Sometimes the will is strong but the body simply isn’t able.
The Pittsburgh Steelers were in the news for a couple reasons last Saturday, none sadder than hearing the team had placed defensive end Aaron Smith on injured reserve, ending his 2011 season. Smith going on IR wasn’t sad in and of itself. It was almost expected after suffering four season-ending injuries over the past five years. The sadness came with the explanation that followed which brought to light the unfortunate reality that Smith’s football career is most likely over.
The story behind Smith’s injury is definitely a little bizarre. I often joke on this blog about Mike Tomlin being a master of lies and deceit when it comes to discussing his team’s injury situation. I’m starting to wonder if Tomlin isn’t a liar, it’s the Steeler doctors who make Dr. Nick Riviera look like a Harvard graduate. I mean, they did send James Harrison back on the field with a crushed orbital bone.
Smith missed the previous two games with what the Steelers listed as “a foot injury.” When he was placed on IR, though, the team said it was because of “a neck injury.” Later, Tomlin explained the team’s neurosurgeon discovered damage to Smith’s neck that was so severe he risked paralysis by trying to play with it. This means either the Steelers were lying when they held him out with a foot injury (which is bad) or the team doctors are so inept they weren’t aware one of their players was one big collision away from being a paraplegic (which is worse).
Despite what the link states, Smith actually has one more year left on his contract. He was in his final year but he renegotiated when the team was desperately trying to get under the cap. Considering his poor play before being injured and the fact the Steelers have players on the roster to take his place, I don’t expect him back next year even if the money is guaranteed (which I assume it is). At age 35 and with his future health in jeopardy if he returns to action, it would seem the end has finally come for one of the Steelers’ finest defensive players of the past thirty years. While the last handful of seasons have been marred by injury, the first seven years of Smith’s career were nothing short of brilliant.
Smith’s career wasn’t eulogized by a solemn Bob Costas on Sunday Night Football. Five years from now, Smith will be eligible for the Hall of Fame and he’ll probably get a few votes but not many. If he ever gets in, it will be the Dick LeBeau Veterans Committee route although even then I wouldn’t hold my breath. In 2033, when a new generation of Steeler Nation votes on the Black and Gold’s 100th anniversary team, he’ll probably be bypassed in favor of the legends who played for the Steel Dynasty. If anybody from this era makes it, it would more likely be his longtime linemate Casey Hampton.
Which is a real shame because Aaron Smith is one of the best defensive ends to ever play football. For those of you who don’t concern yourselves with the X’s and O’s, allow me to explain. LeBeau runs a very particular 3-4 defense, one where every player has a job to do. By doing your job, others are in a position to do theirs. Smith never piled up the statistics famous defensive ends like Bruce Smith or Julius Peppers accumulated. That’s probably why he only made a single Pro Bowl his entire career.
All Smith did was play 3-4 end to absolute perfection. Over the past twelve years, the Steelers have gotten excellent outside linebacking from one-hit wonders like Jason Gildon and Clark Haggans as well as perennial All-Pros like Joey Porter and James Harrison. A big reason the linebackers have been so effective year in and year out is because of Smith. A defensive end in LeBeau’s system has to take on blockers and create gaps for the ‘backer to shoot through and make plays. In his prime, there was nobody better at it than Aaron Smith. He would routinely occupy two offensive linemen while also being incredibly stout at the point of attack.
In additional to being a great player, Smith was a beloved teammate. The team rallied around him when his son was diagnosed with leukemia back in 2008. I’m sure the Steelers brought him back this season because they thought he had a little more gas left in the tank, although I would like to think there was a little bit of compassion mixed in there as well. Yes, they aren’t a charity but it isn’t unreasonable to suppose a classy family like the Rooneys would give a man who’s been nothing short of exemplary on and off the field a bit of a break.
Farewell, Aaron Smith. Thank you being a Steeler in the best possible sense. God bless.