clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

SB Nation Top Five: Most Significant Pittsburgh Free Agency Losses

New, 3 comments

These five free agency departures had the greatest impact on Pittsburgh sports.

Watching the aftermath of LeBron James' "The Decision" extravaganza, I thought of the classic Christmas movie "It's A Wonderful Life." The movie tells the story of the redemption of George Bailey, a man who is so distraught on Christmas Eve that he intends to kill himself by jumping off a bridge. Losing LeBron is devastating and I'd imagine many Cleveland fans are ready to emulate George and take a plunge into the Cuyahoga. Perhaps Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert had those fans in mind when he wrote in an open letter, "Some people think they should go to heaven but NOT have to die to get there." He's probably hoping fans take his advice so he won't have to deliver on his crazy personal guarantee that the Cavs will win an NBA championship before LeBron.

But that's not why I thought of the movie. Nor did I think of it because of the title. While I, like most Pittsburgh residents, generally love to revel in Cleveland's misery, I can't take any joy in LeBron's departure. LeBron's connections to Ohio and particularly the way he chose to leave, make me feel sorry for Cleveland. As reflected in Gilbert's letter, many think that the accident of where LeBron was born demands he stay and be Cleveland's savior. In other words, LeBron should stay loyal to his home, even if it means giving up what he really wants.

Which, if you think about "It's A Wonderful Life," is exactly what George does. He takes over his father's building and loan company, knowing that if he does not, the evil Mr. Potter will take over and leave people without homes. George gives his college money to his brother, with the agreement that the brother will take over the company after college. When his brother returns with a wife and a lucrative job offer from his father-in-law, George once again gives up his dreams and lets his brother out of the agreement. When a panic hits and the citizens try to get their money back from George's company, he and his new wife give up their honeymoon money to  save the day. He gives up all his dreams because he is the sole person who can save his town.

In the end, it's these selfless acts that make George a hero. It'd be nice if LeBron, like George, had done what was best for Cleveland and not himself. But for better or for worse, the real world doesn't often work that way.

Pittsburgh sports fans have actually had a pretty wonderful life when it comes to free agency losses.  Nevertheless, plenty of players have left town, and their departures have been significant.  Here are my top five most significant free agency losses.

5. Mike Vrabel
Despite the Steelers' consistent success throughout the 1990s, it was clear the team could not keep up when it came to free agency. Players such as Carnell Lake, Leon Searcy, Chad Brown, John Jackson, Hardy Nickerson, Eric Green, Yancey Thigpen and Deon Figures all departed during that decade. Granted, the Steelers didn't necessarily want to keep all of those players, but surely they would have liked to have kept many of them, particularly Chad Brown. The construction of Heinz Field was a necessity if Pittsburgh was to keep more of its premium players.

Nevertheless, one of the most damaging losses in free agency was Mike Vrabel, a player the Steelers easily could have kept. Unfortunately, the Steelers weren't sure how to use him.  Vrabel, like many Steelers linebackers, played defensive end in college. The Steelers tried using him in a standup linebacker role, as a rusher in the dime defense, and even as a defensive tackle at one point. Also, even if they had picked a role for him, Vrabel was blocked due to the Steelers' usual "problem" of defensive depth. Throughout his time with the Steelers, he was stuck behind other outside linebackers like Carlos Emmons, Jason Gildon and Joey Porter. Knowing he was not in line for a starting job with both Gildon and Porter on the roster, Vrabel signed with the Patriots in 2001 for a bonus of $225,000. Vrabel went on to be a solid player, if not a minor star. It's hard to fault the Steelers given their depth, but if they had known how good Vrabel would be they certainly would have made room on the roster.

4. Rod Woodson
One of my clearest tragic sports memories is seeing Rod Woodson crumple to the unforgiving Three Rivers artificial turf against the Detroit Lions in 1995. Seeing the Steelers' best defensive player seriously injured on opening day was a crushing blow. I didn't have much faith that the Steelers could make the Super Bowl with Rod on the sidelines, and I thought the season had gone down the tubes. Woodson was so awesome the Steelers refused to place him on the injured reserve list, in the hopes he would be back for the playoffs. Showing that the signs around Three Rivers declaring Rod to be God were accurate, Woodson did return for the Super Bowl, a fantastic recovery time for an ACL injury back then.

The injury may have cost the Steelers a lot more than one season of Rod, though, as he left the team in 1996 under unpleasant circumstances. Woodson was 31, and after his injury it seemed he was slowing down.  By January of 1997, Ron Cook captured the mood as I remember it: Rod was done. The Steelers offered Woodson a three-year deal, but he wanted a longer deal, and he blamed then-director of football operations Tom Donahoe for driving him from the Steelers. He signed with San Francisco but was cut after his first year. He then signed with Baltimore, switching to free safety, and played there for four years. Woodson played well on those great defensive teams in Baltimore. It would have been nice to have an all-time Steelers great finish his career in the 'Burgh.

3. Neil O'Donnell
I sent out this list to the other SB Nation Pittsburgh writers to see if I missed anyone obvious. I was planning on mentioning that fact no matter what, so that in the event I forgot someone really obvious, I could defect blame: "It wasn't just my fault! We're ALL idiots!" (If you love this list, though? ALL ME.)

Luckily, Fellow SB Nation Pittsburgh writer Michael Bean gave me a credible reason to mention the discussion. He wrote, "Neil O'Donnell kept us from winning one for the thumb (or more) in the 90s."

