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Savran: Tax money gives Steelers big boost

Saturday, May 11, 2002

You drive by road construction -- around here how can you not? -- and invariably you see the sign, "Your tax dollars at work."

The same sign should be erected outside Heinz Field.

It also would be appropriate to erect a similar sign on the 50 yard line for a Steelers game, because the tax dollars that helped to build the facility have created the revenue streams that have enabled the team to re-sign so many key components.

When the Rooneys were campaigning for a new facility, they suggested the anticipated increase in revenue would allow them to stay competitive.

I admit thinking at the time: "Wait a minute. There is a salary cap in this league, so you can only spend so much. Plus, it's not the Steelers' philosophy to back-load contracts so heavily that eventually a franchise tips over backward from the weight.

"So where's this big money crush coming from?"

But how else do you explain that in the past 12 months they've signed or offered contracts to every player they considered important?

And that somehow they have become insulated from salary-cap hell?

In addition, they have plans to attempt to sign five more starters/key performers who will become eligible for unrestricted free agency after the upcoming season.

Has there been a tweak in philosophy?

Not really.

Fans tend to remember only the exodus of high-profile players, not the many who were re-signed or had their contracts restructured.

The Steelers always have wanted to keep their own and almost always attempted to do so. If there's been a tweak, it has come in discovering creative ways to do it without adopting unsound business practices.

It also might be that change in the personnel department is playing a subtle role.

The previous regime would take it as a personal affront if a player did not immediately accept the Steelers' first offer. They were labeled as somehow being disloyal, their character brought into question.

With Kevin Colbert at the helm, the name-calling and character assassination is being kept to a minimum. And, through civil discourse, contracts are being negotiated and signed.

It might seem incomprehensible at first blush, but -- factoring in what has become a very soft open market for NFL players -- Colbert believes they can sign all five of the key potential unrestricted free agents: Aaron Smith, Alan Faneca, Amos Zereoue, Wayne Gandy and Lee Flowers.

The question is, how should they prioritize that quintet, from A (Aaron) to Z (Zereoue)?

Smith is a heck of a defensive end already and should get even better.

I'd make him the top priority, not only because of his talent, but also because the Steelers aren't nearly as well stocked at defensive end as they are elsewhere.

Faneca would be next, despite the seeming glut of solid players in the offensive line. Not only is he a Pro Bowler entering his prime, but also retaining him maintains flexibility for other moves if the team can't sign Gandy.

Making Faneca the second priority pushes Gandy back to fourth in line. He is the anchor of the offensive line, and you keep him if you can, but, by retaining Faneca, you've got palatable options if you can't.

Third, Amos Zereoue.

I think he'll be the most difficult to sign because he lusts for more touches, and he's not going to get many more here. He's destined to be a specialty ballcarrier here, never the featured back.

Plus, with Antwaan Randle El in town, some of those specialty plays might now go to him.

All of the above makes Lee Flowers the fifth priority.

Not to discount his role as a team leader, but the Steelers have positioned themselves to replace Flowers with Mike Logan or Chris Hope.

That's also why, with the exception of Smith, there's no need to rush to sign everybody right now. You wait and see how some of your rookie and second-year players develop. Then you can start planning strategy for the re-signing of veterans.

The mere fact the Steelers believe there's actually the possibility of keeping all five players tells us a few things: They are intent on keeping the window of opportunity for this team open for more than just this coming season; they have done an excellent job of cap management; and your tax dollars have, indeed, been hard at work.

Stan Savran is the host a radio sports talk show from 8 to 9 p.m. weekdays on WBGG-AM (970).

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