Ron Cook: Timing works out perfectly for Polamalu

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As Hines Ward took a moment yesterday to gladly pass along the ceremonial title of highest-paid Steelers player to Troy Polamalu, he made the afternoon's pertinent point.

"They didn't have any choice but to take care of Troy, did they?"

None.

Life is all about timing, and Polamalu's is extraordinary. He came up for a new contract about the time the Steelers released popular linebacker Joey Porter in a cost-cutting move, let Super Bowl-winning coach Bill Cowher leave after refusing to meet his price and decided, apparently, to part ways with six-time Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca after this season. Players openly have questioned the Rooneys' strategy. Even Polamalu mentioned at the May minicamp being "a little unsure about the direction of the team."

"They have to keep somebody," Ward said yesterday.

Polamalu is the guy. The Steelers made him the NFL's highest-paid safety, giving him a five-year, $33 million contract, including $15,375,000 in signing and roster bonuses.

You have to go back to the Pirates' Jason Kendall to find a Pittsburgh athlete for whom the stars aligned so perfectly. Kendall was due for a new contract after the 2000 season as the Pirates prepared to move into PNC Park and promised everybody the beautiful new ballpark would enable them to keep their top players and become competitive. Like Polamalu, Kendall was a huge fan favorite because of his all-out style. He signed a six-year, $60 million extension.

That deal still haunts the Pirates.

It's nice to think the Polamalu contract will have a happier ending.

Kendall was a singles hitter who never could justify the silly money. Polamalu hits home runs. It might be an interception or a sack or a big stop on a third-down running play. The man is a physical freak, able to run like a cornerback and hit like a linebacker. There can't be a player in the league with better closing speed.

The only worry about Polamalu is the ferocious way he plays. He seems like a serious injury waiting to happen, the way he throws his body around. Last season, he was troubled by a bad shoulder, left a game with a concussion and missed three others with a knee injury.

The new contract isn't going to change Polamalu's approach. If anything, it will make him play harder. "You've got to earn the money," he said. "You can't go out there worrying about getting hurt."

Clearly, the Steelers are willing to take their chances.

They're betting $33 million on the man.

"He's awesome," new coach Mike Tomlin gushed.

"He's our playmaker, our star," linebacker Larry Foote has said.

"One of those few guys in the league who's special," teammate Aaron Smith said.

Polamalu is the type of player the Steelers have shown a willingness to reward despite lingering complaints that go back to the 1960s that they are cheap. In the past two years, they've given big money to Ward, Smith, Casey Hampton, Ike Taylor and Willie Parker, among others. Certainly, they will take care of Ben Roethlisberger after this season. He'll surpass Polamalu as highest paid, unless he goes out and throws 23 balls to the wrong team again.

But, sadly, under the NFL salary cap, a team can't keep everybody. Faneca and the Steelers seem to have agreed to a divorce. It has happened here before with great players, obviously, not just with Porter, but with Rod Woodson, Mike Webster, Mike Merriweather and Franco Harris.

"I feel for Alan," Polamalu said. "It's a shame."

It's business, actually.

It's fair to think that Polamalu, more thoughtful than most, has wondered why him and not Faneca. The obvious reason is age; he's 26, Faneca 30. Beyond that, Polamalu made it a priority to stay. Although his deal is phenomenal, he could get more as a free agent after the season.

"I didn't want to be a player who jumps from team to team."

So much for that speculation about Polamalu being a West Coast guy, wanting to finish his career on the West Coast.

"Quite the contrary," he said. "I find myself going to other cities and boasting about Pittsburgh ...

"I wasn't sure about my wife for a while. I thought she might be saying she was happy here just because of me. But as we got started with this contract stuff and we weren't sure how it was going to turn out, I saw something in her that convinced me she'd miss it if we had to leave.

"Pittsburgh has become home for us."

It will be home for at least the next five seasons.

"You know, every instance in my life has been about perfect timing," Polamalu said. "From the system we played in college under coach [Pete] Carroll [at Southern California] to the system we play here under coach [Dick] LeBeau. Even going back to high school, I always had coaches who looked out for me.

"It's truly divine intervention."

It's also Rooney intervention.

The Steelers' owners needed to make a statement to their players and fans.

It came across loud and clear.



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