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SN Debate: Should Steelers Negotiate with Players in Regular Season?

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Steelers WR Diontae Johnson

The Steelers have a new regime running the football operations side of the team. With the retirement of Kevin Colbert, Omar Khan and his staff have taken over the post. However, while there have already been some differences between Khan and Colbert, one thing that Khan vowed to keep was the policy of not negotiating new contracts with players during the regular season.

But should the Steelers change that policy, especially with Diontae Johnson’s contract situation? That’s the topic here of our sports debate, as Nick Farabaugh and Chris Carter debate whether or not to change that longstanding policy.

CHRIS CARTER, ARGUING FOR:

Tenets, traditions and structures have been how the Steelers have established and maintained their franchise as one of the best in the NFL over several decades. Art Rooney, Dan Rooney and Art Rooney II have established decades of precedent that set a tone of expectations when it comes to several aspects of the organization. Those established precedents give the Steelers an upper hand in many of the day-to-day operations.

Mike Tomlin’s mantra, “the standard is the standard,” applies to how the Steelers perform on the field. But that standard is propped up by the organization that already has several important standards.

Those standards include Khan’s decision to keep player contract negotiations to the offseason. Unless it’s a quarterback, the Steelers restrict players from being concerned over contract talks during the season. It’s a good policy that keeps the focus during the regular season on the games at-hand. That’s when distractions begin to mount, and can take away from the locker room’s focus.

There’s no reason strong enough for the Steelers to surrender that advantage. This helps their front office for these conversations by giving players hard deadlines to get such deals done. It also keeps the distractions of those contract talks and debates in the offseason, when the team doesn’t need to focus on a new game plan for a different opponent every week.

Steelers GM Omar Khan President Art Rooney

Steelers GM Omar Khan, president Art Rooney II. — Ed Thompson, PSN

NICK FARABAUGH, ARGUING AGAINST:

The Steelers need to change their longstanding franchise rule of no negotiating during the regular season. 

At the very least, the Steelers need to amend this to make exceptions for the rule. The Steelers, under Kevin Colbert, made sure to never negotiate with players on contracts during the season. It was usually never before the draft either. So, it left the time after the draft and before week one as time to get contracts done. 

Oftentimes, there are multiple key players that will need extensions beyond the season. The Steelers, by not negotiating during the season, are often leaving themselves open to losing some of these key players to the open market. It can put the Steelers in some perilous spots. Just think of how close the T.J. Watt deal was to the start of the regular season. It was just three days before the Steelers would travel to Buffalo.

Perhaps more importantly than that, it can be argued that this policy really bit the Steelers in the 2020 offseason. The Steelers lost Bud Dupree, which they expected. They did sign Cam Heyward to what was an important extension, but that too was right up against the season. Later that offseason, the Steelers would lose Matt Feiler, Mike Hilton, and other players that have gone elsewhere and played at a high level.

Would a policy that they could negotiate in-season have changed that? Maybe it could have. At the very least, it would have allowed Colbert and his staff more time to talk with some of the priority free agents they wanted to bring back. Hilton was one of those priorities, but he left for a division rival. If they negotiate in-season, is Hilton could still be donning the black and gold. 

Bengals CB Mike Hilton, Super Bowl LVI

LOS ANGELES, CA – FEBRUARY 11: Cincinnati Bengals CB Mike Hilton talks with the media during Cincinnati Bengals Super Bowl LVI media day on February 11, 2022, at UCLAÕs Drake Stadium in Los Angeles, CA. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire)

CHRIS CARTER

Remember when Le’Veon Bell held out the entire 2018 season? That was annoying, right? Not just because he never showed up and the Steelers were deprived of one of their most dynamic running backs in franchise history; but also because of the day-to-day headaches it caused.

Every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of that season was riddled with reporters asking around if Bell had showed up yet. It was a daily question that annoyed the locker room and did not allow the team to settle into James Conner as the permanent primary running back until the final weeks of the season.

Bell challenged the Steelers’ system based on precedent and ultimately lost. He dropped from a profile of one of the NFL’s best running backs to another NFL star aged out of his prime in a year’s time. He did get more guaranteed money in his initial contract with the New York Jets. But that doesn’t outweigh the longevity the Steelers could’ve provided with a familiar system, a better quarterback, and a franchise that appreciated him.

If Khan overturned Kevin Colbert’s philosophy on in-season contract negotiations, the Steelers would open themselves up to more seasons like 2018 with Bell with future stars. That could derail future seasons when the franchise has an opportunity to be a legitimate Super Bowl contender.

And if you think Bell’s 2018 no-show didn’t have a big impact on a talented team, consider this; the 9-6-1 Steelers missed the playoffs by half a game to the Ravens. They were also the last team to defeat the eventual Super Bowl champion New England Patriots.

Several of their losses, and their lone tie, involved crucial fumbles by their running backs. There were seven fumbles across 389 carries from James Conner, Jaylen Samuels, Stevan Ridley and Roosevelt Nix. That’s a rate of a fumble for every 55.6 touches. Bell had eight fumbles over his 1,541 career touches for the Steelers for a rate of one fumble for every 192.7 touches. That’s a rate that’s almost 3.5 times less likely to fumble for Bell.

Put even a lesser version of Bell on the 2018 Steelers and they make the playoffs. Bell was a one-time situation that hasn’t been done before to the Steelers and won’t happen again thanks to how it turned out. The Steelers have a position of strength in these negotiations and don’t need to surrender that.

