A Farewell To One of The Best Safeties in NFL History, Troy Polamalu
No one can be the best forever. Father time catches up, and the injuries begin to pile on. There's more soreness as the days go by, and sometimes the drive and passion to play the game begins to diminish and reality begins to hit some of the players in any professional sport. For ex-Pittsburgh Steeler safety Troy Polamalu, it was time to move on to the next part of life outside of football.
In an exclusive interview with Scout.com's Jim Wexell, Polamalu explained the reason for his retirement:
I did not seriously consider playing elsewhere. It was just whether or not I wanted to play. I had talked to a lot of people about what I should do with my situation, and what they kept saying back to me, and which was not a sufficient reason, was 'Troy, you played 12 years in the NFL, you won Super Bowls, won individual awards. There's nothing left to prove. You have a legacy.' And I just kept saying, 'First of all, I don't care about a legacy. Second of all, I play the game because I enjoy it.' That's the reason to keep playing.
[...] What it came down to was definitely family. If I'm in my fourth year, fifth year, even if I'm in my 10th year, I'm playing in Alaska. But when I started this process and started to debate whether I should come back or should I play, that was kind of the sign for me to say 'Whoa, if you're just even debating it maybe you shouldn't play anymore,' because what I do know about this game is it takes a lot, a lot, of commitment just to be an average player.
Polamalu, 33, was the 16th overall pick in the 2003 NFL Draft out of USC. Coming into the NFL, many people including Steeler personnel weren't sure of what to expect from him. What they ended up with was a player with ridiculous instincts, high football IQ, and a brutal physicality. Eventually, Polamalu would evolve to become one of the best defensive backs of his era.
What made Polamalu special was the way he played his position. Under defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, Polamalu introduced what would be a trademark of his style of play. He was known for freelancing in the secondary, either watching the QB's eyes, or veering all the way to the front of the line of scrimmage and leaping over to sack the quarterback or take down the running back in the backfield. Most players in the NFL won't take that kind of risk to commit themselves all the way to the line of scrimmage and to even leap over, but that's what made Polamalu's style of play so entertaining and even revolutionary.
Unfortunately, we as fans were only able to see glimpses of this Polamalu the last couple years. In his first four seasons in the NFL, Polamalu only missed three games. With a Super Bowl ring under his belt in 2006, Polamalu earned a contract extension in 2007 that would extend him through 2011. In 2007, however, things would take a bad turn for him in an injury-plagued season. Polamalu would return back on track, and play all 16 games in 2008 and lead his team to another Super Bowl win.
2009 would be the worst season in Polamalu's 12-year career, and would likely be the year that his entire career would take a downward turn. He sustained a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee, that would cause him to miss the next four games. However, he was re-injured a couple games into his return, and was forced to sit out the rest of the season. After 2009, many became worried about Polamalu's health, but his 2010 campaign would earn him the AP Defensive Player of the Year award and another Super Bowl appearance for Pittsburgh, in which they fell short of a third ring.
After 2010, both the Steelers and Polamalu would fly under the radar and away from the spotlight for the next couple years leading up to Polamalu's retirement. Despite all the ups and downs with injuries throughout his 12-year career, there is almost no uncertainty about the fact that Polamalu will be inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Instead of looking at what Polamalu did statistically, moreso the effect of Polamalu's playing style is more impactful. His versatility and mixture in run defense and coverage abilities is what makes him phenomenal. According to Pro Football Focus's play-by-play grades, Polamalu ranks second among NFL safeties since 2007 against the run and third versus the pass.
When looking at the statistic known as Approximate value (AV), only Ronnie Lott and Paul Krause had a higher career AV at safety than Polamalu through the age of 30. Had Polamalu not suffered a preseason calf injury before the 2012 season, he could have had a chance to statistically be ranked as the best safety. However, after the age of 30, Polamalu became nothing but an average safety as his AV was half of what Krause's was between the ages 31-33.
Despite letting injuries get the better of his football career before 2012, Polamalu still had a fantastic run. With a total of 771 tackles, 12 sacks, 14 forced fumbles, and 32 interceptions, Polamalu did it all on the field. Whether he's a first-ballot selection or has to wait longer, Polamalu not ending up in Canton would simply be wrong. Polamalu revolutionized the NFL and brought a spark and edge to the safety position like no other player.
Whether it's his vicious hits or his luscious hair flowing majestically, Polamalu will be deeply missed by the NFL and its fans.