Fast forward a few years into the future...say 2015. The Steelers have won two or three more Super Bowls with the core of its current team. What players off this team would be talked about for the Hall of Fame? Considering about half of the starters off the 1970s team eventually heard their names called, it is fun to speculate on how this team will be treated by history. Peter King had a recent article comparing the Steelers of today against the Steelers of the 1970s. While I think he was overly biased towards the 70s Steelers, I expect to see plenty more of these articles in the next few years. This article will focus on players currently on the roster, so players on recent teams no longer with the Steelers, like Hall of Fame lock Jerome Bettis, or players who still have a chance to expand on their impressive body of work, like Joey Porter and Alan Faneca, won't appear here. While this may seem an odd subject for an article, you can't tell me that most Steelers fans watching this game weren't at least entertaining this question, especially when watching Holmes run uncovered all over the field, Harrison rumble up the sideline, Roethlisberger put on a cape and will the Steelers down the field in the final two minutes, and Ward break free for the game's first big play.
Ben Roethlisberger. One more Super Bowl victory would guarantee him a spot in the Hall of Fame. Only now is Roethlisberger truly being valued outside of Pittsburgh for the greatness that many of us Steelers' fans knew from the first season. The prevailing belief that Roethlisberger was along for the ride during the Steelers' 15-1 regular season his rookie year was always a myth. He was a gamer from the first game he entered against a vicious Ravens' defense late in the game when Maddox went down. Lots of sports writers have commented that Super Bowl XL was won in spite of Roethlisberger. While that was arguably one of his worst games, it came after he torched the heavily favored Colts, a team many sportswriters thought could sleepwalk to their first Lombardi Trophy, and then made a game saving tackle following Bettis' uncharacteristic fumble...an amazing play that has already been forgotten by most of the sports world who, in lemming fashion, insist he was along for the side during his first Super Bowl run. He followed that game up by embarrassing another favored defense, the Broncos, in the AFC Championship game, making Champ Bailey look foolish on one of the early touchdown throws. Along for the ride? I don't think so.
Hines Ward. No player epitomizes Steelers football more than Hines Ward. Heck, I'm not sure any player in history better epitomizes Steelers football than Ward. He is tough, plays his heart out on every play, and inspires everyone around him to be better. His blocking is so feared that defensive players spend much of the game trying to figure out where they are at so they don't end up on a Sportscenter clip being leveled by Ward. He is the player that fans of other teams love to hate even as they secretly wish he was on their roster (kind of like Ray Lewis in his prime). For high entertainment value, check out a Baltimore Ravens fan message board before a Steelers game and see how many Ravens' fans are obsessing about Ward. I think he should be a lock now, but he might not be due to his numbers significantly trailing some of his contemporaries like Marvin Harrison and Terrell Owens. But, would anyone in their right mind take Owens over Ward? One more Super Bowl would guarantee Ward a place in the Hall, even though I think his body of work has already earned him a place there. Unfortunately, Ward likely only has a few more years left since Father Time is knocking at the door. But, if he isn't in the Hall some day, it will be a grave injustice.
Troy Polamalu. I used to think Polamalu was overrated, made to appear better than he is by underrated players like Chris Hope, a player I hated to see leave Pittsburgh, playing opposite him. Not anymore. Polamalu is a beast, a high energy player who makes plays all over the field. He is one of those rare defenders who is so good that offenses have to build their entire game plan around him. With two Super Bowl rings and a couple highlight reel plays in the playoffs, Polamalu is well on his way to the Hall. His interception return against Baltimore in the AFC Championship game has to be a top-5 Steelers' defensive play, although it did drop one slot after the Harrison Super Bowl return. He also made an incredible interception against the Colts that would have essentially ended the game during their 2005 Super Bowl run that was overturned in one of the worst officiating blunders in history. That call should have forever dispelled all of the conspiracy theorists who like to argue that the refs are in the tank for the Steelers. It doesn't hurt that he is such a high character player, a true role model. On Super Bowl Sunday (Super Bowl Monday for us stationed here in Korea), my 5 and 7 year old daughters went to school in Polamalu jerseys while my other daughter wore Hines Ward, the most popular player in Korea. It was a thing of beauty. Now if I can only convince them to actually watch the games...
That is probably about it for the locks. However, there are a few players that I would put in the likely category based upon their early work.
