Kevin Colbert is playing chess while the vast majority of his peers are stuck playing a more simplified and predictable game of checkers. That’s not to say that the Pittsburgh Steelers director of football operations is the only general manager or front office executive that is deserving of praise for being at the top of his craft. Not at all, but when you listen to Colbert talk it’s impossible to not understand why the Steelers have been so wildly successful and consistent since he took over in 2000. Whether he’s talking talent evaluation, organizational culture, salary cap management, or any other topic, Colbert comes across as well-prepared, reasonable, trust-worthy and someone that you’d definitely entrust to manage and enhance the brand of your product.
As a Steelers partisan, you’re free to take my opinion with a grain of salt, but something tells me we’re going to see the Steelers be every bit as tough in 2011 and in the following several years as the teams that made huge splashes during this wild and crazy free agency period. Outside circumstances have never forced Colbert’s hand. He has a vision about how to go about building a winning team and culture, and I think his adherence to that vision will pay dividends while at least a few other teams pay the price for trying to force their way over the top with big-name signings. We’ll see.
Colbert joined 93.7 The Fan in Pittsburgh to talk about not feeling too confident about Plaxico signing with the Steelers despite their successful meeting this weekend, the challenges of preparing for free agency during the lockout, the restrictions the Steelers have faced during free agency because of the team’s salary cap issues, his assessment of the team’s left tackles and whether there’s a plan to still try to add a proven body before the season starts, why the Steelers opted to re-sign Willie Colon to a big five-year deal coming off a season-ending Achilles injury in 2010, how much of a relief it was to re-sign their top priority, Ike Taylor, early on in free agency, whether the team will try to extend LaMarr Woodley before the August 4th salary cap deadline, how important it is for the organization to continue its nearly half-century streak of conducting training camp at St. Vincent’s College, the tough decision to let Max Starks go, and his confidence in Troy Polamalu being back to full strength for the 2011 season.
On how confident he felt that Plaxico Burress would sign with the Steelers after their meeting this weekend:
“Well I was a little concerned quite honestly. The visit went well, everything along those lines went good, but I think the competition for his services actually picked up during the day while he was with us. We tried to work out something with a two-year deal that was hopefully satisfactory to him, and hopefully would be able to fit under our salary cap restrictions, but other teams were able to do things that we couldn’t and we weren’t able to get it done. I’m happy for Plax that he’s got his career back on track, and I wish him luck unless we’ve got to play against him again.”
On the difficulty of trying to handle signings and re-signings when the team has already reported to camp:
“Yeah it is, because we’re doing stuff right now that we’d usually be doing in March, and Coach Tomlin is trying to get the team ready at the same time. So it was hectic over the last, really, four or five days. Omar Kahn our contract negotiator did a great job of really putting together deals in a quick manner, and we’ve just tried to keep pace with what we needed and how we wanted to build our team. And this will continue really throughout the remainder of the preseason because other players will continue to get cut as teams sign other guys, and we’ve got to be ready to go after a guy if we think he can help us.”
How tough it’s been to fill in the gaps in the roster with free agent signings with the Steelers’ salary cap restrictions:
“It was because there was never a definitive set of information about what we were going to be dealing with. We were prepared from an evaluation standpoint as we would have been back in March, but we didn’t know what type of salary cap rules we would be dealing with, what kind of camp restrictions we were going to be dealt, and really we did not get that information until last Monday when it became official and we got the memo from the league. And I actually found out some things on Monday such as new players under contract couldn’t play until August 4th which was something we didn’t find out until last Monday. So that part has been a little unnerving, but again, we’re no different than 31 other teams and we’ve just got to make the best of it.”
Are the Steelers confident in what they have at left tackle or will they still try to add a player:
“We’ll watch it. Jonathan Scott came in last year and did a good job, helped us get to the Super Bowl. We still have Tony Hills back as a restricted free agent, and Tony has provided us depth at both left and right tackle in the past. And then Marcus Gilbert, the guy we drafted in the second round, it’s time for him to accelerate his development because he missed the min-camps and OTAs. It will be a tough spot for him, but again, tough for all the rookies and they just have to adjust. So we’ll watch it, and again, we’ll watch everything not only with our team but around the league and keep our eyes for players that could possibly help us.”
