Ryan Clark isn't one to back off expressing a strong opinion or laying out a hard hit. He did plenty of both while recently spending a week as an NFL analyst for ESPN, never once worrying about making a politically correct statement or possibly motivating an opponent.
“(The Steelers) let me be me. They let me say a lot of dumb stuff,” Clark said. “They let me get in a lot of trouble knowing that my heart is in the right place.”
Still, Clark can't help but wonder — as he enters the final year of his contract — where that place will be a year from now. Even if he doesn't make any more headline-creating remarks about how Tom Brady can be badly rattled by pressure or that Danny Amendola won't be the receiver to the Patriots that Wes Welker was.
With 35-year-old James Harrison now with the Bengals, Clark — who will be 34 in October — is the second-oldest starter to Brett Keisel on a Steelers defense that has been called aging for five years. And for the first time since he and Troy Polamalu were united in the secondary in 2006, the Steelers drafted another safety, Shamarko Thomas, relatively early in the draft.
Thomas, a fourth-round pick, is an aggressive, smack-you-in-the-mouth hitter who would seem to fit in with how the Steelers love to play. Only for now, there's no place for him to play.
A year from now, there could be. Except that Clark — his TV ambitions notwithstanding — does not intend to play only one more season.
“I want to be here. I would love to be a Steeler until I retire,” Clark said. “But I don't want this to be my last year. I did the ESPN thing because it's smart to do it. I didn't do it because I'm ready to stop playing football.”
Even as he gets older, Clark's level of play has not dropped. The 2012 season was one of the best of his career, with 74 tackles, two interceptions and an important role on what again was the NFL's No. 1-ranked defense. He was named an alternate for the Pro Bowl.
But there also was some concern that Clark suffered two concussions in a short period of time. He missed only one game, but concussions become a greater worry to any player as he gets older and they more frequently occur.
“As far as my body goes, I feel really good,” said Clark, who will go through the second of four weeks' worth of Steelers offseason workouts starting Tuesday.
“I'm able to train. I've always said training would stop me from playing football, that playing would never stop me. When I feel I can't go out there and get ready for a season, then it's time to be done. But I love this game. I enjoy it.”
Enough for Clark to keep playing in 2014, even if it's not in Pittsburgh — something he does not want to envision. This will be the eighth season of the Polamalu-Clark safety tandem, a lifetime by NFL standards.