There are many issues that will divide a fan base. Many are issues that apply universally to every team, even if some fans think it affects their team more than every other team. One of those issues seems to be the idea of a team keeping around ‘worthless’ depth players whose only function, seemingly, is to run up and down the field when a punter or kicker is in the game.
These ‘special teams players’ are viewed by some as having little to no value that can simply be easily replaced, and once they reach their second or third year in the league without getting any significant amount of playing time at their natural position, then they should be dumped.
Dumped, of course, for yet another ‘special teams player’ whom the same people will demand that the team get rid of in a couple of years because he did not become a starting cornerback or wide receiver. The assumption is, as always, that the guy that is not on the field has to be better than the guy who is if he is not great.
It’s something that I like to call the Next Man Up Fallacy, and it is a frequent point of discussion during the offseason and all the way through the preseason, up to the final roster cuts, during which time it’s finally the opportunity to lament about the number of special teams players the team kept on the roster rather than the undrafted rookie outside linebacker who would be the next great pass rusher with a year behind the Pittsburgh Steelers’ last great pass rusher.
But sometimes the next man up is the man already standing up, and I think that we saw that occur with Robert Golden last year during his four-game stint as a starting safety in place of the injured Will Allen. I say four games though he only started three because Allen only played eight snaps in the game in which he was injured.
Golden was one of those special teams players on the receiving end of some talk that the Steelers need to move on from him because, at this point in his career, of course, he will never develop the ability to play safety at the NFL level because, if he could, he would already be playing, right?
The former undrafted free agent cut his teeth on special teams primarily for his first three years in Pittsburgh, becoming the captain of the unit and an indispensable player for his work in that avenue of the game alone, but for some, that will never be enough to justify a roster spot. Every roster spot must be occupied by an offensive or defensive contributor or a player who will become one in a year or two.
Golden showed last year that he can be a defensive contributor, and it took him into his fourth season to get the right opportunity to do so, but that’s even beside the point. The point is that players like 2014 era Golden—players like Ross Ventrone—the work that they do in the third phase of the game is value enough, which is a lesson best learned in years that exhibit a leaky coverage unit.