It was a tight moment, but it didn't ever feel out of control. Pittsburgh led division rival Baltimore 16-14 with under five minutes to play in the AFC Championship game in January of 2009. Rookie quarterback Joe Flacco was working on a Not Screwing Up performance, and both sides were engaged in one of the most physical football games of the era.
Flacco's read on a second down pass appeared true enough. It's as if you could hear him thinking, "Ok, Harrison is bearing down on my backside like a freight train, I saw Troy Polamalu on the left side of the formation at the start of the play, so he can't be over on the right side. I gotta get rid of this thing, so I'll take my chances with Derrick Mason on William Gay.
Polamalu read Flacco the entire time, trailing straight over from right to left, and put himself smack dab in the passing lane. Flacco never saw him. Polamalu jumped, made the catch and corrected himself as he began running forward. After picking up a block, he made his way back nearly to the exact spot from which he started. Riding a block by Aaron Smith on Flacco, he slithered his way into the end zone.
Polamalu must not have heard any critics leading into that game. Doubters of the statistical claim the Steelers' 2008 defense is among the best the game has ever seen.
He must not have been mad, bro. No one questioned him. Polamalu must never have heard anything negative said about him. Removing that justification, Polamalu, the All Pro player and future Defensive Player of the Year, pointed at the crowd as he ran back from the right pylon toward the goal post. He brought his hands down to his sides, and waited for the coming embrace from his teammates.
It was almost as if he didn't even have anything planned; the play itself must have gone through his mind as he trailed Flacco's eyes from the first nanosecond of the play. He choreographed the play to perfection, he celebrated it on his own like he had no clue what to do.
He tried to do something, but then he looked for his teammates.
He could have run directly to Flacco, who wasn't more than five yards away from him when he crossed the goal line. He could have patted him on the ass, reminded him who the greatest player of all time is, and proceeded to follow him, hand extended in a mock sign of respect. He could have made such a show of it, Flacco would have had to shove him out of the way as he slunk back to the sideline. Polamalu's actions could have drawn a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct, detracting from the brilliance of the moment, injecting instead 15 seconds of pure idiocy, taking away - fairly or unfairly - the moment of one of the most brilliantly dramatic plays in playoff history.
Polamalu didn't do any of those things. He looked kind of awkward in his quasi-celebration, but make no mistake, he was showing emotion. He chose to share that emotion with his teammates.
Perhaps had he stalked Flacco off the field, ensuring his level of hubris was known to anyone who is smart enough to have learned the phrase "pride cometh before the fall," we could have been treated to written compilations of human and canine excrement such as this. Maybe he's too boring. Maybe, though, he's man enough to just share the individual glory with his teammates. After all, perhaps Flacco doesn't rush his decision if Harrison wasn't poised to put him on the ground for the umpteenth time that game (for what it's worth, Harrison aimed for and unloaded right on Flacco's hip, coming nowhere near his head). Maybe if Ike Taylor hadn't blanketed what appeared to be the primary option on the play, Flacco would have released it to the side Polamalu vacated.
Polamalu, minus a few post-whistle penalties throughout his career, isn't known for such outside-the-lines altercations anyway. He's known for making plays. In the 2008 AFC Championship game, Polamalu made the play that sent the Steelers to Super Bowl XLIII.
After that game, when interviewed, Polamalu didn't scream his greatness. We're still talking about the play, and we will still be talking about that play the day he retires, the day he's put into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and on every conference championship weekend from now until everything ends.
It's unfortunate we'll be talking about another great play a conference championship game, but only after we talk about a bunch of other stuff. Whether Richard Sherman's classless display of taunting wide receiver Michael Crabtree, or his bizarre yet contrived post-game catharsis of the smiting of all those who wronged him.
But before you tell me "class is bullshit, which is possibly the most ignorant and moronic statement made on the subject, why don't we take a look and see about another highly talented player in the NFL who made a big play in a big moment, and did not require sycophants to make excuses for him - up to and including the listing of his educational success, charity work, sense of humor, character references and potential beef with other coaches and players.
Maybe we should just look at what non-bullshit class looks like, and think, "hey, maybe that's not such a bad thing, either."
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