TAMPA, Fla. – Several years ago, then-Falcons general manager Rich McKay stood on the team's practice field and related one of the simpler formulas for Super Bowl success: Don't miss.
Don't miss on first-round draft picks. Don't miss on major free agent signings. Don't miss on internal evaluations that can lead a team to critical mass.
"The margin error for mistakes in [the salary-cap era] – particularly when it comes to first-round draft picks – is very, very small," McKay told Yahoo! Sports in 2006. "There are some studies out there on it, where some of the most successful teams, as much as it is about finding talent, it's equally important to not run into the big mistakes. … That's with high draft picks as much as anything, because you are talking about time and money that will be invested. When those draft choices don't return on that investment, not only are you losing what you put in, but you're in a situation where you lose something you were counting on to impact the surrounding pieces as well."
And while those words foreshadowed McKay's own downfall in Atlanta, arguably no team has been a better case study in success than the Pittsburgh Steelers. With a front office that has remained intact despite its success this decade, the franchise has set the standard in disaster avoidance. In a pivotal run, the team has gotten solid to significant contributions from every first-round pick (it's too early to label Rashard Mendenhall) since director of football operations Kevin Colbert became a key decision maker in 2000.
During that same span, Pittsburgh has successfully absorbed mid-level free agent signings and weathered some major free agent losses, while avoiding the massive blunders of some other elite franchises (the Corey Simon debacle in Indianapolis, for example). Add it all up, and it's the real world equivalent of a stock broker picking blue chips for eight consecutive years and never suffering a net loss.
"They have been able to sacrifice or make tough decisions about their free agents and quickly integrate new talent in there and keep rolling," Arizona Cardinals general manager Rod Graves said. "They've lost coaches and have been able to hire new guys and keep rolling. They have an outstanding foundation when you look at it. When I think about how successful they have drafted and how well they coach, that's the kind of successful team that we'd like to be. … It can't be understated how difficult that [ability to reload a team] is. Especially when you're talking about a winning team. Eventually, all successful teams become a victim of that success."
Pittsburgh certainly hasn't been immune. Fellow personnel men need only take a look at the roster of the 2005 Super Bowl team to appreciate how well the Steelers have handled losses. Running back Jerome Bettis and offensive lineman Jeff Hartings retired, and the franchise watched a handful of major talents leave via free agency over the next two seasons – linebackers Joey Porter and Clark Haggans, offensive lineman Alan Faneca, safety Chris Hope, wideout Antwaan Randle El and defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen.
That's a staggering amount of talent and leadership to lose in a two-year span, and only looks that much more impressive when viewed through the lens of this Super Bowl run. And while much of the acclaim has spotlighted the coaching of Mike Tomlin and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, it's been the ability of the talent evaluators – guys like Colbert, pro personnel coordinator Doug Whaley and college scouting coordinator Ron Hughes – to consistently deliver the talent fitting the needs of the staff.
"I've talked consistently about that – how fortunate we are to be coaching for a team that gives you players like that," LeBeau said. "The character of the player drafted is so important, and they just don't miss there. … On the defense, we got Ryan Clark and Travis Kirschke [in free agency]. Those are two guys where I don't look at either one as mid-level [free agent] players. Ryan Clark has played safety with Troy Polamalu and they've given us as good of safety play as I've ever seen."
The decision-making process when it comes to talent is more of a village effort, with Colbert and Tomlin having the most sway. Colbert always split those duties with the previous coach, Bill Cowher, who thought so highly of Colbert that Cowher credited him with giving him a "second wind" after Colbert left the Lions following the 1999 season to join Pittsburgh.
But while the coaching regimes have changed, the characteristics of Pittsburgh's building efforts have remained the same – always with an emphasis on investing money smartly and on good character players who fit their systems and style of play. While other teams have broken the bank with free agent signings, the Steelers have rarely gone down that road, choosing instead to go with modest and economically sound contributors like Clark, offensive lineman Justin Hartwig and running back Mewelde Moore. Ultimately, the larger contracts have gone toward re-signing the Steelers own cornerstone players – quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, wideout Hines Ward, safety Polamalu and linebacker James Harrison.
