Originally posted on This Given Sunday  |  Last updated 3/17/12
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We see it all the time. A once great team manages to keep all of its key components, but inexplicably, that team appears to be just a shell of its former self. The most recent case was the 2011 Indianapolis Colts. Yes, I realize that the biggest key of all, Peyton Manning, was absent, but even the rest of the team looked a little slower, and a lot less effective. What happened to the Colts? Did their players lose their ability to play? The answer is actually, in a way, yes.

There are a number of reasons that the Colts fell from their spot atop the AFC in such a short period of time. Peyton Manning's injury hastened the process, but signs of weakness had appeared in full measure in 2010 when the Colts narrowly won the weak AFC South. The three factors most in play in the Colts fall was aging, mediocre drafting, and salary cap woes. When those three factors occur at the same time, a team is virtually doomed to blow up their roster and start over.

In the Colts' case, that's exactly what happened. The Colts were overpaying a number of veteran players past the prime of their careers, and it prevented them from bringing in talent via free agency. That, combined with the fact that the Colts didn't draft very well over the past five to seven years, resulted in one of the sharpest declines of a team in NFL history.

There are a number of teams currently in a similar situation that the Colts were in just a couple of years ago, most notably the Steelers. Over the past two decades, the Steelers have been masters of bringing in new, young talent to replace outgoing older players. Over the past few years, however, their defense has stagnated, and their salary cap situation has deteriorated significantly. No, the Steelers aren't about to experience a collapse as great as the Indianapolis Colts of 2011, but they are flirting with a defensive implosion.

Just this offseason, the Steelers have released long-time veterans Aaron Smith, James Farrior, and Hines Ward. Those players haven't been overly useful to the Steelers over the past few years, but they were cut for salary issues, especially in Farrior's case. The Steelers have no spare money to bring in any free agent talent, leaving the draft as their only resource for adding young players. Unfortunately, they pick deep in the draft because they were still a good team in 2011. When you look at the Steelers of 2012, you won't be able to see many differences in that team from the 2011 squad, meaning they're basically the same team, just a year older.

The NFL has always been a young man's game, but it's even more so that way now than it ever has been. When rosters begin to age, there's precious little time for general managers to add an infusion of youth to the team before the entire roster ages to the point of no return. When a roster decays to that point, the only option is to start over, and that's not something most NFL teams are interested in doing. The easiest way to avoid long rebuilding periods is to simply no when to go find young players and when to let the veterans past their primes go.

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