Wednesday, April 22, 2009

NFL free agency interviews: Michael Bean of Behind the Steel Curtain

I've been working on an extensive piece for The Good Point on NFL free agency for most of the last month, and finally finished it off the other day; check it out if you're interested in a look at how different NFL teams view free agency and the strengths and weaknesses of certain approaches. Tremendous thanks are due to Will Leitch of Deadspin and New York Magazine, Michael Bean (Blitzburgh) of Behind The Steel Curtain, Sean Yuille of Pride of Detroit and Kevin Ewoldt of Hogs Haven for taking the time to answer my questions. They all have a great understanding of the NFL and how their teams approach free agency.

Of course, space restrictions and the thematic approach I took meant that I couldn't fit all the information I received from these guys into my article, so I figured I'd run some of the interviews here as companion pieces. First up, Michael Bean. Michael runs Behind The Steel Curtain, one of the best and most popular Pittsburgh Steelers blogs on the planet. My questions and his responses are below (with minimal edits for grammar and clarity):

Andrew Bucholtz: How would you describe the Steelers' philosophy with regards to signing other teams' free agents? Why has it been successful?

Michael Bean: The Steelers' philosophy with regards to signing other teams' free agents is one of caution and prudence. You'll rarely see the Steelers compete in high-priced bidding wars for high profile free agents like Albert Haynesworth, particularly if the FAs are over 30 years of age or past their peak window physically. What you will see the Steelers do is go after undervalued guys coming off their first contract; guys like Mewelde Moore, Keyaron Fox, etc. In many instances, the Steelers' scouting department simply sees something in other guys that other teams do not, and in others, there's simply situations with other teams' rosters that account for why they're available in the first place. Mewelde Moore is a great example - where's there room for him with superstar Adrian Peterson and highly paid Chester Taylor in front of him on the depth chart [ed note: with the Vikings]?

A.B.: Obviously, the Steelers have let some of their own expensive free agents walk over the years, particularly Alan Faneca and Plaxico Burress. What did you think of those moves at the time, and have your thoughts changed since then?

M.B.: No, the Steelers' front office has a nearly impeccable track record of deciding when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em. In the case of Alan Faneca, there's just no way to match an offer that made him the highest paid G in the league. Doesn't make sense any way you carve it up. Same with a guy like Joey Porter, who certainly has proven he has a thing or two left in the tank. But there were James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley ready to step in his place, and at a very, very small fraction of the cost.

A.B.: Does the recent large contract extension given to James Harrison indicate a change in organizational philosophy, or is it just a different situation than with Faneca and Burress? Is he less replaceable?

M.B.: I don't think it represents a change in philosophy, though it's certainly a legitimate question considering Harrison's age. People forget that James Farrior also got a big extension in his 30s, so I don't think their philosophy can be compartmentalized one way or another. In Harrison's case, he's just been the best value in the league the past two years...period. I think that part of this contract represents some 're-payment' of sorts for being so amazing at such a small cost and I think that his unparalleled work ethic makes him a safer bet to stay healthy and productive in the coming years than are most guys his age. Harrison, who's referred to as 'Deebo' by his teammates in homage to the character in the movie Friday, was apparently back in the weight room two days after the Super Bowl, and he was ticked off that none of his teammates were joining him there. Translation? This guy eats, drinks and sleeps football - and as has been relayed on to me from sources closer to the team than me - that's the number-one thing the front office looks for in their determination of who to draft and invest in long-term.

A.B.: Why do the Steelers tend to offer players contract extensions a year before they become free agents? What are the advantages and disadvantages of this system?

M.B.: I think the short answer is that they have typically made up their mind a year before players hit the market whether or not to resign them. If they feel good about investing in the player long term, why wait until their value potentially increases and/or another team has an opportunity to nudge their way into the mix and maybe outbid the Steelers. I'd imagine players are more likely to accept extensions before they hit the open market, particularly younger players playing on rookie contracts where they're eager to sign that usually much larger second deal. On occassion, the disadvantage to that may be that a good young player who hasn't had the chance yet to really prove his worth is ruled out as a viable long-term investment but there's not too many examples to point to like that.

A.B.: What do you think of the team's overall approach to free agents? Would you change anything if you were running the front office?

M.B.: I'd sum up the team's overall approach to free agents in one sentence - if you feel you have the best scouting department in the National Football League and are capable of finding talent year in and year out with more consistency than the rest of the league - why dabble too aggressively in a system that's designed for the players' financial benefit rather than trusting in one's ability to fill personnel needs with younger, cheaper guys whenever possible?

Thanks again to Michael for taking the time to answer my questions. You can check out his blog here.

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