Hysteria Eases But Clouds Still Loom

Wallace scores (Bridge photo/USPRESSWIRE)

The hysteria surrounding the Steelers' change at offensive coordinator is abating, but there are dark clouds still looming on the horizon concerning two key offensive players. Jim Wexell explains.

The media swarming all over the Steelers' change of offensive coordinators have been calling it "drama."

I call it hysteria.

And thankfully, that hysteria is dissipating, as any sane person knew it would:

-- No longer are we hearing that Art Rooney II shocked coach Mike Tomlin by firing the guy Tomlin still wanted calling the plays. One city columnist assumed that Tomlin would up and quit. But then followed the reminder that Rooney wanted to fire Bruce Arians two years ago and that Tomlin had stepped in and saved him then. So it's no "shock" to understand why Tomlin could not save Arians this time.

-- No longer are we hearing that ownership forced new coordinator Todd Haley down Tomlin's throat without giving Tomlin a say. That's because Tomlin talked about the research he put into Haley at Haley's introductory press conference. And then on Wednesday morning, on WDVE radio, general manager Kevin Colbert admitted "That was coach Tomlin's sole decision."

-- And no longer are we hearing the greatest hysteria, that Ben Roethlisberger would be so upset about losing his Uncle Bruce that he would pout his way through the Haley tenure – as if Roethlisberger doesn't like to win or something. But we have since learned that Roethlisberger is working out earlier than at any point in his career, that he realizes he's turning 30 in a couple of weeks, and that retaining his much-feared mobility won't come as naturally as it did throughout his 20s.

But there's still the hysteria surrounding the lack of a meeting between Roethlisberger and Haley. Of course, my calendar says it's Feb. 15. Am I four or five months behind by chance?

No, the hysteria is abating and common sense is returning. But not all is a glassy sea. There are a couple of dark clouds on the horizon that threaten to take away two of the offense's best weapons. I'm talking about the storm clouds named Mike Wallace and Rashard Mendenhall.

They could pass, of course. Or they could hammer the region. Let me take them one at a time:

* Wallace has the highest average yards per catch of any active NFL player. In other words, he's the greatest deep threat in the game.

He's also a restricted free agent, and since the new CBA has done away with the first-and-third-round tender, some team could make a whopping offer to Wallace that, if unmatched by the cap-strapped Steelers, would only cost that team a first-round pick.

San Francisco, for one, is drafting low enough in the first round to give up the pick, has enough cap room to make the offer, and is perhaps a deep threat away from being a legitimate championship contender instead of a surprise. It makes all the sense in the world for them, or even New England, to make a quick-strike bid for Wallace, even without stuffing the outlawed "poison pill" into an offer.

Granted, no one has given up a first-round pick for a restricted free agent in the last 10 years, but that doesn't lessen my worry about a 49ers team whose coach could also help his brother in the process.

It's why Colbert was talking earlier in the week about the option of placing the franchise tag on Wallace. It would require a team to give away two first-round picks. But for that extra security, the Steelers would have to pay approximately $9.4 million (as opposed to the RFA tender of $2.7 million) to hold Wallace's roster spot until a long-term contract can bring that salary-cap number down substantially.

It's unlikely the Steelers could open up that much cap space by March 13, so they'll probably have to tender the $2.7 million and hold their breath until the RFA period ends on draft week.

* Mendenhall, who tore an ACL in the regular-season finale, is a different kind of problem.

Most outlets list his 2012 salary at a mere $650,000, but my cap consultant, Ian Whetstone, tells me that performance escalators and a roster bonus will have Mendenhall making $2.325 million this season. By cutting a player in the final year of his contract, the entirety of that figure would cut into a cap problem that Whetstone estimates needs pared by $17 million.

That $17 million doesn't need to be slashed by March 13, the start of the NFL's fiscal new year (they only need to pare approximately $7 million by then). No, the $17 million includes everything such as practice-squad pay and a $2 million fund for in-season activity.

Since Mendenhall would need more than a year for a full recovery – as have all but a handful of running backs in league history – wouldn't it be prudent to cut him now? It could cost the Steelers close to a million in cash to cut an injury settlement. (It's unclear whether that million would count towards the cap; Whetstone doubts it for a release that occurs in the season following an injury.)

So in both the Wallace and Mendenhall cases, it may be wise for the Steelers to follow the money, to take the risk with Wallace and not put the franchise tag on him, and to cut the back with the speed, the power and the hands, but one who has poor vision and a torn ACL.

It's certainly not cause for hysteria. After all, Roethlisberger's not involved. But it's a dark cloud nonetheless.

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