During training camp this summer All-Pro Steelers defensive end Aaron Smith made it clear he was not one to go gently into this good night. When asked about retirement plans he was very open with the Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette:
No, I don’t think I’ll know. They’ll have to tell me. My personality is I feel I can do anything. I’ve always felt anything is possible; you can always turn things around. I’m kind of an optimist. Maybe, it’s denial to a point. It would be hard for me to admit it to myself.
“Someone would have to say, ‘Hey, Aaron, you’re not doing this, you’re not doing that. You need to hang it up or something.’
One must wonder if just such a conversation has already taken place on the South Side between Smith and the Steelers braintrust as the Ed Bouchette is reporting that the Steelers have ended Smith’s season by placing him on injured reserve.
To take his place on the roster, the Steelers have activated practice squad player Corbin Bryant, who joined the team as an unrestricted free agent who played so well in camp that some observers doubted the Steelers would be able to “sneak him on to the practice squad.”
From No Where to Starter
Aaron Smith joined the Steelers in 1999 as part of Tom Donahoe’s final draft class as a fourth round pick out of North Colorado.
Smith drew the ire of fans by staging a mini-hold out during his rookie training camp, and only played six games as a rookie recording all of one tackle.
But it was during the 2000 summer at Latrobe that Smith exploded out of no where to establish himself as a starter. He started opening day in 2000, missed the following week, and then returned on week 3 vs. the Tennessee Titans. From there Smith started every game for the next seven seasons until injuries caused him to miss a game in the middle of the 2007 season.
During that time Smith established himself as one of the best, if not the best 3-4 ends in the league. 3-4 defensive ends don’t normally pile up pretty statistics, but during 2004 Smith registered 8 sacks 3 forced fumbles in 2004. Not concidentally the 2004 Steelers won 15 straight games that year.
Injuries Take Their Toll
During Mike Tomlin’s rookie campaign the Steelers lead the NFL in defense overall, but by the end of the year they’d lost much of their edge, finishing the year at number one due to the tremendous advantage they’d built up earlier in the year.
Some naysayers even claimed the unit had “gone soft” in allowing the Jaguars to run over them in late December. The simpler truth was that the Steelers defense wasn’t the same without Aaron Smith.
In 2008 and the Steelers led the NFL in defense and came within a hair of setting a number of all-time defensive records on their way to Super Bowl XLIII. Again, there’s no coincidence that this happened with Aaron Smith back as a full-time starter in peak form.
However, against Detroit in 2009 Aaron Smith torn his rotator cuff and quickly went on injured reserve. He was back again in 2010, but this time after six games he tore his triceps. Although Aaron Smith did not go on IR, he never played another down.
Smith returned in 2011 – many thought the Steelers might part ways with him, but did not look the same. Smith injured his foot during the Thrashing in Texas, and missed both the Titans and Jaguar’s games.
The End of the Line?
Little information circulated about Aaron Smith’s injury and prior to today no press reports indicated that it was potentially season-ending.
It is possible that Smith’s injury worsened but it is just as probable that the Steelers have concluded that Smith can no longer help the team.
With Chris Hoke and Casey Hampton both declared out for the game vs. The Cardinals the Steelers needed to activate someone from their practice squad, which also meant someone on the roster needed to go.
If the Steelers thought Smith could still contribute in 2011, it is unlikely that they’d have ended his season. And, sadly, it is even more likely that this spells the end of Aaron Smith’s career.