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Starkey: Steelers still knockin’ on Canton’s door

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Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
Steelers Troy Polamalu at the end of the Ravens game Saturday, Jan. 3, 2015 at Heinz Field.
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Steelers offensive lineman Alan Faneca looks on during a game against the Buffalo Bills on Sept. 16, 2007, at Heinz Field.
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Steelers safety Troy Polamalu looks on from the sideline during a game against the Bengals on Dec. 23, 2012, at Heinz Field.

Once “The Bus” makes his final stop, at the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday, the Steelers officially can boast of 21 busts in Canton.

There is no shortage of candidates for No. 22.

The top five among retired players — Alan Faneca, Hines Ward, Troy Polamalu, Donnie Shell and the late L.C. Greenwood — have compelling cases. Shell and Greenwood are the contenders left from the dynastic 1970s teams. Faneca becomes eligible next year, Ward in 2017, Polamalu in 2020.

The question here is not who’s next — logjams at certain positions, internal politics, etc., make that impossible to predict — but rather who is most deserving?

Think of it this way: If you could vote for just one of the five, who would it be?

My choice is Polamalu.

Like Ward (my second choice), Polamalu wasn’t just great but uniquely great. To confine him to a positional label such as “strong safety” would do him a terrible disservice. He played in a land far beyond such descriptors.

This is what I always say about Polamalu, particularly when he is compared to the great Ed Reed (who played free safety): Nobody potentially affected more plays in the offensive coordinator’s playbook — from a quarterback sneak to a power sweep to a screen pass to a bomb — than No. 43.

As Dick LeBeau told me shortly after Polamalu’s retirement: “He could go from point A to point B like no one I’ve seen. … The best safety I’ve ever seen.”

At Steelers camp last week, I asked two longtime Hall voters — Sports Illustrated’s Peter King and USA Today’s Jarrett Bell — who they’d choose first among Faneca, Ward and Polamalu. Both immediately answered Polamalu.

“In the 32 years I’ve covered the NFL, I can’t think of six or eight guys who are as precedent-setting as Troy Polamalu,” King said. “He’s almost the Barry Sanders of safeties. He really is a symbol for what I think of as an automatic Hall of Famer.”

Not that the other four don’t belong.

Let’s start with Greenwood. Like a lot of borderline Hall of Famers on great teams, his candidacy comes with a riddle: Would he have been as good without all that talent around him, or would he have stood out even more on a less-talented team?

Greenwood saved some of his best work for the biggest games (unofficially credited with five sacks in four Super Bowls) and was a member of the 1970s All-Decade Team. He clearly belongs.

“I do think there was Steelers fatigue (among voters) in late ’80s and ’90s,” King said. “His best shot now is with the Seniors Committee. I think he has a slightly better shot than Donnie Shell.”

The likes of Tony Dungy and veteran Hall voter Rick Gosselin have vociferously backed Shell, who retired with more interceptions (51) than any strong safety to that point and delivered hits that could fell an elephant.

Shell belongs, too, as does Faneca, the most decorated of the five in question in terms of First-Team All-Pro nominations (six).

In regards to Faneca, I’m probably guilty of underrating a nonglamour position. As Bell put it, “Faneca definitely has the resume, but it can be tough for guys in the interior of the offensive line to get their recognition.”

Ward was a one-of-a-kind player: a money receiver and devastating blocker. Why shouldn’t his blocking acumen help his cause, considering the Steelers rushed for more yards than any team during his career?

Ward wasn’t just bumping into cornerbacks, either. He was cracking down on defensive ends and breaking linebackers’ jaws.

“I’m very bullish on Hines Ward for a simple reason: He was the best blocking receiver in football in the last 30 or 40 years,” King said. “When you add that he caught a thousand balls, he absolutely, unequivocally would get my vote.”

Bell pointed out a potential pitfall.

“What will hurt Hines — I think — is you’ll have receivers with bigger numbers,” he said. “Randy Moss and Terrell Owens are in the pipeline. You’ll see more.”

Bettis, on NFL Network, said Ward was the best player he played with or against.

I hear that. I just happen to believe that another teammate of his — the guy wearing No. 43 — was slightly better.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

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