Of any position in the NFL, that of the safety is the most shrouded in mystery. To play it, one must act on instinct more than any of the other men on the field, reacting in a split second to what the opposing offense does.
Safeties need to prowl the middle of the field, taking on running backs, receivers and tight ends in space as well as working closer to the line of scrimmage to blow up running plays and even rush the passer.
Considering all of the complex duties required of a safety, it's a position best played by those with experience, and that's certainly the case for the Baltimore Ravens' Bernard Pollard, the seven-year veteran who is in his second season in Baltimore.
Pollard is an X-factor in this Sunday's Super Bowl matchup against the San Francisco 49ers, and his reputation as being one of the most dangerous men in the league provides his team with both a mental and physical edge. But where did this reputation come from, and is it warranted?
If Pollard were a professional wrestler, his nickname could very well be "the Patriot Killer," considering the series of devastating injuries he's inflicted on members of the New England Patriots. And with Pollard's history of outspokenness, he may also be pretty good on the microphone, too.
In his seven years in the NFL, Pollard has been with three teams—the Kansas City Chiefs, the Houston Texans and now the Ravens. Though he's made a name for himself on the field—with 585 combined career tackles, nine sacks, 13 forced fumbles, eight fumble recoveries and nine interceptions—it has yet to be enough to get him to the Pro Bowl or land him a spot on an All-Pro roster.
However, that doesn't downplay the impact he's had on the league—in some ways changing the face of the game as we know it today.
Let's go back to that "Patriot killer" moniker that Pollard has conspicuously earned over the course of his career. It all started on September 7, 2008, in the season opener between Pollard's Chiefs and the Patriots. Pollard went after New England quarterback Tom Brady on a blitz, was momentarily held up but managed to get to Brady low.
The result? Brady's season came to a quick end with a torn left ACL, Matt Cassel took over at quarterback, and the Patriots missed the playoffs, though they ended the year with an 11-5 record. In fact, Cassel's performance in substitution for Brady actually landed him a starting job the next season with—interestingly enough—the Chiefs.
Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker's torn ACL the following season can also be traced to Pollard. Pollard, this time with the Texans, again went low, and Welker's attempt to keep his leg out of the line of fire caused it to plant and move unnaturally, tearing the ligament.
Pollard was also the tackler on the play that caused Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski to sprain his ankle in last year's AFC Championship Game and his helmet-to-helmet hit on Patriots' running back Stevan Ridley in this year's AFC title contest knocked Ridley unconscious and out of the game.
The reverberations of the injury to Brady, in particular, have altered the NFL in major ways. First, it resulted in a new rule that forbids pass rushers from going after the knees of quarterbacks, designed to protect signal-callers them from the kind of ACL injury that Brady suffered. The second, however, is more circuitous but no less impactful.
The switch from Brady to Cassel not only helped raise Cassel's cache as a starting-caliber quarterback, which led to him getting the job in Kansas City, but it also elevated then-Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to being a head coaching candidate, and indeed, he landed that very job with the Denver Broncos.
That triggered another series of events: McDaniels tried to acquire Cassel for Denver, which upset then-Broncos starting QB, Jay Cutler. The subsequent trades and draft picks that both the Patriots got for Cassel and the Broncos got for first Cutler and then receiver Brandon Marshall (who absconded for Miami after Cutler was traded) led to the Broncos landing quarterback Tim Tebow in the 2010 draft.
In the following season, Denver's starting quarterback Kyle Orton was benched in favor of Tebow, resulting in Orton later being waived. Cassel suffered a season-ending injury at the hands of Denver's Von Miller, Orton became the Chiefs starter and Tebow Time in Denver was on.
Yes, in a certain sense, Pollard is responsible for Tebow Mania sweeping the nation in 2011. There's even a handy flow chart that breaks it all down.
Despite how well Pollard has played—he ranked in Pro Football Focus' top 30 safeties this season and in the top 10 last year—his name seems synonymous with nothing more than dirty play. Just last month, Pollard was fined $15,250 for a hit on Welker in the AFC Championship Game, bringing his total fines on the 2012 season to an even $100,000.
