Analysis

Troy Polamalu leaving Steelers, NFL with truly singular legacy

Maybe the statkeepers can add a new one to the books:

The Polamalu: To sack the opposing quarterback while upside down after leaping over the line of scrimmage. Also known as the No. 43.

In times like this -- in the wake of Troy Polamalu's decision that the 2014 season was his last in the NFL -- fans and members of the sports media like to describe a retiring hero as "one of the most unique blanks ever." Something that is "unique," of course, is by definition one of a kind -- singular. In times like this, folks are even more inclined than usual to quantify a player's significance by ranking him in history's hierarchy. In the case of Troy Polamalu, however, conventional metrics just don't apply.

The bonafides are there: Polamalu is a two-time Super Bowl champ, a four-time All-Pro, an eight-time Pro Bowler, a member of the All-Decade Team of the 2000s and the 2010 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Those impressive conventional measurements are enough to validate his inevitable home in Canton five years from this summer. But earthbound numbers and words fail to illuminate the visceral sight of that heat-seeking, black-and-gold clad fireball, dark locks perpetually trailing a split-second behind, colliding with his intended target to devastating effect.

The Hair, of course, made Polamalu recognizable to even the most casual fan. (It also made him lots of money as a shampoo shill.) In a way, though, the Hair was a redundancy: Even if he'd been bald under that black hat, you only needed to watch one defensive series to identify No. 43 ... and not just because of his talent. After each play, each display of controlled (?) fury, Polamalu would make the sign of the cross.

He was a pigskin paradox. His apparently wild style was at odds with his sweet nature and soft voice (although I can confirm, from the couple of personal experiences I had with him, that he does have a sneaky good sense of humor). He was a spectacular freelancer, which paradoxically made him one of Dick LeBeau's most reliable playmakers during the Steelers' defense latest run as the league's most fearsome.

The debate about where he ranks among his peers is already underway. Was he as good as Ronnie Lott? How 'bout Ed Reed? How, exactly, can we measure a player who did things on a football field that only he could do? Think of the impeccably timed vaults over the line, the impossible one-handed diving interceptions, the destruction of well-conceived plays designed expressly to fool him.

One thing about the singular Polamalu: He was often at his most sublime when the games counted most. (Alright, fine; Tom Brady could, on occasion, dupe Polamalu with some play action, but then, even Superman had his Kryptonite.) Former Broncos back Mike Anderson probably still has nightmares from a couple of meetings he had with Polamalu in the 2005 AFC title game. Somewhere in San Diego, Phil Rivers might be pondering how different his legacy might be shaping up were it not for two 2008 losses featuring signature performances by No. 43. Speaking of signature plays, both Polamalu's and Heinz Field's finest moment came in the '08 AFC title game against rival Baltimore. With the Steelers clinging to a two-point lead late in the fourth quarter, Polamalu intercepted Joe Flacco and -- going against convention and across the width of the field -- traveled about 250 yards for what went into the books as a 40-yard conference-championship-clinching touchdown.

Polamalu was a hot dog in a world of sandwiches. He was a bowl of spicy chili at the soup station. If football were chess, he had the range of a self-possessed queen piece with the decision-making ability of Kasparov. Sure, Father Time decided to treat the arrival of Polamalu's 30s rudely, but he'll no doubt be deemed golden by Hall of Fame voters before he hits the big 4-0.

When all-time greats hang 'em up, we genuflect with phrases like, well, "all-time great" and "generational player." In the case of Troy Polamalu, though, we can rightly offer even loftier praise: He was one of a kind.

Follow Dave Dameshek on Twitter @Dameshek.

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