By Jeremy Hritz
Troy Polamalu has cemented his legacy with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and he will forever be remembered as one of the best to don the black and gold uniform. His knack for game changing plays, none more famous than the interception for a touchdown in the 2008 AFC Championship Game, and his peerless skill set, make him a once in a lifetime player that will sorely be missed one day by the Steelers organization and fans alike.
Soon, Polamalu will be entering his tenth NFL season at 31 years of age, long removed from the young man that was selected 16th overall by the Steelers in the 2003 NFL Draft. As brutal as it is to accept, Polamalu’s time in Pittsburgh is slowly reaching its conclusion.
History says that Hall of Fame safeties, which Polamalu will eventually become, play an average of 15 seasons. The 49ers Ronnie Lott played for 15 seasons; Ken Houston, who played for the Oilers and Redskins, played for 14 seasons; and Brian Dawkins, who played for the Eagles and Broncos, and Paul Krause, who played for the Redskins and Vikings, both played for 16 seasons. If there is any merit to this, fans can expect Polamalu to play for four to five years after the 2012 season.
But just how effective will Polamalu be this coming season, and the final few seasons of his career?
While Polamalu has always been known as a linebacker/defensive back hybrid that makes unrivaled stops in the running game, his abilities in coverage are not commensurate, as the element of his game that makes him great, his aggressiveness and risk-taking, can make him a liability. What’s more is that following his achievement of Defensive Player of the Year, Polamalu seemed to be off of his game, and in the Super Bowl against the Green Bay Packers, his performance was quiet, as Aaron Rodgers and company had their way with Steelers’ secondary. In that game, Polamalu recorded only three tackles, and he gave up two touchdown receptions to wide receiver Greg Jennings. After the game, in typical Polamalu fashion, he accepted complete responsibility for his performance. Yet high character or not, the Steelers still lost out on capturing a seventh Lombardi, and had Polamalu made the plays that he had a reputation for making, the outcome of the game could have been completely different.
Polamalu followed up his poor play in the Super Bowl with a decent year in 2011, but one that lacked his signature splash plays. He also appeared a step slower in coverage, specifically against Baltimore in week one when covering Ed Dickson, and when covering A.J. Green in the first matchup against Cincinnati on the road. Unsurprisingly, he still remained effective against the run.
Whether or not these types of performances are now the standard has yet to be seen.
Polamalu’s past injuries are also variables in not only his future performance, but also his longevity. An Achilles issue aggravated him near the end of the season in 2010, and just a year before, he practically missed the entire 2009 season with a knee injury, playing in only five games. What is more of a concern is Polamalu’s concussion history which dates back to his days at USC, and the concussion-like symptoms he experienced against the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Kansas City Chiefs in 2011. With the stringency the NFL is placing on how teams handle concussions, and with new fears emerging regarding the long-term effects, especially after the suicide of Junior Seau, Polamalu could think twice before stepping back on the field if he experiences another concussion.
Polamalu is by no means washed up, and even if his skills have diminished slightly, he is still better than 90% of safeties in the NFL. He has become one of the most, if not the most, beloved Steeler of the past nine years whose name is not Hines Ward. This coming Tuesday, Polamalu will likely attend OTAs, something that he has passed on in previous years to train at home in California. Hopefully his arrival in Pittsburgh finds him rested and ready to get to work with his teammates for next season. And hopefully in the process, he can rediscover his knack for the big play.