NICK FARABAUGH 

The biggest question when it comes to this is well, do other teams do it? The answer is a resounding yes. In fact, the Eagles, where Steelers assistant general manager Andy Weidl came from, they did this just last year. In the span of 24 hours, the Eagles signed standout tight end Dallas Goedert and cornerback Avonte Maddox to long-term extensions. Goedert is one of the foundational pieces of the offense. Had he hit the open market, there is always the possibility that he would no longer be with the Eagles.

The Jets followed this model under former Eagles vice president of player personnel Joe Douglas as well. Near the end of the 2021 season, they signed John Franklin-Myers, who had a breakout season in his age 25 season, to a new contract. He was, however, going to be a free agent. By having a policy to actually negotiate in the season, the Jets were able to sign a young pass rusher long-term as a foundational piece for their team. If the Steelers were to look at this last season, someone like Ahkello Witherspoon springs to mind.

Perhaps the biggest example of this last season was star Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore. As one of the best cornerbacks in football, signing Lattimore was an absolute must for the Saints. They broke the bank, but it was a necessary deal to get done. The Steelers can never open up themselves to a situation where they could lose an elite talent of that level by this policy.

The argument for keeping this policy is that it could hurt future seasons and team chemistry. While there is a precedent for that occurring with the Le’Veon Bell situation, that is a unique spot. For one, Bell was on the franchise tag and chose to play the odds in that respect. Bell never actually signed that contract. The Steelers had a set date that they could negotiate with Bell on the tag deadline.

This is different from in-season adjustments. If a player is under contract, such as Diontae Johnson is for example, and they decide to sit out, that is a different story. Simply put into simple terms, however, Bell was his own man. There will players who will chase the money and be willing to sit out games. They will be willing to push buttons to get that done or hit the open market unscathed. However, there are others who will rep the team on their sleeve. Those guys are still showing up and playing every Sunday.

Other teams do it and it proves to not be a huge distraction for those teams. If a player is playing with full effort but has an expiring deal coming up, what is the harm in starting negotiations up even sooner? Either way, if players choose to sit out due to a contract situation, the drama will follow that situation until that player shows up.

A Bell-like situation should not dissuade the Steelers from implementing a policy to open up the checkbook for willing participants during the season. It could be the difference between keeping Mike Hilton or seeing him walk. Even just having negotiations and understanding the ballpark these players want to have their deals in is an advantageous argument to at least talk about a potential contract for players the team wants to keep.

Eagles VP Andy Weidl

Steelers assistant general manager Andy Weidl. — Philadelphia Eagles

CHRIS CARTER, CLOSING ARGUMENT

The Steelers have a strong policy that doesn’t limit their front office. There would be more merit to change the policy if big superstars got away because of contract negotiations in the past. But look at the Steelers’ history with even contracts that took the longest to be signed, and it’s clear the policy works.

Troy Polamalu waited until before he got on a plane for the Steelers’ season opener before signing a big deal with the Steelers. T.J. Watt held-in for months through training camp and leading up to last year’s season opener before his new contract that was great for both parties.

The Steelers have established a track record that keeps the negotiation power on their side. They’ve also maintained a good standing with its players that if they perform, they’ll most likely get paid. Sure, there’s merit to the idea that the front office should be malleable to different doctrines and practices in the future.

But this is a “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” situation. Johnson’s a talented receiver and if he performs at a superstar level in 2022 he’ll pose an interesting contract question after the season ends. But one talented receiver is not worth throwing away decades of precedent that have established the standard the Steelers maintain in their front office.

NICK FARABAUGH, CLOSING ARGUMENT

The Steelers do not have to open the negotiating in-season policy to everybody. It seems Khan is intent to keep the rule. Instead of negotiating into the season, the Steelers are starting the process earlier, given Minkah Fitzpatrick’s early extension. That could be the fix Khan looks to when the Steelers have multiple core players that have expiring contracts upcoming.

Still, Diontae Johnson’s situation is looming in this regard. The Steelers now have more time than ever with Johnson as priority 1A alongside Chris Boswell. But if the Steelers are not willing to meet market value for Johnson and he goes out to prove he is worth that value in the regular season, should the Steelers risk him leaving on the open market?

No, and while that could be a franchise tag scenario, it would be smart to at least start the negotiation process at some point in season to get a rough estimate on the number that Johnson may want. Johnson is just the fill-in name to that rule. It offers the Steelers flexibility with their superstars.

It can be a rule that is only broken for true superstars, and maybe Johnson does not qualify like that. But what if the Steelers ever have their own Marshon Lattimore situation? That is the doomsday scenario where they should look to negotiate in-season. As much of a cheat code as the franchise tag is, a long-term contract keeps both parties happier and more secure.

It is situations like that where the Steelers should be willing to break the mold just a bit to allow themselves flexibility and time with an arduous negotiation process.

YOU PICK THE WINNER

Who Made the Better Argument?

  • Carter: This Steelers Tradition Has Value (56%, 5 Votes)
  • Farabaugh: More Flexibility Would Better-Suit the Team's Needs (44%, 4 Votes)

Total Voters: 9

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LAST WEEK

Alan Saunders defeated Chris Carter, 19-10 in arguing that the Steelers did not make a mistake by passing on Lamar Jackson in the 2018 NFL Draft.

SN Debate: Is Lamar Jackson Steelers Greatest Draft Miss of Last 5 Years?

LEADERBOARD

Alan Saunders 1-0
Chris Carter 0-1

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