What was it that made him convinced to give Willie Colon a new five-year deal coming off a season-ending Achilles injury:
“Well Willie did that with his play previously. He was a solid right tackle for us, and he’s a key member of our team. And then he had the unfortunate injury last year and missed the entire season. Of course, we couldn’t monitor his progress throughout the season, and really at the end of January he was fully healed. Now, whether or not he was fully ready to participate we wouldn’t know; it wouldn’t matter at that point because he was done for the season because we had placed him on reserve injured. But all the indications were in the offseason that he was healthy. We won’t know that until he gets out on the field and participates, but he should be fine. And again, we were just excited for him to return because he’s been a big part of our success in the past and we think he can be in the future.”
If it was a relief to be able to re-sign Ike Taylor early on in free agency:
“Yes it was because again, Ike has been a big part of where we’ve been. Even though he’s 31, he’s conditioned like he’s a 25-year old and we think he has a lot of good football left in him. We knew Ike wanted to be here, we wanted him here, of course we couldn’t talk to him during the lockout. And that was a little unnerving because other teams could have been doing their homework and saw that he was a really good player, and they may have put together something. But fortunately for us, and I think fortunately for Ike, he’ll be able to finish his career here. And that was our No. 1 priority going into free agency, to really keep our own. We’ve done a pretty good job of that so far. We lost Matt Spaeth to Chicago because he had a chance to be a starter there which he really didn’t have with us. And Nick Eason moved on to Arizona to join Arizona; and he’ll have a chance of more playing time out there, so we understood that. We knew we weren’t going to get everybody, but Ike was certainly the priority of keeping our own.”
On how important it is to extend LaMarr Woodley in order to lower his big cap hit in ’11:
“Yeah, that’s really stuff that we’ll look at in the next wave because right now we’re assessing where we are. We still have some work to do to get in compliance with our salary cap which will be enforced starting August 4th. So there’s still some things to do there. We haven’t really explored the future guys, the guys that are under contract this year only and then they’ll be free agents. Of course we have four significant players in that group — LaMarr Woodley, Troy Polamalu, Lawrence Timmons and Mike Wallace.”
On why the Steelers opted to go to St. Vincent’s for training camp rather than conducting it at the team facility like so many other teams are doing:
“Well it’s important for a lot of reasons. As an organization — myself and Coach Tomlin — really wanted to make sure we got up to St. Vincent’s. It’s important for our fans. With the demand for our tickets, a lot of fans don’t get an opportunity to see our team live unless they come to our training camp. Over the two and a half weeks that we’re here, we’ll probably have 100,000 people come through St. Vincent, and that’s great for our fans. From a team building standpoint, it’s irreplaceable to have these guys together night and day. I mean, they work together, they eat together, they play video games together, they bond. It’s just a team building deal that we would never discount. We were hopeful that we would be able to continue coming to St. Vincent because it’s a great venue, they do a great job of getting the campus ready for us. And we’re always excited about coming here. And I think the players enjoy…not that they don’t enjoy being home, trimming the hedges, planting flowers and doing their family duties in addition to getting ready to football, but here they can focus for two and half weeks on football and getting ready. And that’s especially important this year with the shortened preparation we’re going to have.”
On the tough decision to cut Max Starks, if that decision was unavoidable, and if it’s possible that he might return under a different contract:
“We had to make room, there was no way around terminations that we had to do in Max and Flozell and Antwaan. And they were painful believe me. But we left the door open. If any of those players came back, they would obviously under a different contract. And we all agreed let’s be ready, let’s see where these things go, and we left that door open. Again, over the course of training camp, there’s going to be a lot of interchanging players not only here, but around the league.”
How confident is he that Troy Polamalu will be fully healthy for Week 1:
“Yeah he’s progressing. He knows his body, we know his body, and the trainers are in tune with what he can and can’t do, the coaching staff knows his workload. So he should continue to get himself right physically and mentally dealing with what he has. And we’ll work through it, and I know he’ll work through it.”