There’s a moment in the 2008 AFC Championship Game between Pittsburgh and Baltimore that might explain, just a little bit, what it means to play modern safety in the NFL at the genius level, to play it at a level that goes beyond coaching, beyond game plans, beyond anything that makes easy sense.
It was the end of the first quarter, and Pittsburgh led Baltimore by six points, but the Ravens had forced a turnover (that was the work of another defensive genius, Ray Lewis) and had pushed the ball into Pittsburgh territory. Every drive in an opponent’s territory in this game was a revelation. These were not only two great defenses but two ferocious, proud and unyielding defenses — every completed pass was an affront, every sustained drive an insult, every touchdown was an unacceptable desecration.
Then it was fourth and one at the Steelers 34, and the Ravens decided to go for it because they knew such a chance would not come again. They set up for the play by putting Pro Bowl running back Willis McGahee in motion to the right.
Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu had McGahee in man-to-man coverage.
This was important because the Steelers were in goal-line defense, which meant that everybody else was too busy to worry about McGahee. If the Ravens were planning to throw the ball to McGahee to get the first down, Polamalu was the one line of defense;
He was Polamalu’s … and Polamalu’s alone.
And Polamalu ignored McGahee.
Just ignored him. Didn’t follow him. Didn’t think about him. Instead, Polamalau closed in on the line, and, at the snap, he jumped over the Ravens guard and swallowed up quarterback Joe Flacco, who was trying to sneak for the first down. The Ravens were stuffed, and the Steelers got the ball.
“When I think about Troy,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin would say, “I think about that play … I think about the way he could read quarterbacks, the way he would just know what was going to happen.”
That was not Polamalu’s most famous or meaningful play even in that game — later, he stepped in front of a Flacco pass, picked it off, and ran 40 yards through a crowd of Ravens for the touchdown that clinched the AFC title for Pittsburgh.
But that fourth-and-one play might do an even better job of getting at Polamalu’s supernatural understanding of the moment. He risked everything and followed his instincts and altered games. That’s what he always did in big ways and small. That’s how he helped revolutionize the safety position.
But he wasn’t the only one.
Troy Polamalu’s nickname could have been “Weapon Y.” That’s because of his remarkable ability to do everything from the safety spot — to, in the words of Sports Illustrated’s Tim Layden, “blitz from the line of scrimmage, defend passes 50 yards into the secondary and tackle running backs from sideline to sideline” — was a continuation of the man who called himself “Weapon X.”
Brian Dawkins is the only member of professional football’s 25-25-25 club — 25 sacks, 25 interceptions, and 25 forced fumbles.* And even though forced fumbles is a relatively new statistic — only around since 1999 — there’s no question that Dawkins, with the help of an innovative coach, an alter-ego and a refusal to give in to the dark impulses of his depression, led to Polamalu and Ed Reed and a thrilling new way of playing safety.
*Actually, 26 sacks, 37 interceptions, and 36 forced fumbles, if you’re keeping score.
Success did not come easily to him. Dawkins was not recruited much out of high school; he ended up at Clemson only because his more accomplished high school teammate Patrick Sapp made it a condition of his recruitment. Sapp was such an extraordinary athlete at 6-foot-4, 258 pounds that he played both quarterback and linebacker for Clemson. The Tigers were happy to recruit his buddy to get him.
But, right away, the Clemson coaches noticed that Dawkins had a taste for making causing turnovers and sacking quarterbacks and making tackles for loss — those transformational plays. It was the same thing his Philadelphia Eagles coaches noticed after he was drafted (11 picks after Patrick Sapp). Dawkins was not easy to figure. Away from the field, he was a near-silent man of faith — he almost never said a word in meetings — and he spent his spare time around family, quietly reading comic books.
But when the games began, he became something else entirely. He would preach. He would dance. He would do somersaults. He would do this wild bear walk. More than anything, he would talk, nonstop, that hoarse voice of his piercing through like a siren, and he never stopped talking. He would bark at receivers, “tell your quarterback to keep the ball down; you’re going to get killed out here.” He would shout from the sidelines, “Nobody’s moving the ball on us!”
“Out of the tunnel,” his teammate Terrell Owens said, “he transformed.”
And as a player, he was everywhere. His game might have lacked the harsh optical beauty of Polamalu’s or Reed’s — he wasn’t as fast as either of them and perhaps lacked some of their physical grace — but nobody hit harder, nobody rushed the quarterback with more intensity, nobody battled for balls in the air the way he did. Brian Dawkins was the truest believer, and that made all the difference.
“I’ve always said you have to have a screw loose to play defense,” Dawkins would say. “I just so happened to have three or four of them loose.”
No matter how many times you hear Polamalu talk, it’s a surprise. That voice is so soft. Gentle. It isn’t just the tone or timbre of the voice. There’s a gentleness in the words that he says, a zen quality, a peaceful quality.
