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Kovacevic: Make hard call on Steelers' icons

| Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2012

The Steelers didn't leave Denver entirely empty-handed after that life-sucking loss Sunday night. As they slumped out of the locker room, luggage and long faces in tow, each paused at a table to grab a boxed dinner to take aboard the team charter. All 50-plus boxes were bought by injured defensive end Aaron Smith.

First-class gesture by a first-rate human.

The franchise has been blessed this way for years, really. The best players often have been some of the best people, best leaders, best models.

James Farrior.

Hines Ward.

But it's time to say goodbye.

Thanks for everything, congratulations on exemplary careers, but goodbye.

If that flop against Tim Tebow and the Broncos came with any hard theme, it wasn't Ike Taylor's nightmare, Ben Roethlisberger's ankle or the loopy officiating. Rather, it was that it's time — perhaps past time — for the Steelers to close this triumphant chapter and look toward the next.

That should involve an all-encompassing, emotionless look at the roster. The Steelers' salary-cap total for 2012 projects to be about $20 million over the limit. Sounds ominous, but the right moves can address that while simultaneously strengthening the team.

Picture the defensive line going all young with Ziggy Hood, Steve McLendon and Cam Heyward.

The pass rush obviously wasn't coming from the perimeter, as it must in the 3-4 defense, so maybe new blood can bring new strategies. Maybe Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel, both 33, can split time or move into supporting roles.

Picture Jason Worilds, Stevenson Sylvester or Chris Carter blossoming at linebacker.

Nowhere did the Steelers show their age more than when linebackers dropped into coverage.

Picture the secondary's extra step if Cortez Allen, Curtis Brown or another youngster stepped up.

No statistic will haunt this group like that meager total of 16 takeaways. They couldn't get to the ball and couldn't get to the quarterback. That's a lack of athleticism and energy.

That's age.

The offense is mostly young, but all kinds of help on the line is needed to protect Roethlisberger, a gross miscalculation management made last summer and can't repeat.

Some of these calls will be tougher than others, but I don't see it requiring wholesale change in personnel as much as a new way of thinking.

Mike Tomlin talks about rookies as if he's describing hazing. I get that. It's part of the prove-it-first football culture. But he's going to have to be as open-minded with others as he was with Maurkice Pouncey. All but a few roster spots should be written in pencil.

Absolutely, there should still be prominent roles for 30-plus performers such as James Harrison, Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark and yes, the embattled Taylor, who picked a terrible time to have a terrible game. But they shouldn't bear the full burden. Hate to keep citing Baltimore as a positive example, but the Ravens did it right: They didn't bury Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. They just cleared out other older players to get them some help.

And that's the part that will hurt for the Steelers, far more than it did for the Ravens to release Todd Heap and Willis McGahee.

In Smith, Ward and Farrior, we're talking about franchise treasures, men instrumental in two Super Bowl championships, men who are more like family than names on a roster. Men who still send signals that they want to return.

That shouldn't happen. Not for them and not for the team.

Smith is 35 and coming off neck surgery, of all things, and that was only the latest of a litany of major injuries. He said last week he's open to returning, still "fantasizing" about playing.

Farrior turned 37 last week, and his plunge was precipitous, especially in pass coverage. He hasn't even hinted at retirement.

Ward will turn 36 in March, and his plunge might have been the most dramatic and difficult to watch — opponents suddenly were cleaning his clock rather than vice versa — of anyone on the roster. He strongly disputed a national report earlier in the week that he would retire, but he also still hasn't said that he'll return.

All of these cases, from the sound of it, could come down to Tomlin saying no.

That's exactly what he should do.

All three have had their day, earned their rings and made many millions of dollars. Ward even made it to that 1,000th catch, albeit on a 3-yard loss emblematic of his crawl to the finish line.

Time doesn't stand still anywhere, much less the fickle, parity-filled NFL.

Turn the page, gentlemen, before the book closes completely.

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