By Scott Brown
Saturday, March 3, 2007
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - The backdrop at Walt Disney World on Friday offered a stark contrast to the reality rammed home to two of the Steelers' most prominent players a day earlier.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and wide receiver Hines Ward are at a veritable fantasy land this weekend, taking part in the annual "ESPN The Weekend" at Disney's MGM Studios, and both said they understand that football at this level is a business as much as it is a game.
But each also said that realization didn't make the loss of outside linebacker Joey Porter, who was released Thursday because of financial considerations, any easier.
"I got better playing against Joey Porter," Roethlisberger said yesterday. "Just everything that he brought made me a better player."
"I think (the Steelers cutting Porter) just shocked everybody, regardless of the situation," Ward said. "Joey's always been the catalyst of our defense, the focal point of our defense. There's no question losing a Joey Porter hurts our team defensively."
His release is another change in an offseason that has been full of them for the Steelers.
Bill Cowher, who had been the Steelers head coach since 1992, resigned in January, and no one is sure what shape the Steelers will take under Mike Tomlin, especially after what happened with Porter.
"(Alan) Faneca called me, some of the veteran guys, my phone has been blowing up like, 'What the hell are we doing?' " said Ward, a nine-year veteran. "A lot of guys are questioning what's going on, kind of worried about the makeup of this team, where we are actually going to go."
Ward said he has talked to Tomlin, liked what the new coach had to say and is excited to play for him.
But Porter's release was, if not unsettling to Ward, at least the equivalent of cold water thrown in the face.
Ward is one of the highest-paid Steelers, and his salary will count $5.9 million against the salary cap this season.
"As a veteran guy, you look at (what happened to Porter) and you worry a little bit because you lay it out on the line to try to do what's best for the team and then you see players get cut," Ward said. "You sit there and say, 'Uh oh. Am I next in line?' "
Ward, whose contract doesn't expire until after the 2009 season, said the Steelers have not approached him about restructuring the deal. But, he acknowledged, after next season the two sides will probably have to do something to make his contract more amenable to the salary cap if he is to stay with the Steelers.
Porter had one year left on his contract, but it was a foregone conclusion that he wouldn't return to the team unless he and the Steelers worked out a long-term extension.
Ward and Roethlisberger said his loss goes beyond the numbers Porter posted in sacks, tackles and opponents intimidated.
While the colorful and sometimes controversial Porter rankled his share of people outside of the Steelers' locker room, he was eminently popular inside of it.
"Joey was such a great friend, not only a teammate," Ward said. "Not having him around the locker room, he's going to be missed in that sense. I'm sure Joey would have loved to just retire as a Steeler. Players, coaches, we come and go, it's a part of the business, and that's kind of the (bad) part of it."
"You lose a guy that's such an emotional leader, a phenomenal football player and a game-changer on defense for us," he said. "What the Rooneys felt was the right decision they made, and it's a business for them as well."