Over the course of the past couple of years, the Pittsburgh Steelers have undergone an uncommon amount of change, which could have been largely correlated with the fact that the team had finished 8-8 in consecutive seasons while failing to advance to the postseason.
In deference to general manager Kevin Colbert, the attitude used to approach the offseason in those years was that this was an 8-8 team and these were 8-8 players. It’s little surprise that a lot of things changed during those years.
But the Steelers are now coming off a season in which they finished with a record of 11-5, going 8-2 down the stretch and winning their last four games to claim their first AFC North title since the 2010 season. Correspondingly, we’ve seen a great deal less change.
While the roster turnover as a whole may not have been significant, however, there were some significant departures, including three starters on the defensive side of the ball. Certainly the most significant of that group, in terms of historicity, is inarguably safety Troy Polamalu.
Retiring after a 12-year playing career, Polamalu called it a day on a legacy that will likely find itself enshrined in the Hall of Fame, if not five years from now, then not soon after. A former Defensive Player of the Year and an integral part in two Super Bowl champions, he is unquestionably one of the most important pieces of the past generation of players.
In spite of his excellent play—or perhaps in part because of it—much of Polamalu’s career was riddled with injuries, and there was a curious parallel between the team’s success and his health, as can be seen in 2007, 2009, and 2012.
Polamalu made the Pro Bowl as recently as the 2013 season, when he recorded two interceptions—one being returned for a touchdown—to go along with a career-high five forced fumbles, in addition to two sacks and 11 pass breakups.
But his performance sharply declined in his final season, even before his most recent onset of injuries, the pair of which caused him to miss four games. He failed to record an interception for only the second time in his career as a starter, and he only forced one fumble, which was recovered by the offense.
That ineffectiveness tied for his rookie season, before he was a starter, and the 2012 season, during which he played seven games, for his least impactful performance based on ‘splash’ plays, though in each of those seasons he had more sacks and passes defensed as well.
The general impression is that the front office strongly suggested to Polamalu that it was in his best interest to retire following the season, and after many months of pondering, he did choose to go that route.
In doing so, he has allowed the Steelers to move on with Shamarko Thomas, whom Polamalu had helped train and advise since he was drafted in 2013. He has played sparingly since entering the league, however, and any expectations of him replicating the future Hall of Famer would be misguided, to be generous. Still, it will be awfully weird to see the defense take the field without him in the season opener.