Troy Polamalu is a cultural icon.
His kind, gentle nature off the field is completely divergent from his tenacious, relentless attack while in uniform. He would deliver bone-crushing tackles and then immediately pray before the next play. The two-time Super Bowl champion has been elected to eight Pro Bowls and has been the recipient of a Defensive Player of the Year award while establishing a pair of charitable foundations, supporting Pittsburgh charities, victims of disasters and Children's and VA hospitals. And, of course, they hair.
As an undersized (read: shorter) safety from the University of Southern California, Polamalu was an athletic freak of nature, running a 4.3 second 40-yard dash, possessing a vertical leap of nearly 40 inches and benching 225 pounds 29 times. Despite these incredible measurements, the somewhat diminutive Polamalu wasn't physically imposing like Sean Taylor; his lack of noticeable bulk giving him an almost "every man" appearance. This fact certainly didn't bother the Steelers, who snatched Polamalu up with the 16th pick in the 2003 NFL Draft. Coaches would later comment it was Polamalu's football IQ that made him such a standout.
After a tremendous career, the tunnel of Troy Polamalu's time in the league seems to be coming to an end. Whether he retires next week or three years from now, the beloved safety has cemented his legacy as one of the greatest Pittsburgh Steelers of all time.
But, how does Polamalu's career measure up with some of the all-time great safeties?
Pretty darn well.
In fact, it could be argued Troy Polamalu might actually be the greatest safety of all time. The consensus seems to point to Ronnie Lott deserving the brunt of the consideration as the greatest ever, and that's fair. The man won four Super Bowls with San Francisco and was the defensive anchor for a defense with relatively few well-known players. After colliding with a pair of helmets, Lott made the ultimate football sacrifice, opting to have an injured finger surgically removed. Lott was elected to 10 Pro Bowls, was a member of the NFL All-Decade team for both the 1980's and 1990's and is a Hall of Famer.
Lott, however, played in, for lack of a better word, a more "physical" NFL. Over the course of Polamalu's career, several rule changes meant to protect both quarterbacks and receivers have made playing defense more difficult than it's ever been. So while Lott's stats support him as the greatest safety of all time, Polamalu transcended the game in ways no player at his position ever has, despite less gaudy figures than Lott.
For one, Polamalu occupied the role on defense typically reserved for a Ray Lewis or Brian Urlacher. As a strong safety, Polamalu acted as the de facto defensive quarterback for several of the greatest defensive teams in Pittsburgh Steelers history.
Polamalu's athleticism also allowed him to play the position differently than anyone before him (or since). Free safeties, for example, typically are known as ball-hawking center-field type players, such as Jarius Byrd, who attack the ball in coverage and get lots of interceptions. Strong safeties, on the other hand, are the "big-hitters" the guys who play coverage, but can provide run support and instill fear in the hearts of receivers coming across the middle of the field. Kam Chancellor probably stands out as the prototype NFL strong safety. Polamalu, listed as a strong safety, displayed the rare ability to dominate in coverage as well as run support. So, while his interception totals aren't quite as high as Ed Reed and he didn't force as many fumbles as Lott, Polamalu was able to affect the game in entirely new ways, lining up at either safety position to provide coverage, covering a receiver one-on-one, setting himself up as a middle linebacker to help with run support or attacking the line of scrimmage to pass rush the quarterback. With the ability to play so many positions, opposing teams were seemingly dumbfounded about how to account for Troy Polamalu.
Troy didn't just play safety; he impacted the game. In 2005, his diving, one-handed interception should've sealed the Divisional Playoff against the Colts, but the play was incorrectly ruled an incomplete pass (the NFL would later confirm the play should've stood as an interception). An interception return for a touchdown in the 2008 AFC Championship helped seal the game, sending Pittsburgh to the Super Bowl and Baltimore home empty handed. In 2009 he hurdled the Tennessee Titans offensive line to sack Kerry Collins on a perfectly timed snap count, a play which answered the question, "How do you sum up Troy Polamalu in one play?" Polamalu was written off after an injury plagued 2012 season and the. returned with a very successful 2013 campaign.
So even though it appears Polamalu's time as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers is coming to an end, it's important to understand his legacy. What he did for the Steelers leaves millions of those wearing black and gold forever in his debt, as the soft spoken man who rarely gave interviews and served as the anti-Richard Sherman played some of the finest football fans of any team had ever seen. If Troy stays for another season, great, because even if he's not what he once was from a football standpoint, he could serve as an invaluable member of the locker room, helping to ease the transition to a new breed of Steelers defenders.
But, if Troy Polamalu decides to retire, he does so as arguably the greatest safety in the history of the NFL.