He hurried through the bowels of the L.A. Coliseum wearing only a towel, a frantic 49ers official at his side. For Ronnie Lott, a future Hall of Famer rushing to the locker room of the franchise that had discarded him -- because San Francisco's Charles Haley was in the middle of a scary postgame tirade, and no one else was capable of calming him down -- this was what complete vindication looked like in September of 1991.
More than 15 years later, I remember the strange scene vividly. And the more I think about the Steelers' dubious decision earlier this month to release linebacker Joey Porter, the more I think history is about to repeat.
But first, back to our blast from the past: Lott, one of the proudest and fiercest men ever to wear a uniform, won four Super Bowls in 10 seasons with the Niners, but the team had allowed him to leave as a Plan B free agent following its crushing defeat to the New York Giants in the 1990 NFC Championship game. He signed with the L.A. Raiders and then, in the midst of an All-Pro season, helped thump his former team, 12-6, to drop San Francisco to 2-3.
Haley, Lott's protégé and the 49ers' star pass rusher, freaked out in the locker room -- railing at the team's new quarterback, Steve Young, for failing to pull out the game the way Joe Montana had so many times in the past. At one point Haley ripped an IV out of his arm, causing blood to spurt everywhere. In an act of painful submission, the Niners sent a team official to the Raiders' locker room to summon Lott from the shower, and only then was order restored.
I'm not saying the same thing will happen to Porter and one of his former Pittsburgh teammates when the Miami Dolphins face the Steelers at Heinz Field this season. But I do believe that by the end of 2007, the franchise that employed Porter for the first eight years of his exceptional career will be humiliated for having let him go.
Did anyone else think it was at least slightly insane that the Steelers, faced with paying Porter a $1 million roster bonus and $4 million in base salary for '07, simply cut him, rather than trying to get him to agree to a restructured deal? Porter, who ended up signing a five-year, $32 million contract with the Dolphins that included $20 million in guaranteed money, certainly did.
"I wish I just had an opportunity to turn down a deal," Porter told me earlier this week. "They didn't know what I would've turned down, so why not make an offer? That was the shocking thing -- they didn't even give me the option to stay. That's what was so frustrating."
I've heard the Steelers' rationale: That Porter, who was going into the final year of his contract, wanted a lucrative extension and might hold out of training camp if he didn't get it; that Porter would have struggled to make the switch to the 4-3 defense under new coach Mike Tomlin; that Porter's likely replacement, James Harrison, will emerge as the latest Pittsburgh linebacker to thrive.
More troubling, there's rampant talk in NFL circles that Porter, who turns 30 this week, is somehow finished as an elite player. Critics point to a disappointing 2006 season in which Porter, who missed two games, made 55 tackles -- his lowest total since his rookie season -- along with seven sacks and a pair of interceptions.
Two of those sacks and a game-clinching interception for touchdown (after which Porter planted that memorable kiss on then-Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher) came against Miami in the season opener, which undoubtedly helped convince the Dolphins to give Porter a $12 million signing bonus -- $3 million more than the Steelers have paid any player.
Somehow we're supposed to believe Porter went from being an elite player in September to being washed up by December, when the Steelers' disappointing season ended with an 8-8 record?
Right, and Cowher forgot how to coach, too.
"No way," Hines Ward, the Steelers' All-Pro receiver, said in a phone interview on Monday. "Joey was good last year, too. His role was dropping into coverage a lot, which may not have been what he was accustomed to. So, predictably, his numbers went down. But there are still a lot of good years left in Joey."
Miami, looking for its first playoff berth since 2001, is betting big that Ward is right. With two aging stars, linebacker Zach Thomas and defensive end Jason Taylor, gearing up for a final push, Porter will infuse Dom Capers' hybrid 3-4 scheme with passion, energy and playmaking ability.
As great as Taylor was last season, when he won his first Defensive Player of the Year award, there were too many occasions on which it appeared he and Thomas were playing with a completely different level of intensity than their teammates. Now that Porter is in town, with apologies to Spinal Tap guitarist Nigel Tufnel, the Dolphins will "go to 11."
Says Porter: "I can be that loose cannon, as long as I'm a controlled loose cannon. Nobody's gonna come out and push us around -- I can promise you that."
Ward believes Porter's intensity will be tougher to replace than his sacks, interceptions and forced fumbles. "It's shocking that they let him go," Ward says, "because he was really the emotional leader, the guy who brought out the best in a lot of players. That's why so many veterans -- Alan Faneca, James Farrior and others -- called me when they heard he was released. We were all shocked.
"You can always replace players, but you can't always replace leaders. That's what we lose more than anything. It was tough when we lost Jerome (Bettis) before last year, and then we lost Coach Cowher. Now we lose Joey Porter? It's gonna be different."
Football is an emotional game, one that requires players to put aside logic -- for example, disregarding thoughts like "Why am I thrusting my body into the path of a charging 250-pounder at full speed?" -- for the benefit of those around them. Porter, like Lott before him, is one of those rare players capable of bringing out that maniacal zeal in others. As with Lott, Porter's words carry weight because he is the craziest, most committed man on the field.
And when a player like this has his abilities questioned and his pride wounded -- look out.
Do you think it was insignificant to Porter that, shortly after his release, Dolphins general manager Randy Mueller and first-year coach Cam Cameron showed up in Bakersfield, Calif., to recruit him? They were playing to his wounded pride, and smartly so. Suddenly, Porter once again felt coveted and appreciated, which is one reason (along with the money, of course) that he canceled a scheduled visit to Cincinnati and signed with Miami.
The Steelers, in electing to cheap out when it came to taking care one of their most important players -- not an uncommon occurrence in Pittsburgh over the years -- may have saved some money. But Porter, it says here, will make them pay in other ways.
"For some reason they don't like to pay their own in Pittsburgh," says Porter, who insists he's not bitter toward the Steelers. "I knew that coming in when I watched all those great linebackers get shipped out of there. They draft you, they groom you, but when it comes time to pay, they let you go.
"A lot of my teammates know I brought more than just what you saw on the football field. I brought a mentality. And now, I have a chance to bring that to Miami. A new opportunity brings new challenges. And I'm fired up."