Strange Off-Season For Starks
Assistant Editor

It’s perfectly understandable that Max Starks would be confused.

When he walked out the doors of the team’s practice facility after a loss to Jacksonville in an AFC Wild Card game had put an official end to the 2007 season, he had to figure the chance of him coming back to the Steelers was slim. Not only would his contract expire shortly to make him an unrestricted free agent, but he also had lost his starting job at right tackle to a younger player back in training camp. Nothing quite says goodbye in the NFL like that combination.

“There was a thought in my head after the way everything ended,” said Starks. “I definitely thought in the back of my mind this may be the last time I played with these
guys. But the goodness of God always makes things possible for you. He knows the true intentions of your heart.

“I knew because of the relationships I built and established here that I could call these guys anytime and they would be there for me. The guys on the team are close and we talk and support each other after they leave the Steelers.”

Then came Feb. 20. The Steelers shocked their fans by placing the transition tag on Starks, which meant they could match any offer he might receive from another team, and for this privilege they were willing to guarantee him a salary of $6.985 million for the 2008 season.

“We wouldn’t transition him if we didn’t think he was starter-capable, and he is,” said
Coach Mike Tomlin at the time. “He’s proven that over the course of his career.”
Put all together, it didn’t seem to make a lotof sense. Starks, a guy judged not good enough to start in 2007, was on track to be the team’s second-highest-paid player after quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in 2008 if he signed the transition tender and then played under those terms.

Surely, Starks would get an offer from another team to present to the Steelers, who also might decide $6.985 million was too much money to pay for a guy who could become an unrestricted free agent again next March. But none of those things happened.

Starks didn’t get any other offers, probably because teams didn’t want to do the Steelers’ negotiating for them, and then the team didn’t withdraw the tender. Starks signed it, and as of today he will play the 2008 season for $6.985 million and then be back on the open market.

“It would give us salary cap relief (to do a long-term deal), and that has been our goal
when we put the transition tag on Max,” said Director of Football Operations Kevin Colbert. “It still remains our goal, and I know that it’s Max’s goal and (agent) Eugene Parker’s as well. We are going to keep those talks alive because there are benefits for everybody involved. Max gets long-term security, we get security at an im-
portant position and we would get some cap relief.”

There has been no bitterness through this entire process. Starks never cleaned out his locker, and the Steelers always said they were interested in keeping him. It was all a bit strange,though.

“It was a growing experience. It was a learning experience,” said Starks about 2007. “It was learning how to deal with adversity, overcoming adversity. I was looking at all of the positives. I had a year where I stayed healthy; I was able to focus on getting better physically. I got to learn all of the positions and be ready to play. There were a lot of experiences. It helped me grow as a man.”

During the 2007 season, Starks never quit on himself or the team even though he was no
longer a starter. He first got onto the field as an extra tight end in short-yardage situations; then he filled in capably when left tackle Marvel Smith had back problems; and the combination of it all had been impressive to those close to the team.

“There are two ways you can go, up or down,” said Starks. “I chose to assess my situation and rise above it and found other positive things to do. It was a great tool for me. It openednew doors and avenues.”

The transition tag showed Starks he was wanted by the Steelers. And once Starks got
some answers to questions he had about the way the transition tag process worked, he signed the tender and joined the Steelers for the start of their offseason program.

“There was a lot of uncertainty. I didn’t know what all the tag meant, how it was viewed,” said Starks. “It was one of those things that was frustrating because I didn’t know and you hear everybody saying different things and having mixed feelings about it.
“Then I found out from the NFLPA that the salary was guaranteed. Once I found out it was guaranteed I wanted to sign it. It’s all about having security.”

It definitely gives Starks short-term security, but he continues to maintain he wants to stay in Pittsburgh. “Every NFL player wants a long-term deal. They want security,” said Starks. “But it’s always up to the organization and how they feel and where they are with regards to the salary cap.

Sometimes you can’t always do what you want to do. I’m just keeping the faith and waiting to see what happens. I would like to have a longterm deal, but I understand if it’s not possible.”

One other thing Starks would like is to get back into the starting lineup. Normally, a tackle
earning $6.985 million for one season would definitely be a starter, but Starks learned his lesson last year — there are no guarantees.

“It’s always wishful thinking to believe if they pay you this amount they want you to start,” said Starks. “But like with anything else, the bottom line is always going to come down to the greater need of the team.

“As an offensive lineman you want the best five guys out there, the ones who get along the best, communicate and get the job done together. You can have a great athlete, but if he doesn’t mesh well with what you’re trying to do... You’re looking for that continuity and chemistry. Hopefully, we can find that.”

And where does Starks see himself fitting into the equation?

“It’s just one of those things that I’m willing to play anywhere,” said Starks. “I have that versatility. Wherever they need me, I'm there."