The Steelers have been negotiating with the agent for safety Troy Polamalu over the past several days, an 11th-hour attempt to sign the NFL defensive player of the year before the season begins Sunday.
Polamalu is entering the final season of his contract, and their previous discussions this summer with agent Marvin Demoff went nowhere and stalled. After the Steelers signed linebacker Lawrence Timmons to a six-year, $50 million contract two weeks ago, they decided they could do no more extensions until after the season.
Last week, however, team president Art Rooney had a change of heart and decided to give it one last shot.
Polamalu is scheduled to earn $6.4 million in salary this year, the last of a five-year, $33 million contract. He and wide receiver Mike Wallace were the last two key players with one year left on multi-year contracts the Steelers have not signed. They signed Timmons, cornerback Ike Taylor and linebacker LaMarr Woodley to multiyear deals in training camp.
The team adopted a policy in the mid-1990s not to negotiate contract extensions beyond the start of the regular season, a policy they have followed strictly. The only exceptions have come when they were close to finishing a deal before the season began and believed they could wrap it up soon thereafter.
The Steelers are not close to one with Polamalu, who has been their starting free safety since his second season (2004), and it is uncertain they can complete one soon.
Both sides have some leverage. Polamalu was the NFL defensive player of the year in 2010 and earned a sixth consecutive Pro Bowl selection. The Steelers also have seen their defense lose its effectiveness when Polamalu is out with an injury or his play curtailed by one as it was in their Super Bowl loss against Green Bay in February.
But Polamalu, 30, is under contract for this season, and the Steelers could name him their franchise player for 2012, keeping him on the roster for at least the next two seasons.
Demoff could not be reached to comment publicly on the negotiations; Polamalu steadfastly has declined to talk about them, and the Steelers routinely do not comment on contract talks.
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The fact that Polamalu will count $6.4 million against their salary cap this season would make a new contract workable this year under the team cap because any signing bonus would be pro-rated over the life of a new contract.
The team is somewhat concerned about the cash flow a new deal for Polamalu would chew up, and how it would affect their cap over the 2012 season and beyond after signing so many players to big, multiyear contracts this summer.
Whether they sign him over the next week or not, the Steelers are not likely to let Polamalu become a free agent next year. They have signed many players after their contracts expired and have used the franchise and transition tags on players to good use. The latest example came when they put the franchise tag on Woodley in March, guaranteeing him a $10 million salary this season. Then, they signed their star linebacker to a six-year, $61.5 million contract in August. They followed a similar path with former offensive tackle Max Starks after putting the franchise tag on him in 2009.
The franchise tag for safeties is expected to require a one-year salary near $10 million next year. Polamalu, from Southern California, was the 16th player taken in the 2003 draft.
Wallace, in the third and final year of his rookie contract, would be a restricted free agent if he does not sign a new one before free agency begins in March.
In one of the shortest weekly news conferences by a Steelers coach in the 20 years or so they have televised them live, Mike Tomlin spent part of his 15 minutes declaring that his team would begin the season in full health except for rookie linebacker Chris Carter (hamstring).
All the injured starters who did not appear in the final preseason game Thursday against Carolina will start including cornerbacks Taylor and Bryant McFadden, linebacker James Harrison and center Maurkice Pouncey.
Some of the most notable points from the news conference:
• William Gay will remain the nickel cornerback, playing in the slot.
"He shows good awareness," Tomlin said of Gay. "He is combative in the run, he shows blitz capabilities, but, more than anything, the ability to play in the slot usually is exemplified by what a guy is able to take in and understand from an above-the-neck standpoint. To be quite frank, it is probably more like safety with the position than it is like corner, and he has shown an aptitude for it."
• On the rivalry with Baltimore, among the best in the NFL: "We have two very good football teams with the same intentions, and that is to dominate the AFC North and put themselves in positions to chase the Lombardi [Trophy]. That is why we will always have issues with these guys because I expect that their goals will be unchanging like ours. So two trains are on the track. See you Sunday."
• On the health status of No. 3 wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who did not play until the final preseason game as he overcame surgery on both feet this year: "I believe he is ready to get going. He's worked extremely hard. When given an opportunity to perform, he's performed well. He is a smart guy, not only in terms of what he does on the field but in the classroom. I think he's continued to grow in that area even when not given physical reps. We expect him to be a guy to be ready to deliver for us on Sunday."
• Lawrence Timmons "is an option" to move to outside linebacker if there is an injury to a starter there.