Monday, January 19, 2009

Were the 1969 Steelers the 2009 Pirates?

Ya know, GW enjoyed crossing over and watching the Black and Gold hammer its way into the Super Bowl. The Steelers were so good that they could afford squandering opportunity after opportunity to put away an excellent Baltimore eleven, and that's impressive. Just ask Tennessee or Miami.

But GW remembers the days of "Hey diddle diddle, Rogel up the middle" and the gridders' sad sack history, the groans of "Same Old Steelers" and gnashing of teeth over the tight purse strings of the now beloved Chief, Art Rooney.

In other words, the Steelers of yore were the Pirates of today.

But in 1969, the Steeler's began an era of success that most fans consider to be their rightful legacy; most don't remember the bad ol' days. And maybe that offers a glimpse into the Pirate blueprint going down the road.

The most obvious sea change was bringing in Chuck Noll to coach, and that professionalized the whole organization, bringing an outsiders perspective to the Steelers. He built a whole new culture on the North Side, much like Frank Coonelly and Neal Huntington are doing now in the Pirate offices.

One major change was instead of signing vets whose better days were behind them, the suits turned to the draft to revitalize the team. Art Rooney Jr., scouting guru, was suddenly appreciated, and his skills and focus were sharpened by head-butting sessions with Emperor Chaz. Bill Nunn beat the bushes of the small black college circuit, turning up gem after gem for the team.

The team turned over personnel almost overnight, getting younger, stronger, and faster. But the transition wasn't easy by any stretch of the imagination. They had just one win in Noll's opening campaign, and it took four years to reach the promised land of playoff football.

But once they got there, the system was in place, and generally fed on itself. There were some down times, to be sure, but drafting new blood and judiciously bringing in free agents for targeted positions filled the gaps. They've qualified for the post season 24 times since 1972, and brought home the crown five times.

How does this correspond to the Pirates' new trail blazers? Well, there are certain similarities.

The Pirates are stripping down the team, preparing for a brave new world of competitive ball a couple of seasons down the road. The Steelers won just a dozen games in three seasons until they broke out with Franco's Immaculate Reception. So you have to stay the course and keep building the roster until you reach a critical mass of talent, and it's not a quick or painless process.

Second, player evaluation and scouting were finally accepted as the key component to replenishing the organization. Greg Smith seems to have a much better eye for talent (and a much larger budget for signing them) than Ed Creech, and Rene Gayo is taking the role of Bill Nunn, scouring the Latino sandlots, baseball's equivalent of the traditionally black college beat.

Will the Pirates be able to successfully bring in free agents like the Steelers? That has yet to be seen - first, you need pieces to fill, not a tabula rosa, before that road is taken. And to their credit, they're not bringing in has-beens to placate the fans and present potential blocks for the youngsters.

There is, of course, one difference. The Steelers operated without a cap until 1994, and did pretty well, making 14 playoff appearances in 22 years beginning in 1972. The did OK with the cap, too, reaching the post season 10 times in 15 years. But there was one huge game-breaker involved in that deal.

The Steelers non-capped years coincided with the NFL's lack of free agency. Guys with Pittsburgh were basically Black and Gold property, much like the pre-Curt Flood days of baseball.

When free agency was granted in 1992, the league quickly adopted a cap in 1994 when they saw how the escalation in player contracts was threatening to cause a huge divide in the league's competitive balance. They also don't guarantee contracts, although bonus money is carried on the books for the length of the deal as "dead" money.

That sword swings both ways - the NFL is now considering scrapping the cap after the 2010 season, so obviously they don't consider it a cure-all in its present form.

The Pirate 2008 financials, as far as we can figure, are $139M in revenues, according to Forbes Magazine, with $50.8M spent on payroll, or about 37%. Pittsburgh is among the bottom dwellers in both figures.

The NFL cap is set at about 60% of league-average revenues, but they don't have to support the costs of a minor-league system, thanks to the NCAA. The cap and the amount plowed back into salaries helps mitigate the effects of free agency to a degree.

You can look at the Bucs payroll a couple of ways - it's less than a quarter of the Evil Empire's checkbook, but just $200K less than Tampa Bay's salaries. The key is how you spend your money, not how much you toss around, though more cash does make it easier to overcome the clunker deals that are killers to smaller franchises and just cash burners to the big boys.

The lesson to be learned here from the Steelers is that with some team-building skills - a mix of pups, contract extensions, and minimal and targeted free agent signings - you can compete in Pittsburgh no matter what system is in place.

The Steeler template of 1969 - change the culture, blow up the team, draft some talent, and ride out the growing pains while working within the economic system of the times - looks a lot like the Pirate roadmap of today. Let's hope they can pull it off half as well.