"For us, when we sign back one of our players, that is a big free agent signing," Colbert said. "We like to reinvest in our own. We have stepped outside of that to sign Jeff Hartings who was a starter on the other Super Bowl team. James Farrior is a signing for us back in '02. Obviously he is still a great player for us at this point. For the most part, if you sign your own, you don't have a lot of salary cap left to work with so then you have to do a good job and maybe get a [free agent like linebacker] Keyaron Fox who comes in and does his role on special teams. You kind of know what you're looking for and then just try to find that right guy to fit."
Colbert at the NFL scouting combine in 2006.
(Darron Cummings/AP Photo)
For Colbert's nine years, it's been a near-bulletproof formula. Yet it is Pittsburgh's first-round successes since 2000 that have arguably been the most impressive feather in the franchises cap – despite consistently picking outside of the draft's top 10. Consider those selections:
2000: Wide receiver Plaxico Burress, No. 8 overall: Burress developed into a solid threat with the Steelers, but his character flaws ultimately led to the team allowing him to leave via free agency after the 2004 season. Despite that fact, he was still a pick that went into the team's win column.
2001: Nose tackle Casey Hampton, No. 19 overall: Despite battling weight issues of late, Hampton is a four-time Pro Bowler and has been the anchor of the defensive line since arriving in the NFL.
2002: Guard Kendall Simmons, No. 30 overall: He has suffered some injury issues along the way, but has been a starter for every game he's ever been healthy. The Steelers basically were able to plug him in and watch him develop into a solid player.
2003: Safety Troy Polamalu, No. 16 overall pick: One of the best safeties in the NFL and a consistent game-changing talent. His career looks to be on the road to the Hall of Fame.
2004: Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, No. 11 overall: A franchise-making selection at a position that can often destroy teams. Roethlisberger is the youngest starting quarterback to win a Super Bowl, and is playing in his second Super Bowl in only his fifth year.
2005: Tight end Heath Miller, No. 30 overall: One of the league's best young tight ends. He's a complete player, too – a constant pass-catching threat and a major contributor in the running game.
2006: Santonio Holmes, No. 25 overall: While he hasn't quite ascended to a Pro Bowl level, he's arguably the Steelers best deep threat and helps keep defenses honest against the running game. He has game-changing abilities in the return game as well.
2007: Linebacker Lawrence Timmons, No. 15 overall: While he hasn't cracked the starting lineup just yet, that has more to do with the players in front of him than it does with Timmons' abilities. Yet he's still turned into a major contributor (65 tackles and five sacks this season) and is expected to be one of Pittsburgh's next great middle linebackers.
2008: Running back Rashard Mendenhall, No. 23 overall: Showed some flashes of brilliance early, but had his season cut short with an early injury. He's expected to factor big into the running game next season.
Those picks say nothing about the big draft scores beyond the first round – players like linebacker LaMarr Woodley, cornerback Ike Taylor and undrafted free agents like Willie Parker and Nate Washington. There have been plenty of middle-round misses, too – even some second-rounders like linebacker Alonzo Jackson and cornerback Ricardo Colclough – but the Steelers have been able to make those mistakes and get away with it because of their performance in free agency and the first round.
"Hats off to our scouts," said Ward. "They've done a phenomenal job. You see all the draft picks, especially in the first round, I don't think we've ever had a bust in the first round. They do a lot of diligence as far as looking over the draft picks, making sure they're great character guys. That's the one thing about Pittsburgh, you won't find too many character issues about the guys they draft."
That formula has delivered one Super Bowl trophy for this group with potentially a second on the horizon, and helped the franchise steer clear of catastrophe. Clearly McKay was right – the margins for error in the salary-cap era are small. But then again, so is the list of Pittsburgh's personnel mistakes over the last decade.