He isn’t a free agent. He isn’t even heading into the final year of his contract. But make no mistake about it, one of the biggest and most difficult decisions the Steelers must wrestle with heading towards free agency is what to do with franchise pillar Troy Polamalu.
There are no easy answers. No one in Steelers Nation eveys the choice in front of Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert and Art Rooney II.
Nonetheless, choices and decisions must be made.
Troy Polamalu Capsule Profile
Kevin Colbert waited until 2003, going through 3 full drafts, to make his foray into trading up in the first round. The Steelers entered the 2003 NFL Draft holding the 27th pick in the draft. Despite finishing an Al Del Grecco dive short of the AFC Championship, the Steelers secondary was in desperate need of repair.
Lee Flowers had aged badly and Dewayne Washington was slipping. Colbert feigned lack of concern to start the off season, declaring that the Steelers liked their defensive backs.
- Then he promptly dropped 11 picks to take a young safety from USC.
That safety was Troy Polamalu. At some point, popular lore will read that the Steelers traded up, grabbed Polamalu, and Polamalu’s march to the Hall of Fame began.
- Except it didn’t happen that way. Not even close.
Polamalu didn’t start a game as a rookie, as the Steelers secondary struggled looking to have regressed even more. It wasn’t until 2004 that Polamalu broke the starting line up, and it was then that he took off. By the season’s fourth game, it was clear that Polamalu was what my friend and colleague Ivan Cole at Behind the Steel Curtain calls a “Generational Player” – someone capable of stepping up to make game changing plays at any given moment.
- The first example of this came vs. Carlson Palmer and the Bengals, as Polamalu nabbed and interception and leveled Palmer for the go-ahead score.
Since then there have been so many more such moments that counting them goes far beyond the space provided.
Suffice to say, Polamalu name unquestionably belongs along side those of Ernie Stauntner, Joe Greene, Jack Ham, Jack Lambert, Mel Blount, and Rod Woodson in the debate over who was the franchise’s best defender.
The Case for Keeping Polamalu
And it is because of his legacy in Pittsburgh, that Polamalu deserves to go out on his own terms. The Steelers are rarely sentimental when it comes to making personnel decisions – ask Franco Harris.
- But the unceremoniously dumping of veterans like Franco and Woodson bother Dan Rooney to this day
The Troy Polamalu of 2015 clearly isn’t going to be the Troy Polamalu of 2013, let alone the Troy Polamalu of 2010 or 2008. But he’s still a respected leader in the locker room, and still can provide valuable mentorship to an otherwise young group of defensive backs.
- There’s no question that if Polamalu returns, he must accept a pay cut – his salary cap number is $8,250,000.
But, if he’s willing to take a pay cut and assume a role similar to that played by Jerome Bettis in 2005, then Polamalu should come back.
The Case Against Keeping Polamalu
Of course the problem with Polamalu taking a “Bettis like role” is that you can’t simply plug a strong safety in the way you can do it with a running back in short yardage situations – the margin of error is too high.
- The truth is that by the end of 2014, the Steelers only glaring weakness on defense was in the secondary.
And the brutal truth is that that self-same secondary played some of its best ball during the season’s final four games with Will Allen starting and Polamalu out injured.
A year ago, the case for keeping Polamalu was simple: The Troy Polamalu of 2013 might not have been the Troy Polamalu of 2010/2008, but he was still better than most other players in the league at his position. It’s hard to make that case after watching him in 2014.
In his prime, Troy Polamalu was one of the NFL’s true great, not simply one of the Steelers greats.
- Polamalu finished 2014 in relative anonymity, which is perhaps a blessing given the decline in play. A decision to bring him back in 2015 could change that, adding a painful end to one of the Steelers most prolific defensive backs.
Curtain’s Call on Steelers and Troy Polamalu
In a perfect world Polamalu would take the decision out of the Steelers hands and simply decide its time to begin life’s work. And that may very well happen.
- If he doesn’t, then the Steelers have some decisions to make.
There is no doubt that they’ll ask him to accept a pay cut. Would Polamalu accept? Probably.
And if Troy really thinks he can give it one more go, than the Steelers will probably let him. That might seem like and in fact ‘be’ a bad football decision in terms of pure X’s and O’s, but Michael Mitchell, Shamarko Thomas, and Robert Golden could do worse to have some like Troy to counsel them on the sidelines.
But all parties would best be served by Polamalu decision to begin his “Life’s Work.”