There was once a time that is was virtually unheard of for the Pittsburgh Steelers to sign in free agency a player that once left them. This was especially true of players that they had released, although Max Starks was a notable exception in 2011 under unusual circumstances.
But the pattern has changed in recent years, starting with the uncapped 2010 season, when they traded for Bryant McFadden, who spent one year with the Cardinals in 2009, as well as Byron Leftwich, who had also previously played for the Steelers. It was not simply those, in fact, but also Larry Foote, who asked for his release following the 2008 season only to come back after a year, and Antwaan Randle El, who spent many years in Washington.
Since then, it has become a sort of a theme almost, with several current players representing their second stints with the organization. The signing of tight end David Johnson yesterday was just the latest example. He was a 2009 seventh-round draft pick who spent five years with the Steelers before a two-year layover in San Diego.
Matt Spaeth was yet another Steelers tight end who experienced a two-year layover in between his two stints with the team. Originally drafted in the third round in 2007, he spent 2011 and 2012 with the Bears before he was released, and Pittsburgh quickly re-signed him. He is on the second year of his second two-year contract now since being back.
Also re-signed that offseason was cornerback William Gay, also drafted in 2007 in the fifth round of that draft. After spending his first five seasons with the team, he, too, signed with the Cardinals, as did McFadden before him, but he was released one year into a two-year contract, and the Steelers, again, quickly re-signed him.
Of course, there is also James Harrison, the former Defensive Player of the Year outside linebacker who was critical in the team’s Super Bowl run of 2008, and in his prime was a dominant player at this position. If sustained over the breadth of a full productive career, he would be a no-doubt Hall of Famer.
After entering the starting lineup in 2007, he earned himself a nice contract in a couple years, but by 2013 he became a salary cap burden, and was released after refusing to take a pay cut. He played for the Bengals for less money in 2013 and then retired…for a few weeks, before the Steelers came calling, and he has been back playing since, now entering his age-38 season and still getting regularly tested for performance-enhancing drugs.
This is a topic that I have delved into in the past, but it says something about an organization that retains such a relationship with its players that so many of them find their way back, and often in productive roles, at a later portion of their career. Many of their outside free agent signings also end up buying into the Steelers way, while few end up leaving willingly.