Thursday, 6 March 2014

Cowboys vs. Steelers -- Why Pittsburgh is moving ahead, again

I used to hate the Pittsburgh Steelers. Just plain despised them.

Franco. Woose. Bradshaw. Dumb. Swann. Pretty boy. Lambert. Dirty. On and on it went. I had grudging admiration for Mean Joe but that was about it.

The Dallas Cowboys and the Steelers fought for the decade of the ’70s. For NFL fans who lived through the era, even if you didn't cheer for those teams, you chose sides and there was no in between.

In my mind, the Steelers were the brawn, the Cowboys the brains. Men in Black vs. Men in White. Terrible Towels vs. America’s Team. 

Bradshaw vs. Staubach? No contest. Give me Captain Comeback any day of the week. Steel Curtain vs. Doomsday D?  Come on.

But I’ll be damned to explain why those black-clad so-and-sos always got the bounces. The Immaculate Reception and the immaculate drop by Jackie Smith. Before The Catch was made by Dwight Clark, Swann had a few of its predecessors in Super Bowl X.

Both teams then struggled through the ’80s before Emmitt, Troy and Michael restored the shine on the star in the ’90s. They even beat the Steelers in their third and last Super Bowl. Ben Roethlisberger pulled out a couple of Super Bowls for Pittsburgh in the last decade.

Now, both teams are in the midst of similar restructuring. I still can’t believe the Steelers finished with the same 8-8 record as the Cowboys last season. Pittsburgh started 0-4 and looked every bit like one of the worst teams in the NFL. They couldn’t run, they couldn’t pass. They couldn’t stop anybody.

Yet somehow, along the way, they found their stride. They found what was working for them and stuck with it, then everything else began to come together, and they finished the season on a three-game win streak.

The Steelers have long embodied their city, its industry and its inhabitants. They’re blue collar, play tough, and put forth an honest day’s work. Their coaches have always demanded it and so do their fans.

It was a concept that was beyond my grasp when I was growing up. 

Economically, the underdogs were really the Steelers, not the Cowboys. And they had a Hall of Fame array of talent that performed its best when it mattered. I saw that when Dallas had its run in the ’90s. The only team that could stop it was itself. And it did.

This week, both historic franchises found themselves together again, at the bottom of the league in salary cap commitments, each having overburdened themselves by some $15 million.

In true Jerry Jones fashion, the Cowboys bought their way out and pushed the pain forward another year. No need to make hard decisions when you can just ask players if they want their annual salary up front. Tough negotiations? Here Tony, Do you want half your money now and the other half next season? Guaranteed?

Can you imagine Steelers GM Kevin Colbert going up to owner Art Rooney and asking for $20 million to pay players right now because he messed up? And that yeah, we may have to go through this again next offseason.

Yet that’s what Jerry Jones the GM and Jerry Jones the owner decided by reworking the contracts of Romo, Sean Lee and Orlando Scandrick and turning their salaries into signing bonuses. All three deals were less than a year old.

Now for this season, Romo’s cap hit is down to $11.7 million from some $21.7 million. Great, you say?

Guess what it’ll be in 2015? Try $27.7 million. 

And who will need new contracts that season? Dez Bryant and Tyron Smith. Right. Good luck with that.

Having not extended themselves like the Cowboys, the Steelers simply lengthened the contracts of two valuable veterans, Troy Polamalu and Heath Miller, for a reasonable two extra years and made tough decisions by cutting veteran Larry Foote, 2011 third-round draft pick Curtis Brown and tackle Levi Brown, who they traded for during the season.

Tough choices made by a very good management team. They could’ve turned to Ben Roethlisberger and asked if he wanted half his salary in a signing bonus. But the Steelers aren’t into robbing Peter to pay Paul. And forestalling the inevitable. They assess, they move on. It’s how they can right their ship in mid-season while the Cowboys are still hoping for a wind to lift their slackened sails.

 Man, how I miss the days when I used to hate the Steelers.