PITTSBURGH — Troy Polamalu walked off the Pittsburgh Steelers’ practice field Tuesday with rookie safety Shamarko Thomas hanging on the veteran safety’s every word.
To be honest, Polamalu admits it’s still a little strange to think that in the last decade he’s morphed from precocious talent into respected leader. Yet he knows being a mentor is part of his job description these days, and for a team in the midst of startling change, it’s a role he’ll eagerly fill.
“The great thing about the people that we have here is that all we are going to do is give knowledge,” Polamalu said. “There is no hesitation. It’s not like we think this guy is going to replace someone, like other teams.”
Maybe, but there is little doubt that the Steelers expect Thomas to one day take over for the 32-year-old Polamalu or 33-year-old Ryan Clark.
Just not quite yet.
For as all the tumult Pittsburgh experienced in the offseason, there was a sense of normalcy during the first day of organized team activities. While locker room fixtures James Harrison, Mike Wallace and Rashard Mendenhall are all gone, a host of veterans remain to help an 8-8 team rebuild on the fly.
“It feels new and different every year at this time,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “We’re working with 90 guys and every year 40 or so of them, minimum, are new guys. From that standpoint, it’s the same. We’re always excited and energized to work with the new faces.”
So long as the old ones know what needs to be fixed.
The Steelers slid to their worst record of Tomlin’s six-year tenure in 2012 as injuries and uncharacteristic mistakes sent Pittsburgh tumbling out of the playoffs. General manager Kevin Colbert refused to call the Steelers a team in transition during the offseason but allowed changes needed to be made for Pittsburgh to get back to its usual spot among the NFL’s elite.
Part of the plan was trimming some salary cap fat in cutting Harrison and veteran offensive lineman Willie Colon. Part of it was adding youth like top draft pick linebacker Jarvis Jones and second-round running back Le’Veon Bell. And part of it was relying on players like Polamalu and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to assert themselves in the locker room.
Roethlisberger has spent the majority of his career as the youngest player in the quarterback room. Now he’s the oldest after the team jettisoned Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch in the offseason and brought in Bruce Gradkowski, John Parker Wilson and fourth-round pick Landry Jones.
“I’m going to do everything I can to help those guys get ready to play because I’m here to win games,” Roethlisberger said. “We’ve had other guys step up and play and win games for us in the past. I’m excited to help these guys be ready to go if need be.”
The quarterback brushed off offseason chatter from several players — some anonymously — that the dynamics of the locker room changed last year. He called the suggestions “confusing” and said the team is eager to move on.
So is cornerback Ike Taylor. The very un-Steelerlike end to last season left a “sour taste” in the veteran’s mouth.
“That’s something we pride ourselves on, is making the playoffs, having the opportunity to go to a championship game, and we came up short,” Taylor said.
When asked if missing the playoffs for only the third time since 2004 is that big a deal, Taylor didn’t hesitate.
“It is,” Taylor said. “When you put all that effort in, training camp, minicamp, going along into the season and have opportunities to make it and you don’t make it, it’s frustrating.”
And hopefully, a lesson learned.
Polamalu missed more than half the season with a calf injury, the first one of his 10-year career he says “could have been avoided.” The 2010 NFL Defensive Player of the Year declined to get into specifics on how he could have kept the calf healthy but says his offseason regimen continues to change as he matures.
“Time is not stale,” Polamalu said. “You have to continue to evolve as time evolves, your career evolves and your body evolves. I think when you become stale in that way, then it’s just kind of a redundant thing.”
Like, say, harping on last season. The Steelers aren’t used to missing the playoffs in consecutive years. They went three seasons without a postseason appearance from 1998-2000, but that’s long before the likes of Polamalu, Roethlisberger and Taylor came along.
Nevertheless, all have endured bumps in the road throughout their careers. And all have found a way to respond almost immediately.
They see no reason it can’t happen again.
“I think it’s like coach (Tomlin) says,” Taylor said. “‘Less talk and more work.’”