By Christina Rivers
Steelers fans still reeling from the loss to Cincinnati and the fact that the Steelers won’t be seeing post-season action in the 2012 NFL season have many wondering if they will get another opportunity to see their favorite Pittsburgh players back with the team in 2013. Free agency, personnel moves and restructuring are always concerns for teams as well as fans. With the NFL unlikely to make any move towards raising the salary cap for next season, there are several players that may put on the black and gold for the very last time in the game against the Cleveland Browns Sunday. The reality of a poor year added to concern about the loss of their favorite players has Steeler Nation in a downward spiral of concern and disappointment.
The minimal increase to the salary cap last season isn’t expected to be much better in 2013, if it raises at all. That puts the Steelers in a precarious situation as restructuring will be a big part of their off-season worries. Omar Khan, considered by many to be a salary cap guru, may even have a tough time negotiating new contracts and moving the money around to save certain players’ careers with Pittsburgh. The following players will become unrestricted free agents after the season: NT Casey Hampton, S Will Allen, T Max Starks, LB Larry Foote, LS Greg Warren, G Ramon Foster, C/G Doug Legursky, CB Keenan Lewis, S Ryan Mundy, CB Justin King, QB Charlie Batch, QB Byron Leftwich, WR Plaxico Burress, RB Rashard Mendenhall and WR Mike Wallace.
Beloved backup quarterback Charlie Batch will finish his tenth season in the NFL on Sunday. Batch showed that he can still win games (as he did in Week 13 against the Baltimore Ravens), but age is always a concern for all NFL players. Byron Leftwich is having more difficulty remaining healthy the past few years. The Steelers may feel comfortable with both players because they have a good rapport with their teammates and an uncanny ability to keep up with the playbook. Unfortunately, Pittsburgh may be shopping for a younger quarterback in the off-season. Jerrod Johnson looked good in camp only to see the team release him. Unless Ben Roethlisberger is unable to play against the Browns, one or both may not even get into the final game of the season.
Rashard Mendenhall is rumored to want to play outside of Pittsburgh. After his demotion and then one-game suspension, he came into the Bengals game and gave a 50-yard performance. The problem is that Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman spent the majority of time on the field in 2012, and Dwyer has become the more prominent back. The Steelers have been searching for a premiere back to carry the majority of the rushing duties, and it doesn’t appear that mentality will change in the course of a few months or longer. Insiders who thought Mendenhall would be in that starting spot for quite some time started losing favor and eventually started talking more and more about Dwyer and Redman, even though the 2012 season had the Steelers scrambling to find a healthy offensive back to put into games.
Mike Wallace held out in training camp for a new deal and then had a sub-par season for the Steelers I 2012. Wallace was criticized heavily by fans who expected a lot more from the young player. If Pittsburgh were to place the franchise tag on Wallace, it would seriously limit their ability to buy into other players and restructure free agents due to the cap situation. It would also seriously compromise the ability for the Steelers to retain Antonio Brown, who was given a 5-year contract extension during training camp. While the Steelers brought back Plaxico Burress for emergency purposes late in the season, they are unlikely to keep him after the season. Inactive for two consecutive weeks, he is highly doubtful to be activated on Sunday as well.
In the NFL today, it is harder to keep whole teams together season after season. The Steelers have traditionally been able to hang onto players longer than many other NFL teams. In several press conferences from opponents in 2012, they pointed this fact out. Across the league, fans are finding it increasingly difficult to buy that one jersey of their favorite player that lasts for more than several years. It hasn’t necessarily kept them from buying new ones of players as they make a spark for their favorite teams, but the 21st Century NFL appears to have a revolving door effect as teams that have struggled try to put together a solid team.
While final cap numbers and free agency news is still a little way off yet, there leaves little doubt that many of those coveted players and their Steelers jerseys will see their last wear before they are put in the closet or sold to the highest bidder.
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Christina Rivers is freelance journalist and photographer with a life-long love of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Credentialed with the organization, Christina provides a unique perspective gained through her knowledge and understanding of Steelers history, the Rooney family and relationships with past and present players. Her work can be found on Examiner.com.