Bring on Weekend (cont.)
Posted: Thursday March 15, 2007 5:59PM; Updated: Thursday March 15, 2007 5:59PM
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."
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