Troy Polamalu is everything that is right about football. He plays with heart and fire, making countless plays over the years that are beyond the imagination. I don't think we'll ever read his name in a police blotter. I have a pair of his jerseys hanging in my closet and I'm proud that he is my eight year old daughter's favorite Steeler. But it's time to think about bringing his career as a Steeler to a close.
The 2013 roster is still a mystery. But one thing that is not a mystery is that the Steelers have enormous salary cap problems. Their current roster is already well over the cap figure and that's with both the draft and free agency yet to come. 8-8 proved that this roster has holes; there will be no Stairway to Seven unless some changes are made. Yet there is no flexibility to make those changes until some hard decisions are made.
Could the roster as now constituted be maintained? Perhaps. An extension for Ben and re-structuring a few others could maintain the status quo for one more year and give the current group another chance to make a run. Some may argue that the Steelers should do exactly that; they were a handful of plays away from winning several of those losses. Or if Ben hadn't gone down maybe the first Ravens game doesn't go the way it does and Ray Lewis' exit may have occurred in Week 17 instead of the Super Bowl.
That thinking is a mirage. The Steelers didn't make the playoffs because they were not good enough to do it. They lost leads late in games because they lacked an effective running game to milk the clock or a defense capable of playing from ahead. Dick LeBeau hasn't forgotten how to coach (though it's arguable as to whether Todd Haley ever knew how) so I don't think it's a schematic problem. Remember all those pre-season stories last year about how the defense was "too old" to compete? Remember how much we all enjoyed the fast start that "proved" those experts wrong?
And then the last six weeks of the season happened.
The Steeler defensive scheme is based around the concept of forcing the quarterback to make too many decisions in too short a period of time. Multiple fronts, shifts, stunts, and blitzes from every angle. It has never relied on shutdown coverage in the secondary because even an average NFL DB can stay with a receiver for two or three seconds. That thinking is why, outside of noted bust Chad Scott, the Steelers haven't taken a CB in the first round since Rod Woodson. The two Super Bowl wins, three conference championship wins and more playoff appearances tend to validate this thinking.
If that thinking is to continue then you cannot justify Troy Polamalu's $10M salary in 2013. Yes, only half of that would be saved by trading or cutting him. But a critical cap situation necessitates savings and Troy's savings are second on the list behind James Harrison (at $5.1M). And the cap savings alone are not the only reason to consider moving on from #43.
We need to separate the player Troy has been from the player he will be going forward. Polamalu is no longer a difference maker on defense. Over the last two seasons combined, he has a total of 3 interceptions, zero forced fumbles, and 32 tackles. This comes with limited duty (in a total of 7 games) last year and a FULL season of 16 games played in 2011. He has missed significant time in two of the last four seasons. Much like Bob Sanders, he is safety whose manner of playing the game creates a higher risk of injury every time he steps on the field- and as a result requires a high-level backup, eating more salary cap space.
Worse than that, Troy simply does not have the same physical skills he once had. Troy has always been an instinctual player, using his football knowledge and sheer guts. He bounced all over the field, impossible to read pre-snap and turning up at the worst possible time for opposing quarterbacks. This style of play has always had its drawbacks; it's difficult to free-lance on every play and not mis-read it from time to take. Yet in the past Troy could make up for those missed reads. The last two years are full of times when Troy was not quite fast enough catching up on the play that a traditional safety would have been in position to prevent.
I don't blame Troy for this- it's how he's played since starring at USC. It's how he played when he joined the Steelers as a first round draft pick. It's the style of play that made him a favorite of Steeler Nation and led to NFL Defensive Player of the Year status. But it's also a style of play that can't be sustained with age. It's a style of play that leads to more frequent injuries, especially as Father Time makes his appearance known. Troy will be 32 years old by the start of next season and in his 11th NFL season. Short of discovering Ray Ray's deer antler spray supply, there is no reason to expect Troy will be in better shape in 2013 than he has been in 2011 and 2012.
I cannot say this enough; as a football player, I love Troy Polamalu. And if there was some way to re-structure both the contract and the defense to account for his diminishing skills, then I'd be all for it. I can't see Troy agreeing to do a Jerome Bettis and accept a massive pay cut. Nor do I see him willing to become a traditional safety, staying back in center field and preventing the deep threat. But unless he does both, the time has come to see what Pittsburgh can get back from another team before the draft... and failing that, to make the painful choice to say goodbye to one of the greatest Steeler DBs of all time.