This was supposed to be Shamarko Thomas’ year.
He was taken under wing during the 2014 offseason by Pittsburgh Steelers future Hall of Fame safety Troy Polamalu to help groom him for this opportunity. The Steelers coaxed Polamalu into retirement during this offseason with the expectation that Thomas would be the next in line. He was the next in line.
Until he wasn’t. And most of the way through his third season, it’s hard to say if he will ever get back to the front of the line with the Steelers, entering the final year of his contract.
I am talking, of course, about entering the starting lineup, which is exactly what he was poised to do this year. He was installed as the starting strong safety and played there throughout the offseason. He practiced there throughout training camp and during the preseason, when he wasn’t sidelined with a shoulder injury.
It was his job to lose, and he lost it. The front office didn’t go into this season expecting to put Will Allen in the starting lineup on opening day. They did so because Thomas showed to the coaching staff that he cannot be trusted.
Not that he can’t play the game. physically, he is a capable player, a bit hitter with athleticism and fluidity that makes up for his lack of height. But too many times when he has been given the opportunity, he came up short from a mental standpoint, which is why he was bypassed by former undrafted free agent Robert Golden.
Thomas is fourth on the safety depth chart because the coaches can’t trust him to do the right thing, or be in the right position, when he is the last line of defense. He was given the opportunity to pass this test multiple times during the season and he failed multiple times, giving up long touchdowns.
Now, largely limited to special teams play, he has recorded two fair catch interference penalties on the season, which quite simply is not easy to do. Thomas’s speed and ability to break free of a jam gives him all of the tools to make him an excellent gunner, and he is, physically, but two fair catch interference penalties?
The most recent one came on Sunday as he returned from an injury, causing him to miss a couple of games. Injuries, of course, are another issue that he has dealt without during his three-year career, but are not the scapegoat here for his inability to crack the starting lineup.
Earlier in the game in Seattle, in fact, while he was serving as a jammer in the punt return team, he nearly bumped into returner Jacoby Jones as he was attempting to make a fair catch, which prompted a stern look and brief lecture from the veteran returner.
Thomas earned the nickname “Headache” during his college career for building a reputation of doling out concussion-inducing hits, including the ones he gave himself. But in the professional ranks, it’s just become synonymous with what he causes the coaching staff with his mental hiccups.