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ESPN The Magazine: Cap Jacked
ESPN The Magazine

So this is what it feels like to get fired when you think you're the office ace.

Driving home from Pittsburgh after completing his ninth season with the Steelers, linebacker Levon Kirkland was riding high and about to switch to cruise control for the summer. At a meeting just before he left town, coaches had thanked Kirkland for playing most of the season on a high-ankle sprain and praised him for performing at his highest level since 1998, when his relentless style made him a starter in the Pro Bowl.

Kirkland slipped on his shades, pressed down on the accelerator and headed south for his off-season home in North Carolina. He'd just finished his sixth consecutive season as the team's defensive captain, five with 100 tackles or more. He had not missed a start since 1994. The Steelers fans adored him. At 32, he was the highest-paid player in the NFL at his position. Life was good.

Then Kirkland's pager buzzed. He didn't recognize the number, so how important could it be? Though cut-down day was nearing -- when Kirkland knew teams traditionally axed their stars to squeeze under the salary cap -- he had already survived his meeting, with flying colors even. He slowed down and returned the call. It was local sportswriter Ed Bouchette. "The Steelers are thinking about cutting you," Bouchette told him. A stunned Kirkland, who had expected to retire in black and gold, had to pull over to the side of the road to get his bearings. The Steelers were about to carve out their heart to save their wallet.

In the NFL, this is what they call getting salary capped. "It just came out of nowhere," says Kirkland. "It was a total surprise, a total shock. In a day, your whole life is spun completely around. You remember that scene in Fatal Attraction where Glenn Close was flicking the light switch off and on? Well, that was me, man. Only I was watching old tapes of the Steelers, crying and yelling at the TV, 'I can still play this game! I can still play!'"

Just not for Pittsburgh.

When Kirkland finally got in touch with the Steelers, coach Bill Cowher confirmed his worst fears. "It's strictly a financial thing," the coach said. "This has nothing to do with your playing ability." But it had everything to do with his earning ability. "You bleed for a team and it means nothing," says Kirkland, the team's MVP in 1998 and 1999. "Every fan hollers about how the players aren't loyal to the team. Well, maybe it's the teams that aren't loyal."

But it's tough to be loyal in the cap's version of survival of the fittest. After failing to make the playoffs for the third year in a row, the Steelers decided to put a premium on boosting their rushing attack in 2001. To do that, they re-signed bulldozing running back Jerome Bettis to a six-year, $30 million deal and grabbed free agent lineman Jeff Hartings from Detroit with a six-year, $24.25 million deal. Already snug up against the cap and strapped for cash while playing their final season in 30-year-old Three Rivers Stadium, the Steelers needed to even their books.The first place they looked was Kirkland's line.

Not his numbers: Kirkland has averaged 117 tackles per season since 1996. Not his heart: He played most of last season with a painful high-ankle sprain. Not his consistency: In a world full of specialists, Kirkland is an every-down player who has the power to stuff runners and the speed to hang with receivers. Not his character: Kirkland, the son of a preacher, has been a fan favorite, an exemplary citizen and a locker-room leader since the Steelers drafted him in the second round in 1992.

"If anyone was going to stay there, I thought it would be him," says Seattle linebacker Chad Brown, a Kirkland teammate in Pittsburgh back in '96. "You can go on and on about the guys who have left, but Levon has been there through all of that, and he's given them everything."

But the Steelers were focused on what trumps all else in today's NFL: Kirkland's impact on the salary cap. In 2001 Kirkland would have been the highest-paid Steeler and a whopping $5.8 million cap hit ($4.8M salary plus $1M prorated bonus) for a player Pittsburgh believes has lost a step. To compare, the 2001 paychecks for Pro Bowl inside linebackers Ray Lewis ($3.3M), Stephen Boyd ($1.7M) and Sam Cowart ($664,000) add up to less than what Kirkland was to earn. And in Pittsburgh, where they have linebackers to spare, erratic quarterback Kordell Stewart can cost $4.8 million in cap money, but Kirkland at $5.8 million doesn't add up.

