By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — Aaron Smith returned to the Pittsburgh Steelers locker room Thursday afternoon to get ready for a workout, and he spoke with some media members about his present and future and the team’s future without him.
Smith started the opening four games this season, but injured his right foot in the Oct. 2 loss at Houston that gave the Steelers a 2-2 record. Several weeks later, Smith had his sore neck checked out, and a herniated disc was discovered that needed surgery. He was placed on injured reserve Oct. 22.
Some believe that signaled an end to his illustrious 13-year Steelers career, but Smith wasn’t so sure. He hasn’t been told anything by the Steelers and probably won’t reach a decision for at least a month after this season comes to an end.
“I still fantasize about it,” Smith said. “I drive down the road and fantasize about playing. I donât think it will ever stop. Even when I’m done playing, I think I’ll still fantasize about competing. I watch games now and think what I would do in that situation or how I would handle this and that.”
Smith added that the Steelers probably will have to come to him say that they are going in another direction and won’t need his services anymore.
“I’m sure it will be along the lines of, ‘Hey you might want to make that decision.’ Who knows, but I think it will probably be along the lines of ‘Hey, we appreciate it, but you might want to make that call.’ At least that’s the way I see it happening.”
Smith noted that while his wife is a wonderful woman and certainly her feelings about her husband continuing his NFL career will count heavily toward his final decision, she isn’t the type to make it for him. And if the Steelers come to him and basically ask him to move on, Smith said that he’ll retire before trying to go to another team after 13 years with the team that drafted him.
“We’re all getting older, and we can’t play forever, although we’d like to,” Smith said. “But it’ll be sometime soon. I don’t know whether it’s this year or next year, but it’s going to be in the next couple years. I guarantee it. Sure, it does make it harder to end it being injured, because there aren’t too many of these left. So, that makes it a lot harder. That makes it a little more difficult.
“But we’ll sit down after the season, my wife and me, and we’ll take some time off and then think about what we’re going to do. It’s the reality of the business. For me, personally, I’ve been here 13 years, and you just don’t play for the same team that long. To do that and then go somewhere else, that would just taint the whole idea of being a Steeler to me. So, I won’t do that.”
Steelers wideout Hines Ward, a 14-year veteran with the Steelers, has flatly said that he is not ready to retire. His status with the club that drafted him also remains somewhat clouded, although Ward has more time on his contract. Smith was expected to be a free agent next season, but it is believed that when he restructured his agreement this year it was extended one more season.
Ward, however, is due $4 million each of the next two seasons. He is scheduled to be a free agent in 2014. Whether he plays out his contract with the Steelers is also uncertain, but Smith did not believe the wideout would move on to another team before he retired.
“I would be shocked, to be honest with you,” Smith said. “I guess it could happen, but I would be shocked, if Hines did that. He’s kind of in the same scenario as me. To play here and do what he did here and then go somewhere else … because you’re not playing for the money. The money is just kind of useless at this point. I mean, how much is enough?”
That refreshing viewpoint aside, the numbers are difficult to overlook. Smith, who looked pretty good at a slim and trim 282 pounds — about 20 pounds less than his playing weight — has played just one full season (2008) in the past five due to various injuries and ensuing surgeries. He played just 11 games in 2007, all 16 in 2008 and just five in 2009, six in 2010 and four this season.
“It’s been frustrating, at times, because you work so hard,” Smith said. “You put in a lot of training, and I was coming off an injury. So, it’s like climbing two mountains. You just get done climbing one, and then you have to climb another.
“So, it got to be really frustrating, but I have been blessed with so many years with never missing a game or even a practice. And most guys don’t make it that long, so I’ve been blessed to this point in my career.”
One difference this season is that while Smith’s presence on and off the field was missed, there was little if any drop-off with Ziggy Hood as the starting left defensive end. Hood is a third-year veteran now, and Smith was effusive in praising him and the other young players on the Steelers’ defensive line like rookie No. 1 pick Cameron Heyward and second-year player Steve McLendon.
“Ziggy’s played well,” Smith said. “They all have, and that’s tough to do. When you come in and replace a guy like me, someone who’s been here for a long time, it can be tough. But he’s carved out his own little niche for myself. I think he’s going to be a great player. That whole young group.
“Ziggy, Cam Heyward, Steve McLendon, you watch those guys. They’re all going to be great players here. Once all of us so-called old guys are gone, they won’t miss a beat. They might even be better than we were up front. You never know, but they’re going to be really good. I know that for sure.”
Smith then stated the reason why the Steelers keep reloading, especially on defense. It was the same when he came in as a rookie in 1999. He backed up starter Orpheus Roye and played in just six games.
When Roye left for Cleveland the next season, free-agent Chris Sullivan from the New England Patriots was brought in to start. He was injured in the preseason and didn’t play too well after that. Smith started the season-opener, replaced starter Sullivan in the second half in Game 2 and never relinquished that role until his first injury late in 2007.
“The one thing I can tell you is that they always bring in quality guys, and they just don’t miss a beat,” Smith said. “That’s just the way it is. They never miss a beat when the next guy steps in. It’s uncanny. I don’t know how they do it, but the (Steelers) scouting department and the player personnel guys do a great job of finding the same character-type guys.
“(That’s) guys with the same attitude and the same approach, day in and day out. You can find guys with talent. That’s the easy part, but the guys with those intangibles are harder to find. And they do a great job of finding the guys with those intangibles. (And) with the system we have here and the great coaches and players, it’s more than one guy here.
“That’s what makes the Steelers defense so great,” Smith added. “It’s not just one guy. It’s not built around one player or technique. It’s the entire group, and that’s what we believe in. That’s what makes us so good. Everybody realizes that we all have our own job to do, and everybody plays their own role in the defense. And that’s what makes us so successful.”
Smith said his most difficult injury was his torn rotator cuff last season. After the surgery, he had to sleep in a recliner for weeks until he was able to move around. Rehab for his neck surgery this year isn’t nearly as difficult. His surgeon even said he could have played the next day because the steel pins in there strengthened the area more than ever.
So, physically, Smith could be ready to play another season. Mentally, however, is the area that likely will determine his final decision.