Free agency rarely registers in Pittsburgh


With Super Bowl XLIV signaling the end of the 2009 NFL season and a celebration the locals have christened Lombardigras in full swing in New Orleans for the foreseeable future, the rest of the league will be turning its attention to the first major event of the offseason.

The start of free agency in the NFL is on March 5, which is also the date when the lack of a new collective bargaining agreement officially will render 2010 as an uncapped year.

In between now and then, teams will be able to negotiate exclusively with their own free agents, all the while knowing they have until Feb. 25 to decide whether to use the extra franchise or transition tags the uncapped year provides them as tools to help hold onto the guys they want to keep.

In a lot of NFL cities, teams will busy themselves with the task of scouring the list of potential free agents and deciding whether to make a big offer right out of the box to one or more of them in the hope of remaking their roster, with a recent example being the Washington Redskins and defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth just last year.

In a lot of NFL cities, but not Pittsburgh.

The Steelers don't believe in free agency as a primary method of roster-building, and the franchise never has made a significant signing at the start of any period since free agency became a part of the NFL in 1993. In fact, the Steelers traditionally view free agency as a defensive weapon, in that they use it to replace what they have lost.

Starting in 1993 when they turned to Kevin Greene only after Jerrol Williams had signed an offer sheet with San Diego, the Steelers have been reactionary participants in free agency. And in the 16 seasons since it began, this philosophy often has worked out wonderfully for them.

Will Wolford arrived after Leon Searcy went to Jacksonville; Jeff Hartings was signed because Dermontti Dawson retired; James Farrior was pursued only after Earl Holmes became unsignable and chose Detroit; and Ryan Clark wears a Steelers uniform today because Chris Hope signed with Tennessee after Super Bowl XL. Even Duce Staley was signed in 2004 only after the Steelers cut their incumbent starting running back – Amos Zereoue – when Bill Cowher finally realized the Tommy Gun Offense had been a huge mistake.

Instead of casting a covetous eye around the league as free agency begins, the Steelers will concentrate on their own – unrestricted Casey Hampton, Jeff Reed and Ryan Clark, and restricted Willie Colon, just to single out a few of the most familiar names.

This defensive stance has been known to frustrate their fans, but as free agency ages and is revealed more as the football version of that street con game called three-card monte, they have come to be more accepting.

If it's tough for Steelers Nation to watch the competition splashing around in the free agent pool, they also have seen teams drown in it. The Washington Redskins, as one example, always are the champions of the opening weekend of free agency, and yet they recently hired Mike Shanahan to fix a system that has yielded only one playoff win in the 2000s.

What impact the uncapped year has on this particular round on free agency is the great unknown, because even though owners won't be limited in how much they can spend on payroll this season, there are some restrictions, with the years of service needed by players to become unrestricted jumping from four to six being the primary one.

But still, NFL free agency will command a lot of attention, as it always does. It already has spawned lists that rank the restricted and unrestricted free agents, both by position and overall; fans will take those lists to arm themselves as they go to message boards and/or dial up their favorite sports talk-show host to make their arguments; and the media will fawn all over the teams that are most active.

Just not in Pittsburgh.

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