COMMENTARY | In the pantheon of Pittsburgh Steelers players, there are arguments to be made at every position as to who is the best of all time. Terry Bradshaw or Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback? Lynn Swann, John Stallworth or Hines Ward at wide receiver? Jack Lambert, Jack Ham, Greg Lloyd, among others, at linebacker? Yet, with apologies to the fantastic Donnie Shell, Troy Polamalu stands alone atop the list of great safeties to play in the Steel City.
Polamalu is considered by most to be a sure-fire Hall of Famer, a feat that Shell was not able to accomplish (though to be fair, Shell is certainly deserving of the honor but has apparently been the victim of voter bias, as many at that time felt that there was a glut of '70s Steelers already enshrined and that some kind of unspoken cap limit had been reached). While I agree that Polamalu is a transcendental talent and should one day find himself with a bronze bust in Canton, I feel that the 2013 season is a pivotal year for the seven time pro bowler in cementing his legacy.
Prove Last Season Was A Fluke
2012 was an extremely disappointing season, for the team in general and for Polamalu specifically. The former USC Trojan was limited to just seven games due to a calf injury, and his absence in the secondary could, in part, have contributed to the club's 8-8 finish with no playoff appearance. Pittsburgh doubters have been creeping out of the woodwork all offseason, and comments abound that the team's run of dominant play is over and that their 'fear factor" is gone.
So it is imperative that, quite frankly, Polamalu shut them up and prove once again that opposing offenses need to fear him. He needs to show that the calf injury is fully healed and will not impede his play going forward. In OTAs last week, he said that the injury is behind him and that he has learned that the problem was the result of scar tissue in the calf, and that this has been treated and resolved. A healthy and dominant Polamalu, playing a full season at top form, could be the difference between an 8-8 team and an 11-5 team. This is absolutely possible, either by preventing points or producing a defensive score, especially when considering that the Steelers lost five games by just three points last season.
Mentor his Eventual Replacement
Playing in all 16 games will also go a long way in setting an example for fourth round draft pick Shamarko Thomas, the safety out of Syracuse. This is the first real opportunity for Polamalu to mentor and groom a young player at the position and there is no better way to do so than by example. Standing on the sidelines and offering encouragement is one thing, but for Thomas to be able to see it first hand is something else entirely. Thomas should also be able to get into games in sub-packages, so sharing the field with one of the greats will be a major asset for him. In this capacity, nurturing his eventual replacement will be one more way in which Polamalu's legacy will endure long after his eventual retirement.
Validate His Roster Spot
As for legacies, linebacker James Harrison's is over for the Pittsburgh Steelers, as he will now be suiting up for the rival Cincinnati Bengals. While I am by no means saying that the team's front office was deciding between keeping either Harrison or Polamalu, the similarities between both players this offseason was strikingly similar. Both are aging veterans who have been dealing with injury shortened seasons. Both are former defensive MVPs with little depth behind them. Both were on the books to make over $6 million in salary for the 2013 season.
Early in the offseason, there was talk that either one could be released. It turned out to be Harrison, but in truth, it wouldn't have been a complete shock if it had been Polamalu. So again, I'm not saying that it was going to be one or the other, but by keeping Polamalu it puts additional pressure on him to come through with a big performance this year and prove that he was the player worth keeping over Harrison.
Legitimize His Stake as the Best of His Era
Finally, I feel like at least one more dominant season by Polamalu can help to end the years-long debate as to who was the best safety of this generation, him or Houston's Ed Reed. Maybe the fact that I just wrote Houston instead of Baltimore tips the scale in Polamalu's favor just a little, as I tend to respect players more if they remain with one team for their whole careers. I'm old-school like that, and it goes back to the way things were with all of Pittsburgh's Hall of Famers finishing out their careers with the team. (Yeah, I try hard to forget about Franco Harris in a Seahawks uniform.)
With Reed not participating in OTAs due to offseason hip surgery, one can wonder what kind of an impact he will have with his new team. If he struggles and has a subpar season, while Polamalu shines, then the pendulum can surely swing towards Pittsburgh's side once and for all. Polamalu has the edge in championship rings, and earning one more will most assuredly end the debate dramatically.
So while Polamalu's career has been nothing short of spectacular, here's hoping the safety can make 2013 his swan song. There is a lot riding on him this year, and this writer, for one, thinks it can be his best yet.