It happens to the very best of the best eventually. One day, Jack Lambert was a toothless, snarling, slobbering monster in the middle of the famed Steel Curtain defense, making young John Elway consider a career in insurance and scaring the heck out of old Roger Staubach. The next day, Lambert dislocated his left big toe and was gone. The great Jack Ham slowed so much that not even his incomparable technical brilliance could save him. Mel Blount, who was such a beast at cornerback that they changed the game to protect hopelessly, physically overmatched wide receivers. Even Joe Greene, the greatest Steeler of all. Their shelf life expired as an NFL player.
Now, it looks as if it's happening to Troy Polamalu.
At the first opportunity, five years after he retires, Polamalu will join the others in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Sadly, it appears that day is coming sooner rather than later.
Polamalu beat himself up Sunday night after the 55-31 loss to the New England Patriots. He took full blame for the worst day a Steelers defense ever had. He didn't take responsibility for any one of the Patriots' many big plays but said, "Pretty much all of them were on me."
Polamalu might be the most humble player in the NFL. He's a good man, as genuine as they come. But this was different. This was a brutal self-evaluation. It was an honest self-evaluation.
"The coach puts me where the action is," Polamalu said. "I'm supposed to make plays for this defense. I wasn't good enough today. I won't say they have my number. But I didn't get it done."
It has been that way much of this lost Steelers season even though Polamalu said he's as healthy as he ever has been at the halfway point. "I'm playing like a 2-6 player, just like everyone else in here," he acknowledged. Fair or not, that's not good enough. We expect so much more from Polamalu. He's Superman, right?
Polamalu still makes the occasional big play, as he did Sunday when he forced a fumble by Patriots running back Stevan Ridley. He still will intercept a pass, as he did Oct. 27 against Oakland Raiders quarterback Terrelle Pryor. He still will make a big hit, as he did Oct. 13 when he decked New York Jets receiver Stephen Hill. And, yes, he still will fly through the air like Superman, as he did Oct. 20 when he leaped over the Baltimore Ravens line to try to block an extra-point attempt.
The problem is Polamalu hasn't done nearly enough, especially in pass coverage.
As for that jump over the line?
Polamalu mistimed it and was penalized for being offside.
It's been that kind of season.
It's hard to imagine Polamalu, 32, coming back to the Steelers next season. That's if he still wants to play. He always has been a family-first guy and will be thankful to leave the brutal NFL game in one piece. But if he wants to play a 12th season, the Steelers aren't going to pay him the $8.5 million he is due to make in the final year of his contract. They can't.
There's a good chance the Steelers will be looking for two new safeties next season. Ryan Clark, 34, also has had a down year after playing his best football the past two seasons. His contract is up after this season and the team showed no interest in re-signing him in the summer.
Clark was nearly as hard on himself Sunday as Polamalu was. He took blame for the 81-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Aaron Dobson that stretched the Patriots lead to 48-31 with 5:15 left. "I tried to play the run when I was supposed to play the pass. You can't get beat over the top like that. Everybody had played well enough for us to get back in the game and I gave that play up. There was no chance for us to come back after that." Clark also took responsibility for a failure to communicate in the secondary, which left Patriots receivers wide open all over the field. "A lot of times we weren't set up right. I have to do a better job of getting the other guys in the right spot. That's on me."
The results were stunning and hard to watch. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady threw for 432 yards and four touchdowns and had a near-perfect 151.8 passer rating. Rob Gronkowski, Dobson and Danny Amendola had 100-yard receiving performances, the first time in Patriots history that three players did it in one game. Ridley ran for 115 of the Patriots' 197 rushing yards. Their 55 points and 610 yards were the most ever given up by a Steelers defense.
"It's on us," Clark said of the veterans. "These young guys don't get it yet. This is all they know. They think this is normal. Maybe it is in other places, but not here."
That's why Polamalu and Clark seemed so out of place in the middle of the mess. Polamalu is one of the most exciting, productive, popular players in Steelers history. Clark has lasted 12 years in the NFL after making it as an undrafted free agent. He was a big part of the Super Bowl teams in 2008 and 2010. He still willingly gives up his body, as he did Sunday when he knocked Gronkowski out of the game for six snaps in the third quarter with a vicious, but clean hit to the midsection.
But, now, the end is near.
Polamalu and Clark can take solace from Lambert and the others.
Everyone's time comes in the NFL.
No one lasts forever.
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.