DETROIT - When defensive end Chike Okeafor left the Seattle Seahawks 11 months ago and came to the Arizona Cardinals as a free agent, he caused a stir with his comments.
“I felt alone,” Okeafor said of playing in Seattle. “Not surrounded by enough people that thought like me, felt like me, played like me on a day-to-day basis and loved the game like me.”
The Seahawks needed change to reach Super Bowl XL.
The Steelers were forced to undergo some changes and still reached Super Bowl XL.
The construction pattern of the two Super teams provides an interesting contrast.
Seattle made some important draft picks this season, like starting linebackers Lofa Tatupu and Leroy Hill. But six other players, including five key defenders, were all free agent signees.
The Steelers, meanwhile, lost some free agents like receiver Plaxico Burress and offensive linemen Oliver Ross and Keydrick Vincent. But as is their habit, Pittsburgh just replaced them with guys they had already groomed on their roster.
“Whatever the plan of action is,” said Cardinals vice president of football operations Rod Graves, in town for Super Bowl weekend, “you have to do it well.”
The Seahawks, as Okeafor pointed out, were in a more dire need of player transfusion.
Seattle had 16 free agents a year ago. Some they wanted gone. Others they knew they had to have back.
The team managed to pull off the offensive trifecta, resigning quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and tackle Walter Jones to long-term deals, and using the franchise tag to keep running back Shaun Alexander.
“Some things fell into place for us,” Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren said.
Okeafor and linebacker Orlando Huff both left for the Cardinals, while cornerback Ken Lucas left for Carolina.
Meanwhile, the Seahawks brought in free agents to play cornerback (Andre Dyson and Kelly Herndon) and defensive line (Chuck Darby, Bryce Fisher and Joe Tafoya), along with receiver Joe Jurevicius.
“We made a good argument for each and every move that we made,” said Seattle president of football operations Tim Ruskell. “But we had to do something. And we didn’t look back.”
And it worked as the Seahawks motored to an NFC title.
“You can’t argue with Chike’s comments,” Seahawks defensive end Grant Wistrom said. “There were a number of guys that weren’t really committed to winning. But those guys aren’t here anymore.”
Wistrom stressed that Okeafor wasn’t one of those players, and in fact, the Seahawks reportedly offered Okeafor a similar deal to Arizona’s.
The Steelers, on the other hand, rarely get into a bidding war with another team. If a guy is going to leave as a free agent, Pittsburgh usually wishes them luck and moves on.
That’s one of the reasons the Steelers don’t have many high-profile stars, and the ones they do have were drafted. Linebacker James Farrior and center Jeff Hartings are the two free-agent signees on the current roster that could even be considered close to a bigger-name pickup, and frankly, neither one has a big “Q” rating.
“(The organization) set their standards when they won the Super Bowls in the ’70s,” Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert said. “Coming in, you understand what those standards are.”
Those standards, said linebacker Clark Haggans, require Pittsburgh to look at character as much as playing ability. Egocentric players need not apply.
The stability for the Steelers plays a role, too. Holmgren is a veteran in Seattle, now coaching in his seventh season — and that doesn’t measure up to the 14 years Bill Cowher has coached in Pittsburgh.
“I think if you change coaches, you’re an expansion team,” Steelers owner Dan Rooney said. “If you want to change coaches every two or three years, that’s what you are going to be, and it’s hard for an expansion team to (win).”
There was one common thread that both the Seahawks and Steelers had coming into this season: that their way was going to get them deep into the playoffs.
“You’re never as far away,” Cowher said, “as some people may perceive you to be.”