The Pittsburgh Steelers have been regarded for decades as one of the NFL's most stable and intelligent franchises, and for good reason. Especially in their transition from the 1990s through the new millennium, the Steelers' front office had an excellent sense of when to cut bait with veteran players who could no longer live up to the team's standard. That's how Pittsburgh went from the Bill Cowher era to the new days of Mike Tomlin, seeing Super Bowls in each stint.
But these days, things are a little different. A few bad drafts in a row have put Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert behind the eight-ball when it comes to winning, especially in a very tough division like the AFC North. After matching 12-4 seasons in 2010 and '11, the Steelers have been stuck in 8-8 purgatory for the last two years. It's the kind of thing Jerry Jones gets pilloried for -- again, rightly so -- but people perhaps assume that Pittsburgh will snap out of it, given their history of intelligent football excellence.
And that's a possibility, but there's a increasing sense that Colbert is getting pinched by bad decisions in recent years, and this has him holding onto veterans past their expiration dates. The recent release of outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley was a step in the right direction -- though Woodley leaves almost $15 million in dead money behind -- but the decision to hold fast with cornerback Ike Taylor defies all available logic.
To be fair, the Steelers presented Taylor with a choice -- either take a serious pay cut, or call yourself gone. And Taylor agreed, bumping his 2014 base salary down from $7 million to $2.75 million and avoiding a situation where he would count almost $12 million against Pittsburgh's cap.
But the question isn't what Taylor's worth -- the question here is why he's on Pittsburgh's roster at all. In 2013, per Pro Football Focus' metrics, Taylor was the worst cornerback in the NFL -- he allowed 71 receptions on 113 targets for a league-high 1,043 yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions. Opposing quarterbacks threw for a 110.6 passer rating against him, and his most recent season was no fluke -- in 2012, he allowed 30 catches on 68 targets for 445 yards, five touchdowns and one pick. Taylor has a close relationship with team president Dan Rooney, and from all accounts, he's a great guy -- smart, funny and a team leader. That said, a team known for its defense doesn't hold on to such liabilities when they're this obvious, and the tape matches the numbers.
Perhaps Colbert gave the most insight into his process during the scouting combine, when he was asked about the record number of underclassmen entering the 2014 draft, and how best to measure maturity level against talent.
"It’s an ongoing process," he said. "You talk to their coaches, their pro liaisons and as many people as you can. The personal interview is huge. How they handle sessions like this is huge. It’s an educated guess. We just keep our fingers crossed. Experience has told us that a lot of these younger players aren’t ready for this. It’s a huge leap. I don’t think a lot of them understand that until they are actually on a playing field and see the increase in the quality of play. That’s the physical part. But the emotional part of being a college kid and all of a sudden the next day being a professional, I think it’s a little easier to transition from your senior year to the pros than it would be from a junior or sophomore year."
It's also possible that the Steelers are building an alumni association, hoping to shield themselves from their mistakes with young players by leaning a little too hard on the veterans. Which would be a shame, because more than ever, the NFL is a young man's game, as the Seahawks proved by becoming the youngest team ever to win the Super Bowl. And if you take Peyton Manning's age out of Denver's equation, the Broncos have also built primarily with youth. It's an age-old question, and the answer changes with the times: How do you fit the kids and the old guys together in an organic whole? The Steelers may have an answer in the abstract, but their seeming insistence on seeing if there's anything left in declining players is something to be watched. Because it doesn't matter how long you've done it the right way -- the NFL has a way of slapping you hard with reality after a few false starts.