When Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu announced his retirement, few people were happier than Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis. With Ravens safety Ed Reed not playing last season and Polamalu headed to the sidelines, Lewis' life has become a lot easier.
For more than a decade, Lewis had to face both players twice a season. No one is better suited to answer the inevitable question: Who was better, Reed or Polamalu?
"Actually, their styles complemented each other," said Lewis, a former assistant coach with the Ravens and Steelers. "Ed was a high safety most of the time that could make plays as a low safety, and Troy was a low safety that could make plays as a high safety. Usually, when you take a player out of their comfort zone, there is a dropoff.
"With both of those guys, they could move into both positions and still make game-changing plays, and that's what made them great."
In non-football speak, Lewis is saying that they could cover receivers deep and also stop the run.
Lewis sounds like a politician not willing to offend longtime supporters in both cities. But he is right. In the world of sports, fans love to make comparisons and make these wagers about who was the greatest. But in the case of Polamalu and Reed, they were two different safeties who simply shared the same era and greatness.
Reed, the Ravens' first-round pick in 2002, was a nine-time Pro Bowl and eight-time All-Pro pick. He won a Super Bowl and was the 2004 Defensive Player of the Year. Polamalu, the Steelers' first-round pick in 2003, was selected to eight Pro Bowls and five All-Pro teams. He was a Super Bowl champion twice and was the Defensive Player of the Year in 2010.
Go ahead, pick one.
It basically comes down to need. If you needed a strong safety to play in the box, cause disarray and rock the other team's world, then Polamalu was the guy.
If you wanted a free safety who could cover and eat up a lot of real estate on the back end of the secondary, then Reed is the choice.
Maybe no safety in the history of the NFL roamed center field like Reed, who had 64 interceptions and set an NFL record with 1,590 return yards. Those long, galloping strides were his trademark, and in his prime Reed was as efficient as Polamalu when tackling.
He wasn't as ferocious, but no one got away from Reed, who finished with 643 career tackles. Polamalu had 770.
"His ability to get into the passing lanes was exceptional," Lewis said of Reed. "He was tremendous in affecting the passing game. Whether it was a crossing pattern, an overlap, or whatever the pass, you had to know where Ed Reed was on the field. Because not only did he have a great understanding of his defense, but your tendencies and where you wanted to throw the ball."
Opposing teams had to be just as aware of Polamalu. Shortly after he became the Ravens' head coach in 2008, John Harbaugh and both his offensive and defensive staff studied the Steelers exclusively during the offseason, especially Polamalu.
The thinking was that if you knew where Polamalu was and where he might be headed, there was a good chance you could beat the Steelers. Unfortunately, Polamalu lined up all over the field. On some plays he could virtually be an inside or outside linebacker.
He'd stack gaps and hurl his body over the line of scrimmage on the snap of the ball. Collisions were his forte.
"Troy had that ability to strip you of the ball, to take it away. Where he had an advantage over Ed was as a blitzer," Lewis said of Polamalu, who finished with 12 career sacks compared to six for Reed. "But you know something, when Ed got a chance to blitz, he was pretty good at it, too."
Former Ravens receiver Derrick Mason played against both, and later was a teammate of Reed's in Baltimore for six seasons.
He said Reed didn't always get the recognition he deserved because he played on the same defense with the more vocal and animated linebacker, Ray Lewis.
"Until Rod Woodson made the transition from corner to safety, a free safety played free safety and a strong stayed at his position," Mason said. "But if you look at both Ed and Troy, they were interchangeable. You might fool Ed once on play action if he was near the line of scrimmage or get Troy once if he was asked to drop into Cover 3, but never twice in the game.
"If I had to choose, I'd probably lean toward Ed, my former teammate. With what has been coming out lately, Troy appeared to deviate and improvise more which compromised his defense at times. Ed took his shots, but they were within the scheme, clearly rational decisions."
All the great players gambled. Lawrence Taylor freelanced, and so did Ronnie Lott. It just shows up and hurts the team more in the twilight of player's career because he can't recover as quickly.
Gambling is part of the game. It is often what makes good players great.
"Those guys were smart and analyzed everything from years of film study," Lewis said. "What they did out there on the field greatly overshadowed when they occasionally got caught out of position."
Besides the stellar play, both players were well-like and respected by their peers. Mason says Polamalu respected the opponent and the game.
"He never got in your face and wasn't cocky," Mason said. "Tough, smart and physical. A great player."
Reed might have celebrated more with his teammates than Polamalu, and his desire to lateral the ball after an interception showed some selfishness. But Reed didn't talk much unless a player started with him. By the end of his career he was more of an ambassador, often stepping in to halt verbal or physical confrontations.
"Whenever you had young players they would often emulate them," Lewis said of the two future Hall of Famers. "They wanted to be like them because they were great on and off the field, good role models.