End of an Era: Troy Polamalu

“Father Time” claims another one. Saving the Pittsburgh Steelers from having to make the polarizing decision to move on from an aging fan favorite, 8-time Pro Bowler Troy Polamalu has decided to retire. Polamalu’s retirement marks the conclusion of a Hall of Fame career and closes the door on a tremendous era of safety play. Many will remember Polamalu for his luxurious, flowing mane in a series of Head & Shoulders commercials but I will remember him for his range and uncanny instincts on the football field perhaps matched only by Ed Reed over the last 10-15 years. At 5’10” 213 lbs. Polamalu wasn’t an imposing figure but for the majority of his career opposing offenses feared his playmaking ability. Whether it be in the box in run support, blitzing the quarterback or playing centerfield in the deep third Polamalu was seemingly everywhere all at once for the better part of his career. The amount of ground he covered was astonishing and it wasn’t until he suffered a few injuries towards the back end of his career did he ever appear out of position or even missed a tackle for that matter.

The fact that Troy was allowed to freelance as much as he did without compromising the schematic design of the defense was truly amazing. I don’t recall seeing a player line up along the line of scrimmage, showing blitz, only to break up a pass 40 yards downfield on the opposite hash. That innate ability to find the football and virtually always put himself in position to make a play is an incredibly rare trait. In today’s game you often see safeties who struggle to track the ball in the air and panic at the moment of truth. They can’t cover a receiver in the slot or matchup against tight ends. Nor can they consistently make 1-on-1 open field tackles as the last line of defense. Polamalu was not only capable of all of this but he made it look relatively easy. It was like watching a heat-seeking missile lock-on and destroy its target. Whether it be zone or man coverage Polamalu could do it all. 

Over the past 15 years or so there have been some incredible players at the safety position but few had the all-around game Polamalu had. It remains to be seen whether the current stars at the position will reach Polamalu’s plateau: Earl Thomas, Eric Berry, Kam Chancellor, Eric Weddle, Jarius Byrd and Devin McCourty are all terrific players but neither of them have done “it” long enough at a high enough level to be mentioned in the same breath as Polamalu. Even the likes of Adrian Wilson, Darren Woodson, John Lynch, Rodney Harrison, Darren Sharper and Brian Dawkins don’t quite measure up (maybe Dawkins). I tend to put Charles Woodson in a different category as he began his career as a cornerback and extended it by moving to safety but Polamalu is in the same rarified air as him. Bob Sanders and Sean Taylor were on track, but Sanders’ body failed him and Taylor was tragically murdered in his home just as he began to realize there was nothing on the football field he couldn’t do. The fact that most of the aforementioned players are in Polamalu’s shadow from an achievement standpoint speaks to how dynamic and gifted a football player he was. Over the past decade and a half there are only a handful of defenders let alone safeties that are or were considered “must watch T.V.” like Troy.

Last season (2014) was a year to forget for Polamalu. His explosiveness and agility were no longer available to him. Age, injuries and general wear and tear had eroded his speed and coverage ability and it became commonplace to see him out of position, a painful sight for those of us fortunate enough to see Polamalu in his prime. In his final few seasons Polamalu was increasingly confined to the box to “hide” him in coverage often times playing linebacker in nickel and dime sets. But the struggles Polamalu endured during the twilight of his career won’t be the lasting impressions of his brilliant run in my mind’s eye. I will remember Troy Polamalu as the 2-time Super Bowl Champion, 4-time All Pro First Team player, 2010 AP Defensive Player of the Year and future Hall of Famer that he is.

On April 26, 2003 the Pittsburgh Steelers traded up in the first round to select Troy Polamalu 16th overall out of USC. The Steelers gave the Kansas City Chiefs their 1st round pick (27th overall Larry Johnson), 3rd round pick (92nd overall Julian Battle) and 6th round pick (200th overall Brooks Bollinger — subsequently traded to Jets).

Among Pittsburgh’s storied player history Polamalu finishes 7th all-time in interceptions (32); tied for 2nd in defensive TDs (5); 6th in forced fumbles (14); and 6th in solo tackles (581)

Statistics courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com.