I was nodding my head in agreement. Absolutely! We started Jim Miller and Mike Tomczak in 1996. The Kordell Stewart era officially started the year after. With a competent quarterback, we probably would have gone to one or two Super Bowls.

Next line: "He doesn't belong on the list."


Steelers fans hate Neil O'Donnell for his Super Bowl XXX performance, and I don't blame them. O'Donnell's two interceptions to Larry Brown were unforgivable. Peyton Manning's interception to Terry Porter was brutal, but at least we can say Porter made a brilliant read and play. The interceptions to Brown were just... like schadenfreude, the English language doesn't have a word to describe them. I've always imagined the afterlife, if it exists, would let us finally get answers to questions that were unanswerable on Earth.  I'll demand to speak to Neil O'Donnell so I can ask him, "What the hell were you doing on those plays!?" Then I'll be told, "Oh, him? You can't talk to him." I'll be crushed: Neil O'Donnell has screwed me even in the afterlife! "Why not?" I'll say.  "Because he's BURNING IN HELL for what he did," will come the reply. SWEET! Take THAT, Neil O'Donnell's soul!

But the fact is that he was a competent quarterback, and a competent QB with a fantastic defense can win Super Bowls. (See: Trent Dilfer). The problem is Steelers fans look back on O'Donnell and those mid-90s Steelers teams and dream about what could have been had the Steelers had a great QB. Then they convince themselves losing O'Donnell was no big deal, because he wasn't great.

Replacing O'Donnell with a great QB would have been nice, but we replaced his competent play with TERRIBLE play. That's a bit like dumping a crazy girlfriend who cheats on you, only to replace her with an even crazier girl who cheats on you EVEN MORE. Then all your friends congratulate you because, in theory, you might have replaced the first girl with a really sweet one.

But the Steelers didn't really believe Tomczak or Stewart represented better QBs. The team obviously wanted to keep O'Donnell, as they offered him $18.75 million, a pretty good sum for the time. If he were as terrible as fans claim, the Steelers would have let him walk and spent that money elsewhere. The Steelers have been consistently good for most of the last two decades because their front office makes sound decisions. They knew O'Donnell was the best bet by far.

As I said in my entry on Vrabel, the Steelers were consistently unable to keep some of their veteran players. For the most part, the Steelers had great depth at every position and could afford to let many guys go. Quarterback was not one of those positions. O'Donnell utterly failed with the Jets, but his team was awful. With a familiar Steelers cast around him -- how often does a Super Bowl team use a different QB the next season? -- who knows how many rings the Steelers would have won in the '90s?

2. Jaromir Jagr
On July 11, 2001, the Penguins traded Jaromir Jagr and Frantisek Kucera to the Washington Capitals. In return, the Penguins received Kris Beech,  Ross Lupaschuk and Michal Sivek. None amounted to anything. Beech, the prize of the trade, scored only 10 goals in his first season with the Pens. He played only 16 more games after that before being traded.

I'm cheating a bit here, because Jagr didn't leave via free agency. But trading Jagr saved the Penguins over $10 million. General Manager Craig Patrick denied the trade was about money, but no one really believed it. ("I think it's 90 percent, maybe 93 percent, about money," wrote Sports Illustrated analyst Kostya Kennedy.) Patrick said that Jagr asked to be traded and that they couldn't keep him around. Seven years later, Jagr said the obvious: He had asked to be traded because he knew the team couldn't afford to keep him. Shortly after joining the Capitals, the team signed him to a $77 million deal spread over seven seasons. The Penguins would not have been able to afford that deal, and not being able to afford a guy is essentially the same thing as losing him to free agency.

Jagr was ultimately a disappointment for the Capitals, and I don't know if he would have made a difference in Pittsburgh. But the Jagr trade, in my mind, is significant because it was a turning point. The Pens' financial woes were apparent back in 1998, when the team declared bankruptcy. Mario Lemieux was owed so much money he converted that into equity, receiving a minorty stake in the team. The Pens began slashing payroll after Jagr left, and they missed the playoffs each of the next four years. The corresponding horrific records and a bit of draft luck enabled them to draft Marc Andre-Fleury, Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby. After the NHL locked its doors for the 2004-05 season, a new economic structure was put in place, allowing teams like the Penguins to keep their superstars.

Jagr's departure is thus significant because it reflects how much trouble small market teams then had with the league's economic structure. Hmm, that sounds like a familiar problem...

1. Barry Bonds
If Jaromir Jagr is significant because it marks the lowest of lows from which the Penguins and the sport of hockey as a whole have recovered from, Bonds is significant because his departure predates Jagr's by almost a decade, and MLB has yet to come up with a good solution to the problems faced by small-market teams.

I could have "cheated" like I did with Jagr and named any number of Pirates players, because very few players left via free agency over the last 18 years. Most were traded, and while guys like Aramis Ramirez, Brian Giles and Jason Bay were all fantastic players, the Pirates were never competing for the playoffs. When Jagr was traded, the Penguins were still a playoff team.

Bonds did leave via free agency in December of 1992, signing a then-incredible six year, $42 million deal, and he became one of the most dominant players in baseball history. His incredible accomplishments needn't be listed here. It's enough to say that his departure is similar to LeBron's, because while baseball has survived in Pittsburgh, the team still hasn't righted the ship almost 20 years later. Let's hope that 10years from now, Andrew McCutchen doesn't top an updated version of this list.

Photographs by dizfunk used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.