On the Steelers: Starks' return an odd dance

Max Starks will make his second consecutive start for the Steelers today at left tackle, which begs the question: What took them so long?

It's not so much what took Starks all of three practices for the first time in 11 months before he started his first game a week ago, but what took him and the Steelers to reconnect?

Turns out, they just needed time apart before they realized there were benefits to a reunion. Although having problems with their offensive line, the Steelers believed that Jonathan Scott could play left tackle and were encouraged with the play of rookie Marcus Gilbert at right tackle in the early going after Willie Colon was lost for the season.

They had released Starks before training camp mainly because of his salary of $6.57 million but also because they seemed ready to move on with Colon, Scott and Gilbert at tackle. This coaching staff has never held Starks in high regard since it arrived in 2007 and promptly demoted him from his 2-year-old starting job at right tackle.

But management kept giving him more and more money. They made him their transition player in 2008 and their franchise player in 2009 before eventually signing him in 2009 to a four-year, $26.3 million contract. The coaches response? They demoted him in 2007 and only returned him to start at left tackle in 2008 after Marvel Smith was done with a neck injury.

Then, before training camp, the Steelers cut him and never moved to re-sign him until his agent received their phone call Oct. 4.

"Once we found out what the salary cap number was going to be for the year for teams, we knew it was going to come out flat and we knew there were going to be a lot of guys released, as you saw, league wide," Starks said. "There are still quality players who are still out there waiting for an opportunity."

Starks said he has kept in shape and worked out for the Kansas City Chiefs, Minnesota Vikings and Detroit Lions. The Vikings and Lions had recent interest and perhaps that moved the Steelers, who also reacted to an injury to starting left tackle Scott when they called Starks' agent the Tuesday before they played Tennessee.

Starks was eating lunch at the Lions facility at the time. He jumped at the Steelers offer of a minimum wage of $810,000 but said had they offered that two weeks earlier, he "probably would have waited, depending on the terms."

"To come in if they just wanted me for depth and be a backup in case something happened, I probably wouldn't have come back."

So here is Starks, back starting at left tackle for the Steelers for $5.76 million less than what he was supposed to earn doing that this season.

A bargain for the Steelers, right? Maybe not.

Starks will be an unrestricted free agent after this season and, at just 29, has a chance to show the entire NFL that he can still play left tackle well enough to command yet another big contract.

"Yeah, at least one more contract to play another four, five years," Starks said. His preference would be to remain with the Steelers. "But you never know what could happen year to year."

You really do never know when it comes to Starks and the Steelers, who have played the kind of dance you might see between a left tackle and a pass rusher.

After all that has gone on, does he feel wanted by them?

"I do. I feel I have a purpose here. That's the biggest thing. But at the end of the day, it's a business.

"You do have loyalty, but is it feasible economically for them?"

The way things have gone, would it surprise anyone if the Steelers put yet another franchise tag on Starks next year ... and the coaches then bench him?

No time for foolishness

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin attracted some attention after he hung up on a conference call Wednesday with media in Jacksonville, Fla. He did so after some persistent questions about the 2007 season playoff game in Heinz Field in which the Jaguars won.

Tomlin asked for questions more pertinent to the game today and when one did not come fast enough, he said thank you and hung up.

It's not the first time nor the last a coach has or will abruptly quit a news conference because he did not like something that was said or asked. I recall at least two where I saw Chuck Noll leave. One occurred in 1988 in the midst of a 5-11 season, when he was asked if he might quit. Another came in the 1980s when he was asked why he did not shake the hand of Sam Wyche, who was Cincinnati's coach at the time.

In the first instance, I don't remember Noll answering; he just got up and left. In the second, he answered and then left. His answer to the Wyche question was something close to, "I had a sixth-grade teacher who told us not to run with the crowd."

Be careful ... big scout may be listening

The NFL this season has put a couple of microphones under the shoulder pads of offensive linemen, mainly centers, to catch all the presnap talk and the grunts and groans of the action up front for broadcast later on the NFL Network.

Baltimore center Matt Birk made news this week when he ripped off his microphone and the NFL fined him $5,000 for doing so.

"When I went out for warm-ups, the microphone came loose and was jabbing my neck," Birk told reporters. "It was tucked in there pretty tight and I couldn't get it back in there, so I just took it off. Then I was notified that I'm not supposed to do that."

Birk's discomfort likely was more with the signals the microphone picked up and may have even come from a suggestion from a coach or two.

Football coaches are paranoid about their signals (and most everything else), and they should be, given what we've seen come out of New England. What the microphone picks up is not shown during the game live, but it still causes yet more problems for offensive coordinators and their players.

"I don't like it," Steelers coordinator Bruce Arians said. "But networks are networks, they run the business. You have to watch what you say at halftime. It really kills you in the no-huddle offense when everybody gets your code words in the broadcasts across the NFL Network and everywhere else. It really puts a strain on you having to come up with new stuff all the time. You have to look through the glossary for synonyms."

For more on the Steelers, read the blog, Ed Bouchette on the Steelers at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Ed Bouchette: ebouchette@post-gazette.com and Twitter @EdBouchette . First Published October 16, 2011 4:00 AM


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