By Mark Madden, Special to The Times
There’s a very simple explanation for the Steelers awarding backup tackle Max Starks a $6.9 million guaranteed contract via the transition tag.
They screwed up.
That must be it. What logical reason could there possibly be for making Starks — who lost the right tackle job to Willie Colon before last season — the second highest-paid player on the team?
The Steelers didn’t want to lose Starks, not after losing center Jeff Hartings to retirement after the 2006 season and guard Alan Faneca to free agency during the current off-season. So they made Starks a transition player, thereby guaranteeing Starks the average salary of the 10 best-paid players at his position and guaranteeing themselves a chance to match any offer made Starks by another team.
Why would the Steelers deem it so crucial to retain Starks? He’s certainly not comparable to Hartings or Faneca. He started in 2005 and ‘06, then lost his position to a fourth-round draft pick from Hofstra. His play has declined. His work ethic has been questioned. Why keep him?
They screwed up.
The Steelers could have withdrawn the transition tag, but — even though not one team pursued Starks in meaningful fashion before he inked his tender — they didn’t do so because they inexplicably still feared losing him. Despite having 6.9 million reasons to sign, Starks initially didn’t, because he wasn’t certain that a transition contract is guaranteed. It is. So Starks put pen to paper.
At that point, the Steelers had really screwed up.
At 6-foot-8, 337 pounds, Starks has obvious potential. He started four games at left tackle last season when Marvel Smith was hurt, playing well. He started at right tackle in 2005 when the Steelers won the Super Bowl.
But now that he’s guaranteed $6.9 million, Starks is also guaranteed a starting job. Colon made just $669,000 last season. Will the Steelers play Colon ahead of someone who earns $6.9 million? No way.
If you don’t justify your investment, you expose your mistake. Sean Mahan got paid nearly $5 million last year. That’s why he started every game at center despite clearly sub-par play.
There is no way Starks can’t start. I wonder what Colon thinks of that?
I wonder what Troy Polamalu and Hines Ward think of Starks’ new deal? Starks makes more than the average yearly value of each man’s contract. Polamalu, a four-time Pro Bowl selection and two-time All-Pro choice, averages $6.6 million per. Ward, a four-time Pro Bowler, three-time All-Pro and Super Bowl XL MVP, averages $6.5 million per. The backup tackle will make $6.9 million.
Ward blows up even when there’s little reason. A financial injustice like this provides ample cause.
The Steelers screwed up.
Only one man can bail them out: Starks. Steelers management wants to renegotiate a long-term deal with Starks, who hasn’t ruled it out — at least not publicly, anyway.
But Starks would be foolish to renegotiate. If you make $6.9 million in one year, it doesn’t much matter what happens after. And, as noted, Starks’ salary guarantees a starting job and the legitimate chance to prove himself that goes with it. Starks might get a little more guaranteed money if he accepts a longer contract, but would it be worth potentially putting himself on the bench?
The Steelers screwed up. Not Starks. He has no reason to help, although he could make the deal look better by maximizing his off-season preparation and getting himself into shape. If the Steelers keep him for the long run, maybe he ultimately replaces Smith at left tackle. That makes sense: Starks is getting left-tackle money now, earning more than Smith (who will make $6.45 million in 2008).
Then again, can the Steelers afford to keep Starks for the long run? What if he plays great this season? What will the Steelers have to pay him next season?
Starks’ financial bonanza undoubtedly affected what the Steelers did on the first day of the NFL draft, though their picks can’t be faulted.
Instead of drafting linemen to shield quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, they chose to protect him with more options. Bruising running back Rashard Mendenhall and towering receiver Limas Sweed give the offense more variety, and the target painted squarely on Roethlisberger’s chest shrinks a bit as a result.
As an additional bonus, drafting Sweed gives Ward a chance to embark on one of his “I’m underappreciated” rants, perhaps with a bit of “I can see Ben got what he wanted” thrown in. Can’t wait.