Investigating 'The Polamalu Effect'
Six-time Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu dislikes personal praise so intensely, it was no surprise to anyone who follows the Pittsburgh Steelers that the loudest critic of his fellow players' recent decision to vote him their team MVP was Polamalu himself. Polamalu is such a genuinely humble and spiritual man, he could also do without any more talk about what's come to be known as "The Polamalu Effect." In fact, "I'd rather not talk at all," he recently told an interviewer.
We're here to help. With all the Steelers -- not just Polamalu -- about to be staring down the barrel of more over-the-top attention when they arrive in Dallas on Monday for Super Bowl XLV, their third trip to the title game in six years, we decided to marshal a team of stat geeks, NFL insiders, game-tape decoders and testimony from other NFL players in the three days since Pittsburgh beat the Jets on Sunday for the AFC title. Their mission: See if there isn't indeed a way to leave the poor guy alone already, and prove the Polamalu Effect is breathless hooey.
Isn't that right, Trent Dilfer, victorious quarterback in Super Bowl XXXV, now a crackerjack ESPN TV analyst who still goes bleary-eyed dissecting game film (for fun!). Dilfer constantly mines the brains of coaches and players around the league. So what does Dilfer think of the Polamalu Effect?
"Well, I'm from the [no-nonsense] Bill Parcells mode," Dilfer began.
"And I really, really try not to just throw around words like 'great' and 'the best!' and 'fantastic' and 'unstoppable' as much as other people," Dilfer added. "I just don't believe in it."
Just the kind of guy Polamalu and I are looking for!
"But I have to tell you, I've played against Troy, I've studied him, and I can't find any flaws that jump out," Dilfer said. "I have yet to find something in Troy that you can [use to] neutralize him. So, to me, no -- it is not possible to overstate his greatness."
Perhaps I wasn't clear.
Not. What. We're. Looking. For.
The statistic that's most often thrown out to support the Polamalu Effect is the Steelers' record. They are 6-7 in games Polamalu has missed over the past two seasons, but an eye-popping 16-4 in games he has played. That seems like a crazy impact for a non-quarterback to have, right?
Surely an examination of the Steelers' win-loss record without Ben Roethlisberger, who will tie the great Tom Brady's total of three Super Bowl rings if Pittsburgh beats Green Bay, will show that -- why, um Huh. The Steelers actually have a winning record (3-2) without Roethlisberger the past two seasons but they were minus-one without Polamalu. That's a two-game swing. And the pattern is the same if you look at Big Ben's entire career: Pittsburgh is plus-two (7-5) without him.
Time to get more sophisticated and go to what our stat geniuses call "The Next Level."
The other oft-used numbers to support the Polamalu Effect: Over the past two seasons the Steelers have given up an average of 21.5 points in games without Polamalu versus only 14.5 ppg -- a full touchdown less! -- in games he has played.
But all those numbers could just be a quirk screaming for more context, right?
To find out, our KC Joyner, aka "The Football Scientist," stayed up all night Tuesday crunching the numbers because, well, he stays up all night anyway, if you must know -- he says he gets more work done that way (which may sound heroic to our unsuspecting bosses back at headquarters, but perhaps not to a confessed late-night Shopping Network addict like myself who suspects never mind; perhaps I've already said too much).
When KC said he'd review the Steelers' 2008 and 2009 seasons from the perspective of what level of quarterback competition they were facing -- "This oftentimes explains a spike or decrease in a player or team performance," he explained -- it felt like a Eureka moment. The Polamalu Effect seemed about to go down when bright and early Wednesday morning, the e-mail I got back from KC began, "Hey there, got something that actually wasn't what might be expected "
KC wrote: "The 2009 Steelers defense should feasibly have been able to post similar numbers even if Polamalu's backup was only a step or so worse. Now here's the odd part. The Steelers' opposing passers in 2008 had an overall passer rating of 84.7 with Polamalu in the lineup. The Steelers opposing passer rating without him in 2009 -- you guessed it -- 84.7, exactly the same as the year before." Meaning? "Pittsburgh's competition in those years was such that the Steelers' defense should have been able to post similar numbers even without Polamalu," KC said.
But the Steelers' defense got worse. In 2009, Polamalu missed 11 games, and the Steelers surrendered 4.66 yards per play with him, 5.39 without him; they gave up 3.40 yards per rush with him, 4.31 per rush without him. Turnovers? Two per game with Polamalu, only one per game without him. (In a word: Eek!)
The bottom line? "This says a ton about his true value," Joyner concluded, "and goes further than the W/L column in explaining his [enormous] impact."
So what does all this mean for disproving the Polamalu Effect? We haven't even gotten to the anecdotal evidence of Polamalu's greatness: The four straight weeks this season when his big plays propelled the Steelers to wins. His strip sack of Joe Flacco in the December nail-biter that won Pittsburgh the AFC North title, which ensconced the team at home for its entire playoff run once New England lost. How about his swan dive over the Tennessee offensive line to tackle Kerry Collins at the goal line in Pittsburgh's season opener? Dilfer mentions Polamalu's uncanny intuition, his lighting speed and decision-making, his reckless, self-sacrificing style, and how Polamalu is a master at disguising his intentions before each snap. This season, Polamalu was second in the NFL with seven interceptions despite missing two games with an Achilles injury.
Conclusion: Only five days remain for Polamalu to get in touch with the idea that he's as great as everyone says he is. Super Bowl media day is Tuesday.
There is one glimmer of hope Polamalu could come around.
Even though Polamalu does seek out personal audiences with spiritual gurus and visit monasteries in his down time, even though the New York Times did recently report that Polamalu numbers "Counsels From the Holy Mountain" by a Greek Orthodox monk named Elder Ephraim among his favorite books, Polamalu did allow Lloyd's of London to insure his luxuriant black hair for $1 million now that he stars in some self-spoofing dandruff shampoo commercials.
Of course, it's hard to spin even that into some proof of vanity. Earlier this season, after Polamalu recklessly lateraled the ball in the excitement of running back an interception -- Pittsburgh recovered the fumble -- he then had this to say to a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reporter after the Steelers' 23-7 win over Cincinnati:
"First and foremost, I want to apologize for that play at the end of the game," Polamalu said. "It was incredibly arrogant and selfish. I represent something bigger than myself -- my faith, my family, and this team. I'll try to never let that happen again."
But, Polamalu was reminded, what about that touchdown you scored on your first interception of the game?
"Let's focus just on the negative," Polamalu answered bleakly. Then he finally cracked a small smile.
Steelers' defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, a Hall of Fame defensive back himself, says he lets Polamalu freelance because Polamalu is unique. Jets wide receiver Santonio Holmes played four years with Polamalu before going against him twice this season, and he had this to say about Polamalu before the AFC title game: "He's probably the greatest player I've ever played with or even seen in person."
Polamalu has that kind of sway over everything: the stats, his own team, the players and coaches he faces. Meaning? After studying the evidence about the Polamalu Effect, the only reasonable conclusion for whatever non-believers remain is do what most everyone else does.
Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com, and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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