INDIANAPOLIS, IN - SEPTEMBER 25: Troy Polamalu #43 of the Pittsburgh Steelers returns a fumble 16 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 25, 2011 in Indianapolis, Indiana. The Steelers won 23-20. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Despite the excitement of OTAs, it's still the off-season. So let's step back for just a moment and take a closer look at some players who will help to define the 2012 Steelers season. Because he's been in the news a lot this past week, I'm going to begin with Troy Polamalu. (The fact that he is my personal favorite Steeler has nothing whatsoever to do with this choice).
Why has he been in the news? First, because he was at the OTAs this past week. This is a big deal in his case because he generally has not participated in them in the past. Typically he spends the spring working with Marv Marinovich, his trainer in LA. Bob Labriola of the Steelers Digest expressed some concern, as he feels Morinovich's workouts have helped Polamalu stay healthier longer, but he also felt having Troy be a more obvious part of the team leadership is beneficial enough to outweigh his concern.
As reported by Ed Bouchette, Polamalu said he came "for obvious reasons."
"We had a lot of our major leadership leave, people that we count on. I think it's nice for the younger guys to see a familiar face, and, honestly, to get myself better."
"You can't say that it won't affect the team," Polamalu said of the leadership drain. "How we react to it, time will tell, but losing some major players on this team is going to be quite different."
So Polamalu, who has made seven Pro Bowls, decided to do what he called "support his teammates" by turning out for his rare OTA appearance.
"I really don't think anybody really steps into those types of roles and gets out of character that's within their own character," Polamalu said. "Yeah, I am definitely not a vocal leader, if a leader at all."
"He's always been a vocal leader," Foote said. "Especially since he's been here this long, everybody is a leader. He talks out there on the field. He is just not loud and you can't see him, but he's talking."
One way he provides leadership is by his own impossibly high standards for his own play. It must speak volumes to the rookies and newly signed players to know the Defensive Player of the Year in 2010 and one of the top-ranked safeties in 2011 believes he has room for improvement:
"To be honest, every year I ever had was below my standards," Polamalu said. "I have expectations from myself. I have a lot to improve on ... from pass coverage-wise to tackling and run defense. You name it. You spend the entire offseason breaking yourself down and see where you can improve. There is a lot for me to improve."
On the field, Troy Polamalu was his usual self with two interceptions, one of which he returned for a game-changing touchdown.
In the locker room, Polamalu was also his usual self, bemoaning his mistakes, in particular a wild lateral while returning his second interception.
That second interception clinched the game. But as Polamalu was being pursued he tried a lateral to Bryant McFadden, but it went astray. Fortunately McFadden was able to fall on it. Dick LeBeau was not amused, and an iconic photo was snapped of Coach Dad hugging a completely dejected Polamalu as he murmured "it's okay, I didn't mean to yell," or words to that affect. In the post-game interview Polamalu apologized for the lateral, which he said was "incredibly arrogant and selfish and foolish of me." [You can watch the interview here if you missed it.]
The first interception was returned for a touchdown. So, he was asked, what about the touchdown?
“I don’t know,” he said in such a hushed tone that one would’ve thought the Steelers had lost to the Cincinnati Bengals instead of won 23-7.
“Let’s just focus on the negative,” he said before finally smiling.
But although Polamalu may fall short of his own standards, he impressed the guys at Pro Football Focus. Last season he didn't make a lot of the spectacular plays we've come to expect from him, and it would be easy to assume he wasn't all that impressive. But last week's PFF article ranking the best performances of 2011 in individual games gave Troy spots No. 2, 3, and 4 of their top 10, for the Colts game, the second Browns game, and the Week 16 Rams game. In their top ten pass coverage games, he was No. 2, also for the Week 17 Browns game, and tied for No. 3 for the Titans game. In their top ten run coverage games he was No. 1 for the Wildcard game in Denver, tied for No. 2 for Week 10 at Cincinnati, (he was tied with Ryan Mundy, interestingly,) and tied for No. 8 for the St. Louis game.
Some great news is that Troy says he's completely healthy. Last season was one of the few in which he was not sidelined by significant injuries at some point, although like most players he dealt with some nagging injuries. Nonetheless, he started all 16 regular-season games, something he had not done since 2005.
It's hard to say just what we'll see from Polamalu next season. Will he step up to a more obvious leadership role? Will he surpass even his best seasons and show us SuperTroy every week, or will injuries keep him on the sidelines? There's no way to know. One thing we do know, however—no matter how otherworldly his play, you will never hear him boast, except to praise his teammates. That's a style of leadership all too lacking in the NFL.