James Harrison. He has a ways to go before being considered Hall worthy but it is certainly not out of the question that he will get there. With his intensity, he reminds me of former Steelers' great Greg Lloyd. I remember watching him pace the sidelines before games with an almost maniacal look in his eyes. Harrison has that same crazy axe murderer look about him when he stares across the line of scrimmage leaving fans to wonder if he is foaming at the mouth beneath his helmet. He is virtually unblockable off the edge and is held on almost every down, although it is almost never called. It is almost as if the refs don't think it is fair for a tackle to try to block him one on one so they are willing to cut them some slack. Making the top defensive play in Super Bowl history doesn't hurt his cause, a play that will be replayed over and over again for the rest of time. I was screaming so loud watching him rumbling down the sideline that my voice was gone for the second half. Oh well...it was worth it. He easily could have been named the MVP of the game and I think he very well might have been if not for the cheap personal foul he took late in the game (not sure what he was thinking on that one and it marred an otherwise phenomenal effort). In addition to the play that deserves its own name (and probably will get one), he pressured Warner all day and forced a few key holding calls that were as good as sacks since they ended drives. I don't think he'll ever put up the numbers he did this year again since offenses are more aware of his ability and are keying on slowing him down. Still, a couple more great seasons and another Super Bowl ring would certainly move him into the discussion, probably pushing him over the top. Not bad for an undrafted player out of Kent State who once struggled to stay on an NFL roster and first had to earn his stripes as a special teams standout, his role in Super Bowl XL.
Lamarr Woodley. Like all of Steelers Nation, I'm starting to get a great feeling about Woodley. I had no idea what the Steelers were thinking a couple years back when they drafted Timmons and Woodley in the first two rounds. I was stunned. Why draft linebackers back to back when you already have a great linebacker core while the offensive line was already showing signs of collapsing? Maybe draft one...but two? Me of little faith. I no longer question that draft. Woodley gives the Steelers a second rusher who is almost impossible to corral, even as Timmons shows flashes of greatness. In this year's playoff run, Woodley recorded six sacks, a pair for each game. If he stays on his current pace and improves slightly over the next couple years, which seems likely, Woodley will put up monster numbers. He is the biggest beneficiary of Harrison's greatness since that frees him up on the other side. Watching him torment offensive lines in the playoffs, I expect we'll see a lot more Woodley jerseys in Pittsburgh in a few years. The only thing going against Woodley is the tendency for the Steelers to let their great outside linebackers go when it comes time to pony up big money since they've done such a great job over the years in finding superb replacements. With so many teams moving towards the 3-4, meaning that fewer of those tweener players will slide in the draft, that might not be as easy to do in the future. With Harrison and Woodley on the outside and if Timmons is as good of a rusher as he looked this year in the middle, I almost feel sorry for offensive coordinators next year....almost being the key word.
Santonio Holmes. While Holmes does not have the body of work to even be mentioned in a Hall of Fame discussion at this point in his career, I've got a hunch that may change soon. Under the assumption that the Steelers win two more Super Bowls with him as the number one receiver, he would almost certainly be a big part of it. And with Big Ben driving the train, I think they will win at least one more and probably two more. During this year's playoff run, Holmes showed incredible potential. He returned a punt and made a few amazing plays. And, more importantly, he earned his quarterback's trust and that will carry over. The Steelers have a way of mentoring their own and Ward may be passing the torch to Holmes. Peter King dismissed the current Steelers wide receivers as being far inferior to the Swann-Stallworth tandem of the 70s. I'm not so sure. Both of those former players are legends, but are they really heads and shoulders above Ward and Holmes? While Ward is moving past his prime, I'm not sure a Ward-Holmes in their prime (Ward in the past, Holmes in the future) don't at least come close to breaking even with Swann and Stallworth, if not surpassing them. One of the big questions for the Steelers going forward is, "Who will emerge as the number two wide receiver to eventually replace Hines Ward?" When it comes to the Hall of Fame, I don't think any position benefits as much from a great team who wins Super Bowls as wide receiver. Holmes could be a beneficiary.
These are the undervalued players who are better than most people realize, but because of the system they play in, aren't valued as highly as their play dictates.
Aaron Smith. Aaron Smith is a spectacular3-4 defensive end and should have gone to the Pro Bowl this year. He was the biggest snub off this year's Steelers team. He is incredible against the run and pushes the pocket on passing downs which clears space for the linebackers to get their sacks if not chasing the quarterback into the welcoming arms of those same linebackers. If there was a vote for most undervalued member of the Steelers by sportswriters, I think Smith would win it. But, based on the way his teammates reacted to his Pro Bowl snub, they understand what he means to the Steelers' all-world defense.
Casey Hampton. Hampton is simply unmovable in the center of the Steelers defensive line, a freakish force of nature. Unfortunately for him, defensive linemen are measured by sacks and a 3-4 nose tackle isn't going to build his fame in that way. But, if you want to know why nobody can run against the Steelers and some teams don't even try, start with Hampton and Smith and their modern version of the steel curtain. The Ravens' Haloti Nagata seems to be getting more glowing press coverage than Hampton these days but I'll take the guy his teammates aren't supposed to call Big Snack on any Sunday.
