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Columnist Bob Smizik: Wise Rooney must become a capmaster

Tuesday, February 15, 2000

When Tom Donahoe was fired as director of football operations, there was a perception that Bill Cowher had become the reigning power in the Steelers' organization and his imprint would be on the current free-agency period.


That, of course, was wrong.

The reigning power in the Steelers' organization was and is Dan Rooney.

It was Cowher who designated Orpheus Roye as the team's "No. 1 priority" in free agency. It was Rooney who made the decision not to pursue Roye when the parameters of the deal became preposterous.

Rooney has been pretty much vilified around town, partially because of the team's performance the past two seasons but mostly because of his handling of free agency. Rooney's failure to spend is believed to be the reason for the never-ending flow of talent out of the organization.

Individually, the free-agent losses aren't hard to understand. At least two of the players who left -- wide receiver Yancey Thigpen and offensive tackle John Jackson -- received the largest contracts ever at their positions. It's hard to compete against that kind of negotiating. Almost all of the others went for enormous contracts. Likewise, Roye became a non-priority when Cleveland presented a $30 million package and a $7.5 million signing bonus for a first-year starter who had 41/2 sacks. The Steelers, understandably, believed it was lunacy to pursue Roye in those circumstances

But regardless of the reasons, the cumulative effect has been to drag the Steelers down to the bottom half of the league, where it looks like they'll reside again next year -- at least.

The common perception of Rooney is as a tightwad dinosaur who is out of touch with the reality of the NFL in the 21st century. Sure, he knew how to build a team through the draft, but free agency has him bewildered.

That perception is probably incorrect. There's an old-fashioned word to describe Rooney, who is an old-fashioned man. He is wise. He might have been slow to react to free agency, believing these end runs around the salary cap would drag teams to their destruction. But his wisdom will allow him to see that there is a halfway path to be taken.

But to get there, Rooney has to become a lot more savvy about the cap. Jacksonville, like San Francisco, might well be courting economic ruin with its massive restructuring of contracts last week, but that doesn't mean a team can't learn from the Jaguars. Consider what they did with linebacker Bryce Paup.

Although Paup has been a major disappointment since signing a $21-million contract in 1998 and will be released in June, he agreed to a restructuring of his contract that gave the Jaguars $2.4 million to work with under the cap. Paup agreed after the Jaguars gave him permission to talk with teams before June, something he otherwise could not have done.

The Steelers need to be similarly creative.

Circumventing the cap is not the only way to be smart about salaries. The Steelers need to do away with their outdated rule about not negotiating during the season. Had they, for example, approached Roye during the season with a handsome contract -- but not one approaching what the Browns offered -- they might have signed him.

At the time, Roye and his agent had no way of knowing that three of the best free-agent defensive ends would have franchise-player tags assigned to them, which moved Roye up in the pecking order considerably. Considering those circumstances, Roye might have grabbed a concrete offer. Who knew what the rest of the season might bring?

The Steelers are in a struggle to survive as a contender. They can't afford to play by a set of rules different than those of their competitors. At the moment, three teams in their division, Jacksonville, Tennessee and Baltimore, have more talent. The other two Central Division teams, Cleveland and Cincinnati, beat the Steelers at Three Rivers Stadium.

Rooney must change his ways to remain competitive. There's little doubt that he will. The question is: Will it be soon enough?

Bob Smizik can be reached at

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