Free to go, some Steelers prefer to stay
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By Ed Bouchette
Linebacker Larry Foote's determination to leave the Steelers was unusual. Normally, players fight to stay with them.
That holds true for a number of Steelers as they enter the final year of their contracts looking for new ones.
"I'm just speaking from my knowledge of being around here and that this is a great place to be," said defensive end Brett Keisel. "You have great owners who care about you, a great family atmosphere here in the locker room, so it's a great place for a player like myself who was drafted here."
Like other teammates who have one year left on their contracts, Keisel prefers to sign an extension before the 2009 season and remain right where he is. That wasn't the case with Foote, who pushed his way out of the last year of his contract when the Steelers released him Monday.
The previous time the Steelers publicly acknowledged acceding to such a wish came in 1994, when they traded unhappy tight end Adrian Cooper to the Minnesota Vikings for draft picks in the third and sixth rounds. (Cooper, a stockbroker, went to federal prison in 2006 to serve more than six years for securities fraud.)
Unlike Cooper, Foote was not unhappy with his contract or with the Steelers but believed he would lose his starting job to Lawrence Timmons and wanted to start anew at age 29 somewhere else.
Foote had a year left on his contract at almost $2.9 million. The Steelers announced through a statement by Kevin Colbert that they released Foote in a salary cap move.
Foote's yearning to be free was among the motives players used as they fought for free agency in the 1980s. Good players stuck behind other good ones wanted to have the option of signing with another team so they could play regularly.
They were accorded that right when free agency became part of the collective agreement in 1993.
But while players fought bitterly for free agency, including a strike in 1987, many players today do not want to become free agents. The system may grant them that right, but it does not mean they must be happy when it happens.
Examples with the Steelers are many and include some of their biggest stars such as Alan Faneca, who expressed his displeasure publicly in 2007 when he and the Steelers could not come to terms on an extension. He signed last season as a free agent with the New York Jets when the Steelers made no contract offer. Others who left as reluctant free agents included Rod Woodson, Gary Anderson, Carnell Lake, Greg Lloyd and Plaxico Burress.
Before Faneca, Hines Ward held out at the beginning of training camp in 2005 when a contract extension was not yet done. Ward could have become a free agent in 2006 but did not want that. James Harrison wanted his new contract this year and did not want to wait to become free in 2010.
Few players have wanted to play out their contracts and become free, although some do leave, such as Nate Washington and Bryant McFadden this year. Washington and McFadden, though, might have accepted contract extensions last year to stay if they were offered at the right price. Guard Chris Kemoeatu re-signed with the Steelers this year after becoming a free agent, turning down a reportedly higher offer from the New York Jets.
Players cite security, familiarity and general happiness for reasons they want to stay with their current team.
"From my standpoint, if guys have an opportunity to sign before their final year, it's kind of job security," said Steelers tight end Heath Miller, who has one year left on his contract. "Football is such an unpredictable sport in some respects. Guys can have a career-ending injury or season-ending injury, so I think job security is something that's valuable in this sport.
"And in my case, certainly when you play for an organization like this, I can't see myself wanting to go anywhere else. I definitely hope it ends up good."
"It comes down to the basic necessity, security," said tackle Max Starks, who has his second one-year contract with the Steelers in two years and would like a long-term deal. "Most guys want that security of knowing where they're going to be the next couple of years. And nine times out of 10 the guys who usually want to stay before their contracts are up are happy with their team situation and want to be with their team."
It's not just with the Steelers, either. Before he signed as an unrestricted free agent in 2002, linebacker James Farrior wanted to stay with the New York Jets.
"I didn't want to change things and go through the whole learning process again," said Farrior, the Jets' first-round draft pick in 1997. "It's like being a rookie all over again. I think that's the biggest thing, going to a different team, meeting different people, new friends, learning all the things everybody else goes through. If you like the routine you're in, you want to stay in that routine."
Yet Farrior's move "turned out great for me." His career thrived with the Steelers: two Super Bowl rings, two Pro Bowls, a big contract and captain of the NFL's No. 1 defense.
So, why don't many players want the free agency that was granted them back in 1993? Tunch Ilkin, the Steelers' union player representative and Pro Bowl right tackle during the fight for free agency two decades ago, said it's a misconception.
"It's not that nobody wants free agency," said Ilkin, a Steelers broadcaster. "You may not want to become a free agent yourself, but that fact there is free agency has driven up players' salaries.
"They're right: You play for a team long enough, you don't want to go anywhere, especially with the Steelers. Who would want to play anywhere else? But before free agency, there was no bargaining."
Ilkin understood Foote's desire to leave because "he feels the handwriting's on the wall." Ilkin cited his case when the Steelers drafted him in 1980 and talked about that of linebacker Mike Vrabel. Ilkin was drafted as a center -- and Mike Webster wasn't going anywhere soon. The Steelers released Ilkin but eventually he returned and became a Pro Bowl tackle.
The Steelers never could find a spot on their frontline defense for Vrabel, so he left in 2001 as a free agent and became an important part of New England's defense that won three Super Bowls.
Ilkin did note an important difference between becoming a free agent and almost a free agent. Players entering the final year of their contracts often talk about wanting an extension at "fair market value" even though others set that market when they went through free agency.
"Some guys want to find out what they're worth on the open market," Ilkin said. "Unfortunately, you still hear that from guys with a year left on their contracts, and they don't realize you can't get fair value with one year left."
Foote's release will provide the Steelers more opportunities to sign some players in their final years to contract extensions, and perhaps make someone happy that, in this free-agency era, did not become a free agent.
First Published May 8, 2009 12:00 am