With Hoke, Steelers lock in loyalty
The transaction received only a few paragraphs of notice, even in Pittsburgh-area newspapers. But the signing of backup nose tackle Chris Hoke to a contract extension earlier this month said a lot about the way the Steelers' organization operates.
Whereas some NFL teams regard their backup players as mere chips in an ongoing poker game, Pittsburgh's front office seems to understand their value.
Take a guy like Hoke, a seven-year man out of Brigham Young. This would have been the final year of his contract, so his bosses locked him in through 2010.
True, not one NFL fan in 10 outside of Pittsburgh has ever heard of the guy. He was inactive for three of his first four seasons in Pittsburgh, and he was once cut briefly to make room on the roster for the legendary R.J. Bowers (a now-forgotten running back). He had 12 tackles last year, no sacks. He's probably never been mentioned on Sportscenter.
So why bother signing him? Because football remains a sport of violent collisions, and starting nose tackle Casey Hampton could go down on the field of battle at any time. It happened six games into the 2004 season, and Hoke stepped in and played solidly -- if not spectacularly -- for the rest of the year.
The contract extension ($6 million over four years, a $1.5 million signing bonus) was announced on June 21, but it had obviously been in the works for some time. Otherwise, the Steelers would have been forced to draft another run stuffer.
Keeping Hoke simply made more sense. You can't keep everybody, and salary-cap restrictions prevent hiring a team full of stars, even if the owner was Bill Gates or Warren Buffett.
Chris Hoke is not, and probably never will be, a star. Although he has a quick first step, he generally runs like a 305-pounder. He won't be pushed around in the middle, he knows the system inside and out, and he's loyal. If need be, he can step in, start and not embarrass himself.
Moreover, interior line monsters like Hampton don't run many marathons, and often need a break for a few plays -- especially during the warm months of the early season. If the replacement is inexperienced, the opposition will zero in on that spot along the line.
"I feel like they (the Steelers) respect what I do," Hoke told the Valley Independent of Monessen, one of the few newspapers that bothered to interview him after his signing. "It would be fun to start, but the thought of going somewhere else -- you might not mesh with the coaching staff or the players or the organization, and the next thing you know you're out the door in a year or two."
Hoke joined the team as an undrafted free agent. The Steelers have more than a few of those.
For as they say, dogs with pedigrees may get you attention, but if you get one from the SPCA, he'll always be grateful.
Even as a backup.