Ike Taylor. Taylor might be the most underrated cornerback in the league. All he does is shut down the other team's top receiver week after week. Randy Moss? Terrell Owens? Chad Johnson? Larry Fitzgerald (OK...maybe not quite as successfully)? Taylor has lined up across from them week after week and more than held his own. It is the Steelers' confidence in Taylor that allows them to be more aggressive with their safeties and linebackers. In Taylor's case, he doesn't get the recognition he deserves because his hands are made out of steel. If his hands don't improve dramatically, he will never enter a Hall of Fame discussion. But that doesn't mean he isn't an elite NFL cornerback. While he is already a legend in his own mind, that isn't necessarily a bad thing in a cornerback.
Heath Miller. Miller is an outstanding tight end. He can block and can catch. But, unless the Steelers become a much more pass oriented offense, which is certainly a possibility given their challenges running the ball this year, Miller will not have the numbers to ever enter the Hall discussion, not when some of his contemporaries, like Gonzalez and Gates, are putting up such monster numbers. Like other players on the team, I wouldn't even consider trading him for those guys but at the end of the day, it is usually a numbers game. Miller has more than validated the first round pick the Steelers spent on him and is one of the best tight ends they've ever had, but it is hard to imagine a scenario where he has a Hall of Fame career. Still, he does have the honor of being recognized as one of the few clear cut upgrades from the 70s squads. Miller or Bennie Cunningham? I'm going with Miller.
Not Going to Happen
Willie Parker. Running back is a tough position because careers are so short. Willie is a very good running back but injuries and career length will conspire against him long before he will put up Hall of Fame worthy numbers. Plus, he doesn't get the tough yards consistently. Way too often during the Super Bowl he pulled up to juke when he probably should have put his head down and barreled forward. He also has bad hands which limit his effectiveness on passing downs (see drop that likely would have gone for a TD in AFC Championship game). Parker is a very good back who was an absolute gem considering they got him as an undrafted free agent. He will also be long remembered for his touchdown dash against the Seahawks in the longest run in Super Bowl history. That isn't a bad legacy for a player that didn't even start on a lousy college football team (North Carolina).
James Farrior. I almost put him in the last category because he is outstanding, as his well-earned Pro Bowl spot attests. He is a tackling machine and an outstanding leader. But, the Steelers defensive alignment is not really conducive to inside linebackers putting up the absurd kind of numbers Hall of Fame voters look for. Farrior is one of those guys, though, that plays his heart out every week and seems to truly love the game. His discipline and reliability free up Lebeau to wreck havoc with the outside linebackers.
Deshea Townsend. Again, an underrated player who has been excellent for the Steelers. I never understood what he was doing behind Chad Scott and Dewayne Washington on the depth chart. But, he is on the downslope of his career and will increasingly become a situational player as Bryant McFadden, who has shown real flashes of ability, steps into the role. William Gay is a sleeper at corner who also may emerge as a great player. Brett Keisel and Larry Foote fall into the same category, good players but not players likely to ever be considered Hall of Famers. I expect this was the last year we'll see Foote in a Steelers jersey which is a shame because he is a high character guy with a great story who plays hard and well. But, with what Timmons showed this year, Foote likely sees the writing on the wall and will be off to not quite as green pastures, maybe even with his hometown Lions. They could use his toughness.
Ryan Clark. Again, a very solid player but one who will always play in the shadows of Polamalu, as Hope did when he played in Pittsburgh. He will most be remembered for his bone jarring hits and will never be forgotten by the players who were on the receiving end of those hits. He may quickly become a fan favorite because of those guided missile strikes. He is another player, like Harrison and Parker, who has proven that you don't need to be drafted high, or even drafted at all, to succeed in this league.
Any of the current offensive linemen. Marvel Smith had a very good career that appears to be about over. Kendall Simmons has shown some flashes of greatness but injury and health issues have reduced his potential. The rest of the squad falls somewhere on a spectrum ranging from average to marginal to just plain bad. I like these guys and think they play their hearts out. But, they just aren't very good. That Roethlisberger made it through this season in one piece is a miracle. I'm still in awe that the Steelers were able to win a Super Bowl with these guys. That is a testament to their all-world defense and Superman, who lines up behind center. I'm hoping the Steelers are able to reel in Jordan Gross in free agency, although I'm doubtful they'll go for a high profile free agent. Otherwise, hopefully they draft some offensive linemen...like seven of them. I would have bet every penny I have on them drafting a lineman in the first round last year and was shocked when they went with a running back. Good thing I'm not a gambling man.
That about covers it. It is too early to consider any of the players who have not yet solidified themselves as clear cut starters, such as Timmons, McFadden or Mendenhall. So...if the Steelers win at least one more Super Bowl over the next three years and two more over the next five, I think 5-7 players off of this squad will one day here their name called in Canton. There would be a minimum of four and a maximum or around nine. Of course, in April, hopefully a few new players will be added to the team to enter the discussion over the next few years. Go Steelers!