Why Do the Pittsburgh Steelers Keep Re-Signing Former Players?

Andrea HangstFeatured Columnist IVMarch 19, 2013

Matt Spaeth is the latest former Steeler to return to the team. Why do they keep doing this?
Matt Spaeth is the latest former Steeler to return to the team. Why do they keep doing this?Karl Walter/Getty Images

Unlike every other franchise in the NFL, the Pittsburgh Steelers appear to be more than willing to bring back players they have cut in previous seasons.

Presently on their roster are linebacker Larry Foote (spent 2009 with the Detroit Lions; re-signed in 2010), cornerback William Gay (had one year in Arizona before returning this month), wide receivers Plaxico Burress (went from Pittsburgh to the New York Giants, to prison, to the New York Jets before coming back to the Steelers in 2012) and Antwaan Randle El (re-signed by the Steelers in 2010 after spending 2006 through 2009 with the Washington Redskins) and offensive tackle Max Starks (cut by the Steelers in July 2011 and re-signed in October 2011).

This week, they brought back tight end Matt Spaeth, a 2007 draft pick who spent the last two seasons with the Chicago Bears. In 2010, corner Bryant McFadden returned to the team after a two-year stint with the Arizona Cardinals, spending two more seasons with the Steelers before finding himself out of the NFL altogether.

The practice seems to run counter to the "what have you done for me lately?" culture of the league. While it's not reflective of loyalty in the traditional sense—all of these players were cut initially, after all—it does show a willingness to value the familiar over the unknown, whether the unknown is in the form of another outside free agent or a draft pick.

In some ways, the re-signings seem to be an admission of a mistake—that the Steelers shouldn't have cut these players in the first place, considering they brought them back the minute they were released from their team or reached the free-agency market.

It's also a glimpse into their financial situation. With the Steelers continually being pressed up against the salary cap, they'd rather cut or let walk players of lower overall value than to give up some of their more expensive players in order to keep a litany of cheaper ones.

The Steelers can then bring them back later, generally at a lower cost than they would have paid to keep them initially. 

This might be just an interesting quirk and not a concerning practice if the return of these players ended up paying major dividends. So far, it's produced a mixed bag of results.

Foote was Pro Football Focus' 46th-ranked inside linebacker (out of 53) in 2012 and 39th out of 51 in 2011, but in 2012 he was their only option, with James Farrior released last offseason and draft pick Sean Spence out for the year with a knee injury.

Starks ranked 32nd out of 76 offensive tackles in 2011 and 71st out of 80 in 2012, but the Steelers had no other choice but to start him, with Marcus Gilbert landing on injured reserve and rookie Mike Adams having issues with his health.

Gay had a respectable 2012 in Arizona in certain ways—he had two interceptions and a fumble recovery—but he also gave up 726 yards and 300 yards after the catch on 52 receptions. Although he gave up just one touchdown on the year, he had only three passes defensed.

For a starter on the outside, that wasn't quite good enough. He's now considered a starting option only in the nickel for the Steelers.

Burress appeared in only four games in 2012 with three starts and played just 34 snaps. He had three receptions on seven targets for 42 total yards and a touchdown.

His re-signing to a one-year league-minimum deal for 2013 may see him get more work. Mike Wallace is gone, and Emmanuel Sanders is still potentially a target for the New England Patriots, which will require Pittsburgh's remaining receivers—Antonio Brown, Jerricho Cotchery and Burress—to take on even more responsibility. 

But the poster child for the Steelers making mistakes by re-signing their former players is McFadden. In his one year as a starter for the Cardinals, McFadden gave up seven touchdowns and notched no interceptions while playing more than 1,100 snaps.

The Steelers decided to bring him back in 2010, making him the starter on the left. Although he managed to pull down two interceptions, he gave up six more scores. A hamstring injury saw him first lose the starting job on the outside in 2011 and eventually the nickel job, and he was released early in 2012. 

Bringing on players from the open free-agent market is always a gamble—they are either highly-talented players who are looking for more money than they should command or past-their-prime talents trying to prove they have something to contribute. So it makes sense that when the Steelers have looked to the market, they've brought back known quantities.

However, it makes one question the judgment of the front office.

On the one hand, if the players were so valuable, why cut them in the first place? On the other hand, if these players couldn't make enough of an impact with their new team to warrant another contract, why would the Steelers want to bring them back?

What makes these older players more attractive than the younger depth currently on the roster? Doesn't it say something about the Steelers' recent draft history that Gay, for example, seems to be worth the team's time and money while someone like Josh Victorian isn't promoted to a larger role?

Those are dangerous questions. 

It's one thing when these re-treads are brought on to take on limited roles or to provide depth. But when they are expected to start—such as Foote and Starks, by necessity, or McFadden, by design—it makes it seem like the Steelers are forced to fall back on a Plan B when it comes to their roster.

These players weren't in the Steelers' long-term plans—that's why they were cut or allowed to move on. But then they're brought back anyway, because the team's long-term plans fell through, either because of injury or because their judgment about certain players ended up being wrong.

In the NFL, new is generally always better, but the Steelers constantly look to the past to improve their future. It's as though they're on borrowed time, hoping to recapture the success of prior years even while trying to build something new that doesn't rest on those fading laurels.

It's not that these re-signings have been complete liabilities for the Steelers. But the fact that they've had to continually re-sign players raises questions about their ability to scout young talent and build a forward-looking roster.