Add two more chunks to the Steelers growing discard pile: They plan to release defensive end Aaron Smith and guard Chris Kemoeatu.
Each player was told of their decision Thursday, and each probably saw it coming.
Smith was considered the best defensive end in their 30-year history of running the 3-4. , Smith and his agent learned Thursday from the Steelers that they would release him -- something Smith predicted would have to happen because he would never know when his time was up unless he was told. The Steelers have had no announcement yet on Smith's status.
"We talked today at length,'' Schaffer said of his telephone call with coach Mike Tomlin. "We're celebrating 14 years of having the privilege of playing for the Steelers, and Aaron is celebrating having more time with his five kids and wife. There are no hard feelings."
The move long has been expected when Smith had neck fusion surgery after playing only in the first four games last season. He turns 36 April 19 and has not been able to play more than six games in each of the past three seasons. He had a torn biceps, a torn triceps and rotator cuff surgery in three different seasons. He played only in the first six games of 2010, only the first five in 2009 and was injured for much of the 2007 season, although he managed to play in 11 games.
Unlike Ward, however, don't expect Smith to try to play elsewhere.
"Go somewhere else? No, no; I played 13 years here. It would ruin it," Smith said during a Jan. 4 interview in the Steelers locker room.
On that day, he said he had lost 20 pounds since his neck surgery but still maintained he probably would not know when to quit.
"I'm sure they'll have to come to me,'' Smith said two months ago. "I'm sure it will be more along the lines of, 'Hey, you might want to make that call.'"
They made that call today, but many thought it would come as a retirement announcement rather than what GM Kevin Colbert would call a "termination.'' Smith attended friend and fellow defensive lineman Chris Hoke's retirement announcement at a press conference in January at the Steelers facility on the South Side. Schaffer assured everyone that there will be no such day for Smith.
"He'll go out the way he went in -- wearing camouflage, and being the great guy he always was, with no attention drawn to him. That's who he is. No matter what happens, there will never be an announcement. Aaron is class and humility. The mere thought of drawing attention to himself is contrary to everything he stands for.''
Kemoeatu also got the call. He had a salary on the books for almost $3.6 million in 2012, which reflected a contract when he was their starting left guard, a position he held for four seasons until the Steelers demoted him halfway through last season. Doug Legursky and Ramon Foster are today their starting guards.
The coaching staff's patience with Kemoeatu's undisciplined penalties and personal fouls ran out.
"I think it's kind of a new day for him," said his agent, Ken Vierra, who said the Steelers did not offer Kemoeatu a chance to take a pay cut to stay. "It's partly about Chris, but a significant part of it is their situation. If they had more cap room, I don't think they would have done it.
"Chris and a few other guys needed to be released. So be it, we move on."
Kemoeatu, drafted on the fifth round in 2006, had arthroscopic surgery on a knee after the season, described by Vierra as minnor.
The Steelers drafted Smith on the fourth round in 1999, an undersized defensive end from Division II Northern Colorado. Like Hines Ward, drafted a year before him and his release announced a day before his, Smith did not waste any time establishing himself as a bargain.
He became their starting defensive end in his second season, 2000, and remained so through 2011, except when injuries derailed him. For a player whose final years were limited by those injuries, Smith for many years was considered an ironman. He did not miss a game from the day he moved into the starting lineup for the opener in 2000 until the seventh game of the 2007 season, when a knee injury began his string of physical problems that ultimately prompted the Steelers to decide to release him.
He was due to make $2.1 million in the final year of his contract next season, more savings for the Steelers as they dive beneath the expected $120 million salary cap.
Although Smith was among the most valuable Steelers on defense during his long career, he only made one Pro Bowl. Teammates pointed to his unselfishness, his humility and the position he played because ends in a 3-4 defense rarely get much notice, especially when they spend their career on the left side, usually the strong side.
Smith made it possible for others to become stars. He had the versatility of being able to collapse the pocket by pushing blockers into it, thus setting up sacks for others. He was a big reason the Steelers ranked so highly every year against the run, and he gobbled up blockers so they could not get to the linebackers behind him, the playmakers of the 3-4 defense.
Coach Mike Tomlin showed what kind of respect the staff and players had for Smith when he refused to put him on injured reserve in 2010 after Smith's triceps muscle was torn in the sixth game of the season. He never played again that season but remained on the 53-man roster through the Super Bowl.
Now, he will never play again, period.
"That's the reality of the business,'' Smith said during that Jan. 4 interview. "But for me, personally, 13 years here, you don't play for the same team, not that long anyhow. And to do that now, go someplace else, that would just change the whole idea of being a Steeler."
He talked about his replacement that day, Ziggy Hood, and of 2011 rookie defensive end Cameron Heyward. And he said the job was in good hands.
"Once us so-called old guys are gone, they won't miss us,'' Smith said. "They'll be improved, to be honest with you."
Not many would agree.
Ed Bouchette: email@example.com First Published March 2, 2012 12:00 AM