steel (for whom the site is not named, as far as I know) argued passionately that keeping Bell would be a tremendous mistake and gave a plan for how to use the money instead (mainly to replace Mike Mitchell and Ryan Shazier, but much more as well.) Next up was Jim Wexell’s “take” on Kevin Colbert’s State of the Union address, and he is a passionate advocate (Wexell, that is) for keeping Bell. (Colbert and Art II appear to be on that side of the fence, too, more to the point.)

There are two questions here, really. The first is, is Bell really a ‘generational talent’ who has a unique skill set and is essentially irreplaceable? The second is, even if he is, does it matter? Can you replace his production with some combination of other players?

To me, the final word, “players,” is the rub. Bell can run (although I admit that now that the league has caught onto his running style his 4.0 YPC average is not much to write home about) and he can catch better than anyone on the team other than AB (and make defenders miss him once or twice after he catches it) and block far better than anyone not employed on the offensive line. By my count that’s three players’ worth of work. And you only have 53 total slots, and only 11 can be on the field at once.

Maybe this doesn’t matter, and rearranging the schemes and pieces you have can achieve the same (or even a better) result. But there is certainly no guarantee of that, because we don’t know about some of the things we can’t see, on and off the field. Because of that, I really don’t have a firm opinion. Some days I’m in favor of them letting him walk, others in their signing him if at all possible. But I’ll be fine with either decision, unless, of course, the Steelers only win 12 games next year…

Since I’m supposedly tackling the “big” questions, I’m not going to spend much time on the J.J. Wilcox’s of the team, (in case you’re wondering, I can’t imagine the Steelers being so happy with his multiple special teams penalties that they want to keep him) or even the William Gays (although he’s a seriously high-character guy I would love to see be given a role that doesn’t use a roster spot anymore.)

The other less pressing but still interesting question is Chris Hubbard, whom everyone seems to assume played himself right out of the Steelers being able to keep him. The aforementioned Matt Steel suggested that the Steelers sign Hubbard to take Ramon Foster’s spot and trade Foster. He made a compelling argument that Foster doesn’t fit the profile of what the line has become—smallish but very athletic and mobile. Foster is of course another high-character leader type, but I tend to agree that his days in a Steelers uni are probably numbered, sooner rather than later. I’m not sure Hubbard is his replacement, though—the Steelers just re-signed two guys, both of whom are guards—Matt Feiler and B.J. Finney. I’m guessing one of them is Foster’s successor. Both are very cheap in comparison to what the Steelers would have to pay Hubbard.

I suppose it might be amusing to start predicting a 53-man roster, and it would, of course, look absolutely ridiculous by mid-August. Instead I’m going to ask all of you—who stays, who goes? The Lady or the Tiger? Let’s nail this thing down now! I’m sure Kevin Colbert will be grateful for the help.


  • cold_old_steelers_fan

    First off, it must be nice to have a hockey team in a division so weak that a team can coast for the first half of the season and still make the playoffs (says the Winnipeg Jets fan).

    Back to football.

    The elephant in the room is Bell and his contract (ego?). Everything else pales in comparison (since Ben has stated he is returning). The Steelers cannot trade him and, unless they tie them selves in knots with regards to salary cap, they cannot afford him. He is a great talent but a polarizing one. I cannot see anyway this situations could turn out that will be positive for the Steelers.

    Barring a huge salary cut, injured or not, I would think the Mike Mitchell era with the Steelers is at an end. The salary cap is going to claim some players and I think he will be one.

    Hubbard will be another player gone unless the Steelers decide to release/trade Foster. Considering the disparities between salaries for tackles and guards, I wonder if that would be enough cap space to sign Hubbard.

    The day Colbert asks my help, is the day he should resign. Luckily for the Steelers there is no danger of his seeking my help (unless he is in Winnipeg and needs directions to the Forks) or Investor’s Group Field.


    • cold_old_steelers_fan

      Wow… rereading is something I should do before posting. I spotted at least three major errors in my grammer/spelling after the fact. Apparently I need another morning coffee.

      Liked by 1 person

  • It is the right, even perhaps the duty, of fans and pundits to speculate over potential team moves during the off season. However, this should not be construed to mean that these musings can be taken seriously. The issue is not necessarily one of the quality of general football knowledge that the critic possesses (though a depressingly large number reveal themselves to be fools of one variety or another). The problem is that as outsiders most of us not are not fully informed as to all the factors involved in the decision making process.

    Let’s take two examples. Three months ago it was a mystery to me why James Harrison wasn’t on the field. Once it was revealed that he had become something of a cancer who did things like sleep through meetings certain coaching decisions appeared to make more sense. Similarly, it now seems that Ben’s ambivalence about his football future had more to do with Haley rather than health. And what else don’t we know? We didn’t know the severity of some of Mike Mitchell’s injuries as he gamely played through them for one thing. And what else? In depth injury history, structure of current contracts, personal foibles, interpersonal dynamics with others in the organization, biases of coaches and management.

    And then there are the biases of the critics. An over reliance on measurable, such as Combine performances that don’t necessarily translate in football terms. A stubborn inability to understand why some players are able to command higher compensation than others (hint: they are better at what they do). Letting issues of popularity contaminate decisions that competence or business concerns only.

    And, of course, if the clever plan to replace, say, a Bell with a B list talent doesn’t result in a Lombardi it won’t be the Matt Steel’s of the world that will be getting fired.


    • cold_old_steelers_fan

      Bell may be a generational talent but if the Steelers can’t sign him then it will not matter. I am truly concerned that the cost of signing him will break the bank. Unless Ben and/or AB are willing to take salary cuts, I am not certain the team could afford him. Since I am not
      a salary cap expert (or even gifted amateur) my opinions are not worth much but they are all I have to offer.

      It is like that with the other players. Mitchell may have been struggling with a debilitating injury that will be healed up completely by training camp.

      All I have is speculation so that is what I offer.


  • I’d like to see Bell in the black and gold next year but I don’t want the Steelers to mortgage the future to keep him. Personally I don’t think he is worth the money he is seeking. He runs with power but is not fast. He has had some major injuries and has a lot of wear on his body already. But, as pointed out by Ivan, I am just another fool giving my opinion without any actual inside knowledge.
    I didn’t see anything from Mitchell last year that makes me want him to remain a Steeler. We upgraded the CB and S position with speed and youth and I’d like to see them continue that trend. I don’t fault the Steelers for taking a shot when they signed Mitchell. I wouldn’t be disappointed if they did the same thing with a lightly used FA safety again this year.

    The Steelers have to be shrewd with their draft and FA signings this year to make the most of Ben’s few remaining years. We can win another SB but the moves at S, ILB and TE can’t be misses.


    • if you think you might be a fool, you almost certainly are not. Those who make decisions based purely on money (thinking Mike Wallace) often regret it. How he was treated by the organization while he was going through difficulties that might have derailed his career should be part of the consideration for Bell. We’ll see soon enough.


  • @cold old You have a reasonable opinion based on the information available with a tip of the hat to what you realize you cannot know. I find your opinions worth reading.

    I for one would shop long and hard for defense before I negotiate with Bell


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