The Pittsburgh Steelers 2012 offseason has been predictably quiet. Having worked overtime to accomplish their goal of mere cap solvency, their free agency hibernation state is warranted, especially considering their increasingly realistic goal of retaining playmaker and deep threat receiver Mike Wallace.
Nevertheless, action on the Black and Gold front has not been entirely stagnant in these last couple of weeks and, for that matter, months.
Since an unexpected loss in Denver, changes in the 'Burgh have been a mix of the predictable and the unexpected.
With a new offensive coordinator on staff, the loss of key veterans, a free agent tender that most often lies in the cross-hairs of Steelers fans' scopes, here are the three offseason moments that reflect the true translation of the NFL acronym (Nobody Figured League), along with a trio of decidedly predictable events.
The healthy animal is the one who knows when to hibernate, and in this case, even when it isn't winter. The Pittsburgh Steelers have been non-existent in the free agency circus.
This entirely foreseeable strategy emanates from two key factors.
First and foremost, re-signing Mike Wallace, which is clearly a team goal considering their first-round tender, is going to require a substantial portion of the team's cap liquidity. In addition to signing draft picks and polishing the roster, conservative spending was always the reality of the Steel City spring months.
Although the price may seem steep, considering the need to surpass a potential Pittsburgh offer and forfeit a key first round draft selection, there is no guarantee that a team- the rumor mill has offered whisperings of Cincinnati- won't force Pittsburgh's hand at increasing their current offer. In other words, any moves, whether high profile or seemingly inconsequential, could stretch the cap like a rubber band.
Frankly, the elasticity of the team's spending band is already too stretched, even after months of solid restructuring negotiations.
High profile free agents were already a big no-no, and taking a chance on a "tier B or C" player provides no more potential stability or risk than focusing on the players available in late April, leading to the next key point.
Secondly, the team has aged and the release of key veterans has left some potential holes that need to be filled in the coming weeks. Anyone who follows the team closely- even in the era of free agency- realizes that the Black and Gold do a sublime job of drafting supreme talent at key positions and grooming them to contribute to the Steelers family for the long term.
The desire to resign their biggest free agent player in addition to the decidedly smart strategy of drafting young talent for what will hopefully become a bright future adds up to a smart hush in early March.
Apparently, after being informed via handshake that he would become the team's next defensive coordinator when Dick LeBeau retires, Keith Butler decided to return to Pittsburgh opposed to moving to coach the 2009 Miami Dolphins.
Three years later, the Indianapolis Colts had already seized former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, and it appeared their desire to pick up a Steelers-centric coaching staff would be further completed with the acquisition of linebackers coach Butler.
Over a thousand days removed from that fateful handshake that kept him in the Steel City, it appeared with 100% absolute certainty that Butler chose to cut his losses- especially after LeBeau announced his intentions to return- and move on.
Adam Schefter reported the news that Butler was set to become part of new coach Chuck Pagano's staff.
Heck, every guy has his patience limitations, and how often does a man get the immediate opportunity to become a coordinator in the NFL? And, after years of faithful service, how many are loyal for so long? Next step: defensive coordinator. Down the pipeline: head coach?
Nobody could blame Butler for taking the next step on the ladder, especially considering how evident it was that he did his job so well in Pittsburgh.
If the grace of the Rooneys and the influence it has on those touched by them isn't already obvious, it became strikingly clear when Butler rescinded his intention to move to Indiana, opting to remain in the Steel City.
Handshake number two shocked Steelers Country.
Not only is a great position coach retained for 2012, but the return of Butler (or, should it be called the "staying put?") also implies the extension of the 3-4 defensive philosophy the Steelers first implemented in 1982.
With Tomlin's background in the 4-3 defense, keeping Butler, a 3-4 guru who used the system dating as far back as his collegiate coaching days, promises more of the same successful defensive philosophy that has brought a cornucopia of playoffs, title games, and championships to the 'Burgh.
In keeping with the salary cap influence from the first predictable events slide, everybody knew the financial circumstances of January would lead to the heartbreaking releases of February and early March.
While it is sad to see championship faces go, a hardship that fans in Pittsburgh haven't dealt with since the early 80's, solace can at least be found within the fact that the Steelers tend to part ways with key players at the right times (unless they're named Rod Woodson).
James Farrior, considered the quarterback of the league's top defense, was predictably let go, despite pleas for the contrary by many fans.
Many questioned if the same fate awaited Larry Foote, but he remain on the roster to-date. I expect Foote's services to be retained, for depth and starting experience.
Hines Ward's release resulted in the most emotional response from Steelers fans. This was natural, considering Ward was viewed as the modern day embodiment of a "Steelers guy" amongst most fans.
Nevertheless, the release was inevitable and smart. Hines' production amongst the starters saw a severe decrease from even his own falling numbers from recent seasons. Around midseason, specifically in Arizona, Antonio Brown benefited from the fear struck into the hearts of the Arizona Cardinals by a 95-yard Mike Wallace touchdown. With room to roam, Big Ben and Brown built a convenient chemistry that endured through far less convenient times in weeks ahead.
With Brown blossoming into a do-it-all top receiver, Hines role was even more marginalized, and his sole receptions late in the season were largely a concerted effort by the team to give him 1,000 reception in the Steel City.
