Bouchette on the Steelers: Larry Foote and the Steelers both gambled

The team in letting Foote walk, and Foote in going from the top of the standings to the bottom


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Larry Foote's departure from the Steelers either was one smart move on his part or merely a gamble with his own money that he can carve out a better situation for himself in the NFL.

Either way, it's a case of a player believing in himself to the extent he was willing to leave a team that has a chance of delivering him a third Super Bowl ring to join one that may not return to its winning ways until he's ready to retire.

Foote gets to play middle linebacker in the 4-3 defense in his hometown of Detroit. He signed a one-year contract, which is all he had left on his deal with the Steelers anyway. If Foote does well, he'll be a free agent going on 30 in one year; if not, he'll find a job somewhere at least as a backup, which is what he believed he would become with the Steelers anyway.

So, the only thing he's losing is money, and there's no guarantee he would have been paid the $2,885,000 salary called for in his Steelers contract this year. Although the Steelers have a good record of releasing veterans early -- or ask them to take a paycut -- if they know they need to save a hefty salary, Foote's case might have been different.

The Steelers were not going to sign Foote to a long-term contract extension because of Lawrence Timmons. When they drafted Timmons in the first round in 2007, they said he was an outside linebacker. In 2008, however, they placed him behind Foote at the inside "mack" position.

At this time last year, Foote said it was a fait accompli that Timmons would take over his spot, calling it "political." That did not happen. Foote started for his fifth consecutive season, and Timmons played in the nickel.

Foote cited this as another reason for leaving the Steelers, that he was turned into a two-down player. But he only played on passing downs during his pro career when James Farrior was injured, which was rarely.

The problem for Foote is that his buddy, Farrior, has not slowed down. Farrior is 34, and Foote will be 29 in June. Timmons' qualities seem to fit Farrior's position -- involved in more drops and pass defense rather than merely being a run-stopper -- more than Foote's. It seemed logical that when the Steelers placed Timmons inside, ultimately he would take over for Farrior, not Foote.

Perhaps, Foote read the tea leaves wrong, as well. It might have been the Steelers' intention to do just that in 2010, to replace Farrior with Timmons. Farrior signed his third contract with the Steelers in 2008, a five-year deal worth $18.25 million. He will have earned almost $10 million of that through 2009 with close to $3 million for 2010.

It's possible the Steelers hoped to keep their options open by keeping Foote this season. That way, they could judge how Farrior held up and whether to re-sign Foote after 2009 or stick with Farrior.

They still might have that option open because Foote will become a free agent after his one-year deal with the Lions expires.

It's also possible that the Steelers wanted to see how things went in training camp and then either ask Foote to take a paycut or release him. It's not usually how they operate, though.

They released Joey Porter early in 2007, but he was due a huge roster bonus that March, so that was practical on their part. Foote did not have such a bonus coming his way.

But Foote took the initiative and forced their hand. It would not have looked good to the rest of their locker room had they kept Foote on the roster, then released him in August.

Foote may have been a luxury they could not afford, but they had a perfect setup with him and Timmons last season. Also, Timmons could play outside if James Harrison or LaMarr Woodley were injured. Now, he will start and perhaps play every down except when they go to the dime defense.

What they do not know is if Timmons can hold up playing every down inside as did Foote, who did not miss a start in five seasons. And they also do not know if he will be as successful in that run-stopping role.

But those are decisions NFL teams must make every year in the salary-cap era.

Walk years: Key players and the 2009 season

With the money and the salary-cap room the Steelers saved by releasing Foote added to the savings from Hines Ward's new deal, the Steelers should be armed to negotiate some contract extensions with select players entering their final year.

They have many from whom to choose, including Casey Hampton, Brett Keisel, Ryan Clark, Willie Parker, Heath Miller, Jeff Reed, Max Starks, Willie Colon and Justin Hartwig.

They had been negotiating only with Starks, mainly so they can get a lower cap figure than the nearly $8.9 million he will count as their franchise player this year without one. That will be a tough sell because it's already guaranteed and the signing bonus on a new deal would have to be enormous.

So, who should be their next priorities?

Miller would have to be high among them. He's irreplaceable for what he brings to the Steelers' offense, a combination of good blocker and receiver. If they do not sign him, he would be in his prime and could be attractive to a team that would use him more as a target in the passing game, and thereby also make him more of a Pro Bowl candidate.

If the Steelers do not sign Miller and there is no new collective bargaining agreement, Miller will not be an unrestricted free agent but a restricted free agent, and the Steelers could maintain their rights to him.

If there is an uncapped year in 2010, players need to be in the league six years and not four to become a UFA. Many of the players are not aware of that, including Miller.

"Oh, really?" Miller said. "No, I didn't know that."

Keisel, Clark, Parker, Hampton, Reed, Starks and Hartwig all would be UFAs. Colon also would be, like Miller, an RFA if there is no new CBA.

An interesting note on Hampton: His salary in 2009 will be much less than that of 2008. He earned $3.8 million in 2008 and will make $3,075,000 this season as negotiated in the contract extension he signed in 2007.


Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com .


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