By BOB LABRIOLA
Sometimes in the NFL, both the player and the team get what they want from a contract negotiation. That applies perfectly to Max Starks and the Pittsburgh Steelers, because of the four-year contract signed by the team's starting left tackle on Tuesday.
As this offseason began, the Steelers slapped the franchise tag on the unrestricted-free-agent-to-be Starks – one season after putting the transition tag on him – because they didn't want to lose a player capable of starting at the critical left tackle spot.
That virtually assured Starks would spend the 2009 season with the Steelers, but at a salary cap figure of $8.45 million for the upcoming year it wasn't necessarily the best arrangement for the team.
What the Steelers were seeking was a less onerous salary cap figure for 2009, and what Starks was seeking was some long-term security from the team that drafted him on the third round in 2004. The announcement of the four-year contract on June 23 accomplished all of that.
"I can finally take a sigh of relief," said Starks, moments after signing the deal. "Everyone is probably happy the franchise tag is off of me. I am happy too. You get a big target on your back with that tag. I am happy we got a contract resolved going into the season. Hopefully it shows everyone I am happy to be here with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"I wanted to go into training camp knowing where I am going to be, knowing what my future holds. Now I know this is my home and this is potentially the place I will be ending my career. Most people don't have the opportunity to make it this far in an NFL career and I have been blessed to make it this far and be on a team where they foster the type of attitude to keep guys together so you have the cohesiveness that everyone looks for and it's successful for us."
Starks, 27, broke into the starting lineup in 2005 at right tackle, and he started every game that season for the Steelers team that won Super Bowl XL. He was one of the players who made a key block on Willie Parker's 75-yard touchdown run that still is the longest in Super Bowl history.
But once Bill Cowher resigned as coach after the 2006 season, Starks lost his starting job at right tackle to Willie Colon. During the 2007 training camp – Mike Tomlin's first as the Steelers' coach – Starks began the summer at right tackle but then was switched to the left side as a backup to Marvel Smith. That move allowed Colon to entrench himself at right tackle and Starks began the season as a backup.
He ended up starting four games in 2007 because of injuries – all at left tackle - before getting injured himself late in the season and ending up on the injured reserve list for the AFC Wild Card Game against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
During the 2008 offseason, Starks appeared to be an example of a disagreement between the personnel department and the coaching staff, because even though he was slapped with the transition tag that guaranteed him a salary of $6.9 million he opened training camp, and then the regular season as well, as a backup.
The low point for Starks likely was the Oct. 5 game against the Jaguars in Jacksonville. There, Marvel Smith was injured and couldn't continue, and the decision on the sideline was to replace Smith with Trai Essex at left tackle instead of Starks.
But Starks came back to start the remainder of the season at left tackle, plus all three postseason games, including the Super Bowl XLIII win over the Arizona Cardinals. And now he has the long-term security he was seeking all along, and the Steelers have a more manageable salary cap situation.
"We now have guys you know are going to be here and you can count on, the guys who are rocks on the line," said Starks. "I am happy to hopefully be one of those rocks and not a pebble on that line."