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Savran: Holmes situation about money?

Saturday, March 16, 2002

Let's put a twist on the axiom that when they tell you it isn't about the money, you can bet it's about the money: Perhaps, at least as it relates to the Steelers' dealings with Earl Holmes, if it appears to be about the money, maybe it's not.

The Steelers indicated -- or maybe we presumed -- that it would be most difficult to re-sign Holmes because the top of their helmet was pressed hard against the salary cap ceiling. The signing of Jason Gildon, more than doubling the salaries of Aaron Smith, Joey Porter and Amos Zereoue and raises due to players on existing contracts ate up whatever surplus they had. And the decision to match the offer sheet Oliver Ross signed with Cleveland compels them to pay him almost a million dollars more than they budgeted. So signing Holmes would be unlikely even if it was only about the money. But is it?

If it's only about the money, why were the Steelers scheduled to entertain linebacker London Fletcher? That he signed with the Bills for a Buffalo boatload of Ralph Wilson's money the day before his recruiting visit to Pittsburgh doesn't alter the fact they wanted to talk with him. I'm assuming they were serious about signing him, presumably for more than Holmes would get. Or ask for. Consider also the profiles of some of the other visitors, Kevin Hardy, James Farrior, Mike Caldwell. These are not minimum-wage guys. So signing any of the three (four if you include Fletcher), wouldn't provide any salary cap relief. Which leads me to two conclusions.

One, this is a negotiating ploy. The Steelers figure Holmes finds tepid interest from a soft market, convincing him that his best, and maybe only option, is to come back to the Steelers -- at their price. If that is their strategy, it appears to be working. But isn't that a dangerous gambit for a player you covet? Unless, of course, he's no longer coveted.

That's my second, and most reasonable conclusion. In these times, in some way, it's always about the money. But given the caliber of replacement they're entertaining, the Steelers might have soured on Holmes. There might be things about his game they don't like, believing they can do better at a comparable price. If you assume there would be little or no salary cap relief from the potential replacements they're courting, how else to interpret their dealings with Holmes?

The consensus has been that they don't want to pay an exorbitant amount for a two-down player. But unless there's a drastic reversal of plans, they've already stated that Kendrell Bell would be the inside backer to stay on the field on passing downs, so anybody playing next to Bell would become a two-down player.

Perhaps the attraction of a guy like Hardy is that he would be more versatile than Holmes. Although he would have to shift inside, he could line up as a pass-rusher from a three-point stance, much like the Steelers did with Chad Brown once upon a time. Plus, he would provide insurance at outside linebacker, his natural position, should they be unable to keep Joey Porter.

There are those who advocate keeping Holmes because he has been the Steelers' leading tackler. But he's supposed to be. The design of the defense funnels running backs to him. If he isn't the leading tackler, there's a problem. And speaking of problems, despite stating that he wanted to stay here, Holmes was pretty grumpy about the Steelers not talking contract with him before last season began. He was none too pleased that they chose to lock up the starting cornerbacks rather than him. Maybe the handwriting was on the locker-room wall way back then.

The Steelers strategy of shrinking Holmes' leverage might be working so that he will be forced to come "home." But in what kind of mental state would he return? He's popular in the locker room, a true team leader, but being ground down by his team and the system isn't exactly positive reinforcement.

Whether Holmes returns won't significantly alter the Steelers' ability to win the two more games in January they need to win a championship. They've allowed better players to leave through free agency. It's clear that whoever occupies the position will do so at a lesser price. But if it does end up being Holmes, will the Steelers be settling for a lesser linebacker?

Stan Savran is the co-host of SportsBeat at 6:30 p.m. weekdays on Fox Sports Net.

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