Steelers prep for post-lockout transition period
New Steelers secondary coach Carnell Lake walked through the team's practice facility on Pittsburgh's South Side late Monday afternoon with a purpose.
''Now,'' Lake said as he headed up the stairs to the coaches' offices, ''the real work begins.''
Hours after the NFL's four-and-a-half-month lockout was officially lifted, things weren't quite back to normal yet at Steelers headquarters. But they were at least on the way to getting there.
By Tuesday morning, players will be permitted to report to the team facility for voluntary workouts. And like the other 31 teams, the Steelers will be able to open negotiations with unsigned players.
Still, expect some confusion and chaos during what will be a frenzied week. Even Steelers President Art Rooney II - a member of the owners' labor committee - was hazy on the terms of the transition period for the new collective bargaining agreement and its compacted schedule.
The Steelers will report to St. Vincent College in Latrobe by 3 p.m. Thursday and will perform a conditioning drill. Their first official practice is Friday.
''We only received this memo a short time ago, so I want to put a little caveat out there: I could be wrong,'' Rooney said midway through a late-afternoon Monday press conference. ''I am going to give the best information I can give you.''
It became clear Rooney, like everyone else, still was learning the details of the free-agency period, signing deadlines, reporting dates and training camp practices that traditionally take place over the course of months, but is compressed into mere days in this most unusual of offseasons.
Rooney, for example, mistakenly said teams would have a one-day window of exclusivity to negotiate with their own veteran free agents. He also didn't have any details on whether the league's much-scrutinized discipline and personal-conduct policies were at all to be modified under the new collective bargaining agreement.
''It's fair to say we're in uncharted territory,'' Rooney said. ''We've never had to start up a league year like this. It will be different, but every team is in the same boat. Once we get to September, I know that coach (Mike) Tomlin feels like we'll be prepared to play, and that's got to be our mindset: Be ready to play when the season kicks off.''
Rooney described himself as ''relieved'' the labor strife had finally come to an end. But he conceded that, all along, he expected a deal to be struck around this time ... just as camps were about to open as scheduled.
''It's a long process, it was a lot of hard work,'' Rooney said. ''I was concerned that we could miss games and that was something I didn't want to see - and I know our fans would have been upset by that - so I'm relieved that we got it done and in a time frame that allows us to have a full training camp and a full season.''
Tomlin said back in March that the lockout could, in fact, be an advantage to the Steelers. The team has a veteran roster already set in its ways that, the theory goes, has less to gain from offseason workouts than a younger, less-experienced team.
Also, Tomlin reasoned, the Steelers annually undergo little turnover relative to many other teams. Plus, there was less wear-and-tear this summer on the team's older bodies.
''Having a veteran team can be an advantage in a lot of different circumstances,'' Rooney said. ''But it is hard to predict. It is up to our players and coaches to make sure that is an advantage and prepare in a way to take advantage of that if that occurs.''
Pittsburgh has 14 unrestricted free agents and two restricted free agents, but only one of those players (cornerback Ike Taylor) started on offense or defense last season. Taylor is the only Steelers free agent expected to garner heavy attention on the open market, though other contributors of last season's AFC-champion team are free agents.
Also, the Steelers are currently over the salary cap of $120 million, and Rooney said the team will be talking with some its players about restructuring their contracts to provide cap relief this season.
''Being prepared to get under the cap is something we've been through before. The challenge this time around is to handle that business in such a short period of time,'' Rooney said. ''But our guys are back there right now, trying to work on how we will get there and trying to piece together the rosters.''
The players association successfully negotiated the elimination of two-a-day practices and reduced practice workloads both in terms of frequency and in their intensity.
Rooney said he had ''mixed feelings'' about such things, but that it was an issue the owners gave on.
''It's probably fair to say that if it were up to us, we probably would have had a little different approach to some of the practice rules,'' Rooney said.
Although Rooney said he had not yet spoken to commissioner Roger Goodell about any of the Steelers recent potential violations of the league's personal-conduct policy, he did say that he expected to hear from Goodell soon.
Earlier this month, receiver Hines Ward was arrested on a drunken driving charge, and linebacker James Harrison was quoted in Men's Journal magazine ripping Goodell in scathing fashion.
''These things will be under review by the commissioner's office in due time,'' he said, ''and we will be communicating about these things.''