"You work yourself up to be one of the best," says Kirkland, "and then it seems like you become a casualty if you aren't topping your own numbers every year. If you make a lot of money, you better play your butt off every day and pray they like what you are doing."

In this case, the collective bargaining agreement worked against both Kirkland and the team. Since he has never been a free agent, the team could not significantly reduce his salary without first releasing him. And because Kirkland would still account for $1.9 million against the Steelers' 2001 cap number (a combination of his prorated signing bonus and salary based on the timing of his release), Pittsburgh would start any open-market bidding war for Kirkland's services in the hole by almost $2 million -- which means other teams could pay Kirkland more and take much less of a cap hit.

"You respect a player who has done everything you drafted him to do," says Kevin Colbert, the Steelers director of football operations. "But $5.8 million was a very high number for this stage of Levon's career. I don't think Levon thought about that. It's like a credit card. At some point you have to pay the bill. You hold on to a player too long and it can cripple the rest of your team."

The team filled Kirkland's spot by shifting sixth-year player Earl Holmes ($1.94M cap hit) inside and signing bargain free agent linebacker Mike Jones ($1M) from the Rams to take his spot. This is the essence of caponomics: The Steelers replaced Kirkland for roughly half the cap cost and used the savings to finance their deals with Bettis and Hartings.

It certainly seems like a shrewd move, just as long as AFC Central running backs like Eddie George, Corey Dillon and Fred Taylor all get turf toe in training camp. The Steelers essentially gouged a gaping hole in their latter-day Steel Curtain and used the material to patch up their 18th-ranked offense. The cap functions like a slimy car dealer who convinces you to sell your brakes to buy a bigger engine. And it turns selfless warriors like Kirkland into selfish mercenaries. "You grow up playing this game and being told to never put yourself above the team," Kirkland says. "But with the way the NFL is now, players would be stupid to not look out for themselves before the team."

Unlike a lot of quality cap casualties, such as defensive linemen Cortez Kennedy and Mike Mamula, Kirkland's phone kept ringing, although few teams had the spare change to complete the call. After mild interest from a handful of teams, including the Bengals, Kirkland eventually signed a three-year, $7.5 million deal with the Seahawks, a team desperate for defensive help after giving up a league-worst 399.4 yards per game. The Seahawks ended up getting Kirkland's invaluable intangibles -- attitude, leadership and experience -- for a cap cost that was a total of $3.3 million less than the Steelers would have had to carry.

"When Levon became available, it was shocking," says Seahawks linebackers coach Johnny Holland. "Once in a while you can get one or two guys who can change the entire chemistry of your team. Players see Levon playing at a high level and it all just snowballs. The thought process changes. Guys start catching on and figuring out how to get it done."

But the month he spent twisting without a team seems to have changed Kirkland. He started taking real estate classes in Charlotte and considered retiring. "You sit there without a job for one week and two weeks, and you start to wonder," he says. "I was very close to a point where I was ready to let football go."

The contract from the Seahawks did not arrive until after the Steelers called with a lukewarm offer to take him back, one that the old gung-ho Kirkland would have jumped at. "But I couldn't go back to a team that had put a knife in my back and then tried to put tissue paper on it and say, 'Everything's fine,'" says Kirkland. "I asked myself, 'Will you ever be the kind of player who puts his heart and soul into everything for this team now?' Getting released was the best thing that ever happened to me, because it helped me put into perspective how football is just a business."

Before heading west to Seattle, Kirkland made one last trip to Pittsburgh to pack up his house and say goodbye to his friends and former teammates. As he drove through the famous Fort Pitt tunnel and saw the new football stadium, Kirkland was shocked by his reaction: He felt nothing.

"It seemed like they had released me two years ago," he says. "You look back and think, 'You know what, Levon? You were making the most of your time in Pittsburgh, but were you really enjoying it?' And the truth was, I really wasn't. It was time for a change. I was like, 'Let's roll on outta here. I'm gone.'"

And here's the capper: The Seahawks' new inside linebacker will cost the Steelers $1.9 million against the cap.

This article appears in the July 23 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

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