Posted by Ryan Wilson
To paraphrase Mitch Williams, Troy Polamalu plays like his hair is on fire. But launching yourself around the field like an RPG isn't a consequence-free existence. It may strike fear in the hearts of offensive coordinators and quarterbacks, but it's virtually guaranteed to shorten your career, too. But Polamalu isn't changing; he's said more than once that's the only way he knows how to play. And it's the combination of great ball skills, even better instincts, and a rare ability to explode through the line of scrimmage that makes him not just the Steelers' best defender, but arguably their best player.
Playing just in front of Polamalu is inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons. On a team full of superstars, Timmons sometimes gets lost in the mix. His NFL career got off to an unremarkable start partly because he was just 20 years old when he came into the league in 2007, but also because he was playing behind some of the best football players on Earth. But after a two-year apprenticeship, Timmons assumed his role as the next great Steelers linebacker in 2009, joining James Farrior, James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley in the starting lineup.
On Tuesday, Pittsburgh signed Timmons, 25, to a contract extension worth $50 million over six years. This comes two weeks after the Steelers inked Woodley to a six-year, $61.5 million deal. Both Timmons and Woodley are in their mid-20s, and in their own right, franchise players. But the Steelers defense if full of franchise guys.
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Which brings us to Polamalu, the 2010 NFL Defensive Player of the Year and one of the best safeties ever. He's in the last year of a four-year, $30 million contract he signed prior to the 2007 season. Given his importance to this team, how can Pittsburgh lock up Timmons before Polamalu? We put that question to former Steelers coach Bill Cowher, who now works as an NFL analyst for CBS. Specifically, did the organization factored youth and health into their decision to sign Lawrence over Troy?
"That's absolutely got to be their thinking," Cowher told CBSSports.com. "At the same time, Troy -- he's going to finish a Pittsburgh Steeler. You can only have so much to spend in one year's time. You certainly have to (pay) the younger player, and in this situation it's going to be the guy most gettable at this point. So I think what they did was good.
"They had two great players (in Timmons and Polamalu), Troy's a proven player year in and year out, he's at another level. Lawrence is an up and coming player, an integral part to that (defense). But I think Troy is going to get taken care of at the appropriate time. He will retire a Pittsburgh Steeler, there's no doubt about that. I'm sure Troy understands that, he had his second contract there too in Pittsburgh. He understands the process."
Since 2006, Polamalu, 30, has started 16 games just once (2008). He missed 11 games in 2009 with a knee injury, and last season, he had 14 regular-season starts, but struggled with an Achilles injury that limited his effectiveness in the postseason.
The decision to sign Polamalu is something we've been thinking about for a while. And even though we're huge Polamalu fans, the organization did the right thing by taking care of Timmons first. Here's what we wrote on the matter several weeks ago:
We’d extend on Timmons first, let Troy play the year on his current deal, see if his body can hold up over 16 games plus the playoffs (history suggests it won’t happen), and revisit things next offseason.
It sounds cold and calculating and, in general, it makes us uncomfortable to treat Polamalu like a widget in some vast corporate operation when in reality he's one of the team’s most valuable players. We’ve seen what a Polamalu-less defense looks like and we're still haunted by visions of David Garrard outrunning Tyrone Carter during that 2007 wild card game.
|The Steelers give inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons a six-year, $50 million extension, which means that Troy Polamalu has to wait … for now, anyway. (Getty Images)|
But here’s the thing: Timmons may not be as important as Polamalu to the defense right now, but he’s still one of the best inside linebackers in the NFL -- and he will get better. What you see is what you get with Troy. And when he’s healthy, it’s amazing to watch. The problem, obviously, is that he struggles to stay on the field. This is what happens when you’re 30 and have played safety like a kamikaze for seven seasons.
It’s also why it makes more sense to lock Timmons up first, preferably before he has an insane 2011 season and his asking price goes through the roof.
Apparently, the Steelers felt similarly. And even though Polamalu has just a year left on his current contract, the organization won't let him get away next offseason, even if -- god forbid -- he's injured for parts of 2011. Worst case: Pittsburgh can franchise Troy in 2012 (and they can do it again in 2013 if they want). It's not ideal, but making the average salary of the top five players at your position isn't a bad consolation prize.
Either way, it doesn't sound like Polamalu is going anywhere. He spoke briefly about his contract situation during training camp but only to echo Cowher's sentiments. "I'd love to be here; I'd love to retire a Steeler," Polamalu said from Latrobe. "All comments regarding the contract stay between the Steelers and my agent. Sorry."
And unlike some players who vehemently oppose the specter of the franchise tag, Polamalu was straightforward about the possibility. "To be honest, it is part of the (collective bargaining agreement) that all of us agreed on," he said. "It's part of the system."
Troy sounds like a man content with his fate, perhaps, because he shares Cowher's belief that he'll finish his career in Pittsburgh.
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