It’s so jarring because Troy Polamalu didn’t play peaceful football.
“I don’t love football,” he said. “I love life. And football is a part of my life.”
And this: "There are times I am happy. There are times I am sad. But I always try to separate emotion from the need to reach for something stronger, deeper. … My joy in my life comes from my strength in my life and in my experience with God. That cannot be separated from football. It is all the same to me. It is one. I am one with it."
Polamalu was born in Santa Ana, Calif., about 40 minutes south of Los Angeles, but when he was eight years old, his mother took him to visit an aunt and uncle in Tenmile, Ore., a tiny farming community along the Pacific Ocean. Polamalu fell in love with the scene. “I saw horses in the field, sheep, cows, beautiful green trees,” he told Sports Illustrated. “I’m thinking: ‘Dang, this is awesome.’”
He asked his mother if he could stay, and he did stay. Following his instincts. Like always.
Football came naturally because football was in his blood. One cousin, Nicky Sualua, played for the Dallas Cowboys. Another cousin, Joe Polamalu, played at Oregon State. His uncle, Kennedy Polamalu, played at USC and has spent the last 28 years as a college and professional coach — he’s now the Minnesota Vikings running backs coach.
Troy went on to play high school football in nearby Winston, Ore. (which is only moderately bigger than Tenmile), and he was so fast and so dynamic that coaches from all over the country came to visit. But he was meant, like his uncle, to play for the Trojans of USC. “I believe God named me Troy for a reason,” Polamalu would say.
He was an immediate sensation, scoring on an interception return in his very first start. In time, he would become USC’s first two-time All-America in a decade. He was a physical wonder — at the NFL combine, he ran a 4.35 40-yard dash and unleashed a 44-inch vertical jump — but there were some teams worried about him because of an injury that kept him out of the Orange Bowl.
The Pittsburgh Steelers were not worried about the injury. They were worried that they would have no shot at getting Polamalu. The San Diego Chargers had just lost their all-pro safety Rodney Harrison and seemed sure to draft him. The Kansas City Chiefs had just led the NFL in scoring but finished 8-8 because of their porous defense and Charmin soft secondary; they seemed sure to draft him if the Chargers passed.
But when the Chargers did pass, the Chiefs offered their draft pick to Pittsburgh.
The Steelers pounced as fast as Polamalu on a blitz.
“He plays safety like Junior Seau plays linebacker,” Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert gushed.
“He hits like a linebacker and covers like a corner,” head coach Bill Cowher said.
Polamalu played in all 16 games as a rookie and became a full-time starter in his second season — and all the while, he made big plays. Polamalu had watched video of the greatest safeties in the NFL (spending much of that time studying Brian Dawkins) and just understood that his purpose was to make those big plays. Sacks. Interceptions. Forced fumbles. Tackles for loss.
And making big plays meant freelancing, taking chances, following his intuition. Sometimes he guessed wrong. Sometimes he got burned. But the way he saw it, this was simply a feature of the job. And the more he played, the better he could predict what would happen next. This culminated in his amazing 2010 season when he was defensive player of the year. Seven interceptions. Six tackles for loss. A forced fumble. A fumble recovery.
“You just have to know where Polamalu is at all times,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said.
My favorite Polamalu play was his fake-fake-blitz. He would come to the line like he was blitzing. And then he would drop back like it was all a fake, and he wasn’t actually blitzing.
And then … he would blitz anyway.
“You’re not really cognitively thinking out there,” he would say. “You just … kind of see the quarterback’s energy.”
I don’t know the comic book stories nearly as well as I should, but I believe that “Weapon X” was the program that produced Wolverine. Sometimes, I see Wolverine and Weapon X used interchangeably. I don’t know about all that, but it doesn’t matter much. When Brian Dawkins became Weapon X, he also became Wolverine. He became whatever he needed to become.
“I would almost feel invincible,” he would say. “Like a superhero.”
Wolverine’s most famous quote is this: “I’m the best at what I do. But what I do isn’t very nice.” Those words were at the heart of the way Dawkins played football. He was — and, from what everyone says, he remains — an extremely nice man off the field. But he played football to intimidate. And he did intimidate. He was the best. And he wasn’t very nice.
“He was just one of the guys you feared,” quarterback Eli Manning said.
Dawkins intimidated in multiple ways. There was the obvious way: he was a ferocious hitter — “the best open-field tackler I’ve ever seen,” Jeremiah Trotter called him. He didn’t just unload on receivers coming over the middle (though he certainly did unload on them), but he also unloaded on running backs who were 30 pounds heavier than him, and also on quarterbacks who made the terrible blunder of losing sight of him.
