His feats will be duplicated in time by younger players attempting to emulate the original in hopes of making highlight reels. His approach to the position under the guidance of defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has revolutionized the way teams view their safeties within the system.
While dominant linemen like Casey Hampton and Aaron Smith, and ferocious pass rushers like Joey Porter and James Harrison make LeBeau's defense so menacing, it has been the on-field chemistry and balance of the safety duo of Polamalu and Ryan Clark which has made most of the defense's success possible.
Whereas most teams build around strong- and free-safety concepts, polarizing their defense to particular sides of the field, the Steelers' safeties could fill either role at any time. LeBeau's defense didn't have a strong side. It was strong on both sides.
Muscles weaken as bodies age, and the NFL salary cap is going to force the Steelers to amputate one of their once mighty arms, as Ryan Clark's contract will expire after this season, and the team is unlikely to offer him a new one considering he will be 35 in 2014.
The question is, can the Steelers survive a double amputation, with little more than some roughly shaped prosthetic replacements in place to fill the void, just to save a few bucks against the cap?
Plenty of pennies will get pinched in Pittsburgh this off-season, and the first names targeted are those bearing the highest cap hits. Polamalu will be the fifth-highest cap it in 2014, the final year of his current contract. The Steelers are almost $10 million over the projected cap of $126.3 million.
Drawing Polamalu's name into release discussions is the fact it will be the last year of his contract, and his cap hit is comprised mostly of non-guaranteed base salary.
Even though he has played in every single game in 2013 after drastically changing his off-season training program, and injury-littered past has left some believing his $8.25 million price tag to be a bit over-valued. Unfortunately, once accepting the idea Clark will not receive a new deal, the release of Polamalu would leave Shamarko Thomas and Robert Golden the starters by default.
Assuming Ike Taylor also deserves to be released because of the sins of his wages only makes this bitter pill even more difficult to swallow. At least William Gay and Cortez Allen have demonstrated ability while working on consistency. Thomas and Golden have had difficulty staying on the defensive field. In this thought process, Polamalu is more valuable to the team because of the talent behind him than Taylor, not just because of the levels of their base salaries or amounts of dead money.
Thomas and Golden are still raw, young talents. Golden has more to prove than Thomas at this point, but they both demonstrate their potential from time to time. The team, however, has no guarantees the light will come on for either player over the off-season.
As the Steelers have begun shuttling aging veterans out the proverbial door over the past few years (Smith, James Farrior, Casey Hampton), most have come to expect the trend to continue in 2014 with Clark, Brett Keisel and possibly Taylor. Keisel will turn 36 in 2014. Clark will be 35. Taylor will be 34. Why does Polamalu's name keep reappearing in this coversation? He is only 32.
The Steelers have rarely kept a player beyond the age of 35 - outside of punters, kickers and quarterbacks. That being said, Polamalu would still reasonably have two seasons left in him from an organizational standpoint. Polamalu has already expressed interest in returning next season, but no word about beyond.
Perhaps the time he has missed in his career to injury makes his durability a fair point in the conversation, but old players rarely come back stronger. Most wind up on paths like the one LaMarr Woodley is currently lost on - old injuries compounded by new injuries with recovery time growing exponentially. Polamalu had one of his better seasons in 2013 with no health concerns whatsoever, despite being asked to play multiple positions - not just safety.
The team relies too heavily on him in their defense to not want him around again in 2014, but they also need to clear as much cap space as possible if they want to compete for some of their younger players like Jason Worilds, Ziggy Hood, Cameron Heyward, Maurkice Pouncey, Cortez Allen and others.
The only way to clear any cap space in Polamalu's case is by extending his contract and restructuring his 2014 base salary into a bonus. This of course would completely hinge on both the player's and the team's long term plans.
The example provided here uses a two-year extension, at an annual value of $7 million per season but no signing bonus. After the extension is proposed, $6 million of his 2014 base salary is restructured into an immediate lump-sum bonus, which is then prorated to each year remaining on his deal in equal shares.
The problem with this scenario is the fact Polamalu will be 35 in 2016, and the team will be tempted to restructure his deal again in 2015, which would add an additional $3 million to his 2016 cap hit in dead money. The team would also have to fear Polamalu retiring in 2015, sticking the team with $4 million in dead money upon his exit.
The ideal path would be a one-year extension. Restructuring the same $6 million in 2014 salary would become then a $3 million hit against 2015, while saving $3 million against 2014. The team would still save the $7 million base salary from 2015 should they be unable to afford and need to release him then. The team would basically be creating a player option for that year.
Our Play Money series has already found the team over $7 million below the projected cap before doing anything with Polamalu's contract, and the team could easily afford their draft class and filling out their depth chart. However, Polamalu will probably not be the only veteran safety the team will offer some new money to this year, making sense out of saving cap space through a Polamalu extension.
Will Allen, like most NFL veterans, would probably prefer some sort of signing bonus; but is likely to get none in any offer from the team. They let him go once. The Dallas Cowboys picked him up, then spit him back out shortly after. He is not likely to garner much attention by re-entering free-agency. Such an offer from Pittsburgh might be enough to keep him from trying.
Any decision on Polamalu's future will come down to the player's willingness and the team's confidence in his ability to stay healthy - and productive. The team could cut ties with him now and save themselves any more financial burden, but if he is still able to produce at a Polamalu level for another year or two, should they? Not to mention his stats may actually improve if the team lets him go back to just being a safety again.
While this post has completely ruled out a Clark return, it is not an impossibility. Either way, the team will be heavily scouting safeties in the draft, even though they may not reach for one in the first round. In the end, the team has to start thinking about a future without Clark and Polamalu, even if they're not ready to let go of either of them just yet - especially knowing they're not going to find another Polamalu.
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