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Cook: Steelers have to sign Polamalu to be fair to Tomlin

Sunday, May 20, 2007

By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

What a sight Troy Polamalu must have been, relaxing in the hot tub on that cold January day.

Talk about a great place, a fabulous resort, to just get away to for a few days after the Steelers played their final game of the Bill Cowher era. A whole season of 8-8 frustration, not to mention an awful lot of aches and pains, were going up with the steam from the soothing water. Polamalu's wife, Theodora, was off being pampered, getting a massage. He had a few quiet moments to himself and was at peace. It's not hard to imagine him sitting back, closing his eyes, drifting away ...

"Then this old man comes walking up," Polamalu said.

The two chatted, as people tend to do at a hot tub.

"I asked him where he's from," Polamalu said. "He said he lives all over the world. I say, 'No, seriously. What do you do?' He says, 'I own this place.' "

Nemacolin Woodlands Resort and Spa.

It was Joe Hardy.

No, there was no sign of Hardy's 22-year-old bride-to-be.

Just in case you were wondering.

"Listen, they're having a surprise 84th birthday party for me today. How would you like to come?" Hardy asked.

So that's how the Polamalus ended up as special guests at Hardy's table, along with Robin Williams, Gov. Ed Rendell and Tom Ridge, listening to Bette Midler and Christina Aguilera sing and watching all the beautiful people at the party of all parties, even if it wasn't much of a surprise for the very wealthy man of the hour.

"A pretty amazing weekend," Polamalu recalled last week. "We didn't even have clothes with us. We had to buy everything there."

It was pricey, but Polamalu can afford it.

One day soon, presumably with the Steelers, he will sign an enormous contract. Maybe it won't pay him Hardy-like money, but it will make him the highest-paid player on the team.

Don't you wish, Alan Faneca?

The Steelers might be able to get by losing one All-Pro after the coming season. That would be the unhappy Faneca, who made such an ugly scene at minicamp last weekend when he went public with his contract conundrum. But the team can't afford to lose a second great player. It has to find a way to do a new deal with Polamalu, who also will be a free agent after the season if he isn't re-signed.

If it's an either/or situation, Faneca or Polamalu, the Steelers have to go with Polamalu, who's right behind Ben Roethlisberger at the top of their most-indispensable-players list.

"He's our playmaker, our star," Steelers linebacker Larry Foote said at minicamp. "We run a lot of stuff in our defense that's just for him. We can't let him go."

It's nice to think new coach Mike Tomlin has gone to the Rooneys with that same message.

Much has been said and written about the type of defense Tomlin will coach. Will he stick with the 3-4, zone-blitz scheme that Cowher preferred? Or will he slowly convert to a 4-3, cover-2 defense that he learned under Tony Dungy? It's a fascinating topic, but the bottom line never changes: Tomlin needs great players to make either defense work.

The Steelers need Polamalu to be a great defense.

"He's the best player I've ever seen at safety," Cleveland Browns tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. said last season. "He's phenomenal."

It was in the game at Cleveland last year that Polamalu left no doubt that he's one of the NFL's special players. On a three-play sequence in the fourth quarter, he used his incredible closing speed on first down to run down Browns quarterback Charlie Frye for a sack in front of the Steelers' bench; displayed his toughness on second down by slicing through a mass of humanity to tackle running back Jason Wright after a 2-yard gain; and showed his marvelous football instincts on third down by pulling up on a blitz and leaping to bat down Frye's pass intended for Winslow. The Browns punted, and the Steelers scored a late touchdown to win, 24-20.

That's why Foote said of Polamalu that day, "I've been playing a long time, and I've never seen anyone make plays like he makes."

And that's why Foote says now, "His presence alone out there makes you better. Playing next to him breeds confidence. Knowing he's next to you makes you stronger."

Polamalu is saying little about his contract situation. He says little about just about everything and says it very quietly. "I don't know what's going on. I'm just living. ... Only God knows what's going to happen." But Polamalu did add, "Definitely, I'd love to be here. This is home. I live here year-round. I don't think I have to make a case for that."

Surely, you like reading that more than Faneca's startling promise: "This will be my last year as a Pittsburgh Steeler." But the reality is, neither statement means much at this point of the negotiating game. To keep Polamalu, the Steelers are going to have to come up with a very big number on a contract. He might not be paying attention to the negotiations, but his agent certainly is.

Polamalu seemed more interested in what's happening with Faneca. "He's somebody everyone on this team looks up to." Like the Steelers' other veterans, he's wary that Cowher left, that linebacker Joey Porter was released, that Faneca appears all but gone. "I think everybody is a little unsure about the direction of the team."

Don't take that the wrong way, though.

In the next breath, Polamalu said, "I think it's good that things are shaken up a little. Everybody's got to work to establish themselves again. ... There's always apprehension when there's change. I went through it at USC when coach [Pete] Carroll came in. All of us were unsure about what was going to happen. That turned out pretty well."

Carroll won big and still is winning big because of great players.

Tomlin needs great players to be successful.

The Steelers want to give their new coach a fair shot?

They have to do a deal with Polamalu.

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