He also intimidated by his unpredictability; you just never knew what the guy was going to do. He was, perhaps, the best safety blitzer in NFL history; he’s certainly in the photograph. But he also dropped back into coverage brilliantly. And he also played around the line of scrimmage and forced fumbles. It often seemed like there were two or three Brian Dawkins out there.
And he was lucky enough to have a coach who saw what he could be. Dawkins quietly showed promise in his first three seasons, but Weapon X had yet to be unveiled. Then in 1998, he caught a break, though it didn’t seem one at the time. The Eagles went 3-13 and were something of a disaster.
That led to them firing head coach Ray Rhodes.
Which led the Eagles to hire Andy Reid.
Which led Reid to offer the defensive coordinator job to Marvin Lewis.
Which led Marvin Lewis to decline and stay with Baltimore, where he did just fine for himself.
Which led Reid to offer the job to a longtime college and pro defensive coach who had just been fired by the Seattle Seahawks. His name was Jim Johnson.
Those two men would, in the words of coach Sean McDermott, change the way the safety position is played in professional football.
“I don’t think Jim had ever before had a Dawkins type player,” Reid would say. “Someone who could blitz as well as he did, someone who could hit people coming across the middle like he did, and someone who could cover like he did.”
Johnson built an entire defense around Dawkins, a defense built around pressure and force and, more than anything, yes, creating turnovers and putting offenses in precarious positions. Johnson saw that Dawkins could win the game at any point and from anywhere on the field.
“What Jim did,” McDermott said, “was build the defense around Brian. It was, ‘Get Brian what he needs and let him go ball.’”
In Johnson’s first year, 1999, the Eagles led the NFL in takeaways, and Dawkins made his first Pro Bowl. A year later, the Eagles gave up the fewest points in the NFC and made the playoffs. The Eagles gave up just 13 points a game in 2001, Dawkins was named All-Pro, and they reached the NFC Championship Game. Then, in 2002, the Eagles gave up just five rushing touchdowns all year, Dawkins was named All-Pro, and the team reached the NFC Championship Game.
Oh, 2002 was also the year of the Quadrafecta Game. Dawkins had an interception, a sack, forced a fumble, and scored on a touchdown reception — a 57-yard touchdown reception, no less, the only catch of his career.
Even in 2003, when Dawkins got hurt and missed nine games (the Eagles defense wasn’t nearly as good as a result), he still made it back for the postseason, and the Eagles once again reached the NFC Championship Game.
Then, in 2004, Dawkins played every game again, was named All-Pro again, the Eagles again allowed the fewest points in the NFC, and this time they went to the Super Bowl … Dawkins had a vintage day in the NFC title game against Atlanta, changing the complexion of the game with a huge hit on Falcons tight end Alge Crumpler, having a tackle for loss, forcing a fumble and intercepting a pass.
“Brian,” one teammate said, “was a man possessed.”
He was often a man possessed. That’s why you really can’t overstate the importance of Weapon X. That wasn’t just a nickname he gave himself. I mean, the guy had two lockers, one for Brian Dawkins and the other for Weapon X.
“I honestly believe that’s who he became,” his teammate Champ Bailey said.
Nobody would ever confuse Troy Polamalu and Brian Dawkins. Polamalu always came across as so centered, so in the moment. Watch him in those shampoo commercials. And Dawkins always seemed on edge, howling, jawing, pacing, bear walking.
And they are very different. Polamalu really did think of football as just one aspect of his life, and he was careful never to put too much significance on it. He always seemed a man at peace.
“I love the fact that football is part of my life,” he would say. “But I don’t look at it as any more important or less important than any other part of my life.”
Dawkins, meanwhile, struggled to find peace. There were many times that he had a very hard time adjusting to the pro football life. He spent a career battling depression. “That voice is always there,” he said, “waiting for you to come down, waiting to tell you that you’re not good enough.”
Their retirements were very different too. Polamalu retired when the Steelers threatened to release him at age 33. And while he was unhappy about it, he felt like it was time to step away. Dawkins, meanwhile, admits that he repeatedly cried after the Eagles gave up on him, but he couldn’t stop. He moved to strong safety and played on for three more years in Denver — even making one more Pro Bowl in his final season at age 38.
But, in larger ways, they were alike, both quiet off the field, both men of faith, both admired and even loved by teammates, both the anchors for dominant defenses, both a force for opposing coaches to wrestle with when they tried to come up with a game plan.
And though there were other safeties who dominated the game, they both made the position both ruthless and glamorous. Polamalu, I think, might have been the best in NFL history at adjusting to tipped balls; some of the interceptions he made on tipped balls are almost beyond belief. Dawkins, I think, was as good as anybody at being a chameleon — he really did hit like a linebacker, cover like a corner, and blitz like there was no tomorrow.
“The greatest find ways to change the game,” Ray Lewis famously said. Polamalu and Dawkins changed games.