Five years, $14M for top unrestricted TB

Updated: March 10, 2004, 10:32 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Free-agent running back Duce Staley, the top unrestricted player at his position, could take a bus across the Pennsylvania Turnpike to reach his new home.

Fitting, since the former Philadelphia Eagles star will take the place of "The Bus" in the Pittsburgh Steelers' lineup.

Staley on Tuesday night signed a five-year, $14 million deal with the Steelers, and the team hopes he will resurrect a ground game that last season uncharacteristically ranked as the second worst. Ironically, one reason Staley opted for the Steelers over the Detroit Lions, with whom he visited Tuesday, was the presence of Jerome Bettis, a.k.a. "The Bus."

The contract will pay Staley, 29, a $4 million signing bonus. Over its first four seasons, the contract is worth $12 million, and then the base salary in 2008 drops to $2 million. Pittsburgh had pursued Staley, 29, ardently the past two days and made him a top priority.

A decisive factor, Staley said, was the Steelers' philosophy.

"Just knowing that coach (Bill) Cowher's committed to running the ball," Staley said Wednesday.

Staley played in the last three NFC championship games, all with the Philadelphia Eagles, who ran the ball 36 percent of the time in three losses.

"I've been in three ... where we did not run the ball and we did not get a chance to advance," he said.

His signing means that the Steelers will release Amos Zereoue, a part-time starter in each of the last two seasons. Bettis recently restructured his contract, reducing his base salary to $1 million, to remain with the team for at least one more season.

"It was obvious the Steelers really wanted Duce," said agent Derrick Harrison. "And it was pretty obvious, too, that Duce admires Jerome and wants to play with him. He thinks they'll make for a great twosome."

Make no mistake about it, though -- the Steelers recruited Staley to be the starter. Not in three decades has the Pittsburgh ground attack been as pitiful as in 2003 and Staley will be counted upon to provide instant improvement. The Steelers traditionally have been a power running team and Staley's slashing style should make for a good fit.

"The thing I like about him is when you talk to him and players around him, he's very competitive, but he's very unselfish," Cowher said.

In Detroit, coach Steve Mariucci believed that Staley would be a perfect fit for his West Coast offense. And the Lions acted accordingly by offering Staley more money over the first four years of the contract. They were willing to pay him $13.3 million over the first four years, versus the $12 million Pittsburgh was offering for those years.

One of the reasons Staley favored Pittsburgh is that he grew up a Steelers fan.

"It's a fulfillment of a childhood dream to sign with his childhood favored team," said his agent, Leigh Steinberg.

Added Staley at the Steelers' practice facility: "I got a chance to walk past four Super Bowl trophies. That's the closest I've ever been to those trophies."

The Tampa Bay Bucs were among the other teams interested in Staley, but they opted to sign free agent Charlie Garner earlier Tuesday.

A former South Carolina star, Staley was a third-round choice of the Eagles in the '97 draft. He has started in 65 of his 98 appearances and rushed for 4,807 yards and 22 touchdowns on 1,200 carries. Staley also is an accomplished receiver and has 275 career catches for 2,498 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Three times in his career -- 1998, 1999 and 2002 -- Staley rushed for more than 1,000 yards and he started double-digit games in four seasons. Last summer, he boycotted all of training camp, and that cost him his starting job. Amid rumors that he would be traded, however, Staley worked hard once he reported and coach Andy Reid agreed the Eagles needed him around.

Staley started only four games in 2003, the fewest since his rookie campaign, and ran for 463 yards. But when starter Brian Westbrook went down with an injury, Staley regained his starting spot late in the season and performed well through the playoffs.

Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com. Senior writer John Clayton and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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