His final catch, a remarkable feat into the elite class of 1K-catchers, netted a two yard loss. The irony shouldn't be lost on anybody, even the most ardent Hines supporter.
It was fitting. Sentimental. Touching. Emotional.
And, foremost, real. Real love.
But, despite all of these things, I didn't see it coming. Others may have called for it, either for faith in Hines' loyalty to the team or a cynicism about whether he would be offered a decent contract by any other NFL squad. I didn't. I saw another desperate team, quite possibly in the vain of Franco Harris or Emmitt Smith, tempting Hines with an offer.
Nevertheless, with little forewarning, Pittsburgh fans shared a bittersweet moment when Hines Ward cemented himself among the five favorite athletes in team history.
Regarding wearing a Ravens uniform, Hines says it all in the video: "We all know that won't happen..."
We'll miss you, Hines. Watch the video again, just to be reminded of what playing for the best organization in sports does for your heart! It certainly isn't lost on any former player the enrichment that occurs in playing for the finest organization in professional sports.
No, not Mike Wallace's tender, though I'm sure many would love to give him a bear hug after those patented touchdown bombs!
This is in regards to the Wallace's tender, placed for $2.742 million dollars by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
So far, Wallace has not signed with Pittsburgh, though not public offers have been made to the receiver from other teams.
It was the only way to go, and most people called it before the fact. How many water cooler conversations went like this?
"Do you think the Steelers will keep Wallace?"
"I hope so. I think they'll find a way."
"How? They don't have the cap room! Are they going to franchise him? That's going to cost $9.5 million."
"I think they'll tender him."
Indeed, as predicted by many, the Steelers took a smart risk (it seems) in tendering Wallace. A team desiring his services would have to present a sizable offer (which Pittsburgh could attempt to match).
However, the deal breaker is prooooobably that first round draft choice a franchise would forfeit by provision of the first-round tender.
Even after he was mentioned among the possible candidates for the vacant offensive coordinator job, few in Steelers Country truly expected Pittsburgh to sign Todd Haley. In addition to in-house candidates, Jim Caldwell's name also appeared on the speculative ballet.
Todd Haley, the man seen vitriolically arguing with players, namely Kurt Warner, on the sidelines with a heated manner that seemed conducive to potential spontaneous human combustion, was certainly not going to be brought in to coach an offense that had last seen Big Ben giving verbal bear hugs to recently "retired" coordinator Bruce Arians...
Whether for lack of anticipation or a negative perception of his business manner, fans jaws hit the floor when the announcement was made.
And, naturally, the key question became- can Ben and Todd co-exist? I think they can, which I made clear in my recent argument as to why the acquisition of Haley works.
While other players were released, mostly on far more bittersweet and sentimentally taxing terms, the collective sigh of relief felt in the Steel City when Chris Kemoeatu was discarded was likely detected on seismic radars.
So, why does the release of Chris Kemoeatu get its own placement on the list?
Because it gives me one last chance to vent about the absolute needless stupidity and horribly timed immaturity demonstrated by one of the more lackluster players to ever "grace" the Pittsburgh roster.
He was do disdained in Pittsburgh that he has his own forum. "Ish."
Seriously, bad penalties, missed blocks, and post-whistle incidents tried the patience of even the "Mother Teresa" of Steelers fans. He had showcased untimely bad decisions in the past (see video), but the chronic nature of his mental lapses, emotional volatility, and tenuous skills made the team's decision easy this offseason.
Most Steelers fans feel the same way, and those opposed to these harsh criticisms are welcome to rebut. It simply got... that damn bad and in-discretionary.
After a severe tissue tear in his knee, most figured Casey Hampton's playing days in Pittsburgh were chiseled down to mere minutes as the Steelers trailed in Denver. Pittsburgh rallied, but the season ended, and with the finality, most figured Hampton would be included in the tough losses ahead.
Instead, Casey Hampton was among those who restructured his contract to help alleviate cap stresses.
Despite a loss of power and balance showcased in his game in 2012, an obvious drop-off from his sheer domination in previous seasons, the fact still remains that Steve McClendon is the lone viable option currently on the roster. Therefore, maybe it was slightly (and, only slightly) predictable in some ways that the team retained Hampton.
Additionally, with the supreme combine performance by Dontari Poe, predicted by many fans to be drafted by Pittsburgh in the first round out of Memphis, it appears the Black and Gold would have to trade up or get very lucky to still have any shot at the fine young nose tackle.
As such, the team could easily shift its focus, if it had even intended to pursue Poe anyway, to a more viable and odds-on available candidate.
Nevertheless, a fine, powerful nose tackle is a demanding and necessary component of a successful 3-4 defense. Casey Hampton's raw talents made him the perfect selection at 19th overall in 2001.
In 2012, "Big Snack" may not even see the field, making his return for the last year of his contract equally unpredictable.
Whether he plays and despite his staying, the fact remains that the future of Pittsburgh's dominant defensive front depends on their acquisition of a great nose tackle in the near future, somebody whose tree trunk thighs and "Big Snack" build they can build their future upon.
Other options in the draft include BYU's Hebron Fangupo and Washington's Alameda Ta'amu.