However, polls of his peers suggest his reputation is unwarranted. Pollard's name did not show up on Sports Illustrated's 2011 list of the NFL's dirtiest players nor in a similar player poll conducted by the Sporting News in 2012, despite all of the serious injuries and damaging hits attributed to him. One spectator's dirt is apparently an NFL player's idea of doing a good job.
Pollard's repeated fines notwithstanding, there is an inherent element of danger not just in playing in the NFL, but especially when playing the safety position. The nature of the position requires making plays in space, which turns safeties into roaming missiles, with tackles coming out of nowhere and at full speed.
The potential for fine-inducing hits as well as significant injury is high for those who are matched up against safeties as well as for the safeties themselves. What safeties do looks more devastating to viewers at home and in the stands than with other positions just because of how the job is done, and not because the men who play the position are inherently "dirtier" than their defensive (or offensive) counterparts.
That being said, it's not just Pollard's style of play that have people divided about him. He has a personality to match his aggressive on-field works, which manifests itself in different ways.
In one sense, he's a fiery leader—which has been of major benefit to the Ravens particularly this year, with a number of their defensive veterans like Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs dealing with injuries that have kept them sidelined at various moments—but in another, he's simply a bit too brash. To me, he's eccentric, a trait I've found common among safeties in the NFL.
Just take this past week alone. The run-up to the Super Bowl is a media-feeding frenzy, with every player on both teams getting his fair share of overwhelming scrutiny. Pollard is no exception to this, and the myriad stories that have come out about him in the past few days alone help shed a light on why some revile him, why some revere him and why most everyone can at least tell there's something a little different about him.
Last week, Pollard told CBS Sports' Clark Judge that he doesn't expect the NFL to even be in existence in 30 years, not just because of the safety initiatives being pushed by current commissioner Roger Goodell (which, some players have complained, is making the game "soft" and potentially alienating fans as a result), but because he thinks that the emphasis on coaches wanting players to be bigger, stronger and faster will result in a death on the field, saying, "I just believe one day there's going to be a death that takes place on the field because of the direction we're going."
Pollard stood by his statements at Super Bowl Media Day this past Tuesday, though he also added that some of the moves Goodell and league owners want to make or have made to increase player safety have also changed the game for the worse, considering it doesn't alter the fact that big hits will always happen and players will always be getting stronger and more specialized. He also added that he wouldn't want his now-five-year-old son to play football.
Then there was the New York Times' profile of Pollard, which painted him with a broader brush than just being "that guy who hurt all those Patriots."
There's the revelation that beyond the "Bonecrusher" nickname he earned from his time in college at Purdue, he also refers to himself as "Chocolate Therapy" because of his dance moves. There was the story that when the Baltimore press gave Pollard the "good guy" award in 2011 (handed out to sports figures who are the most accommodating to journalists) they also gave him a pair of boxer shorts, because he apparently prefers to do postgame press completely nude. As for his on-field screaming, that's just the way that Pollard communicates, apparently even on the phone, according to his former Texans teammate Ryan Moats.
Pro Football Talk's Michael David Smith found something interesting to report on about Pollard during his media day interviews—his apparent aversion to germs. Prompted to expand on his teammate, nose tackle Haloti Ngata said that Pollard is the highest-maintenance member of the team. Pollard gave a little screed about hygiene:
My teammates tend to get upset with me because I carry my hand sanitizer, I carry my disinfectant wipes, my baby wipes. When you sneeze, I tell you to cover your mouth, and when you cough, I tell you to cover your mouth. If you pick your nose, I tell you not to touch me. They don’t like that.
But it ultimately all comes down to what Pollard does on the field. And if you ask him, he's certainly not a dirty player. In speaking to Josh Innes and Rich Lord on KILT in Houston this week, he defended how he plays the game:
I'm just doing my job. I'm an old-school player. I enjoy the game of football [...] Some people are actually saying, ‘You hit too hard or you're trying to injure guys.' Those are not my intentions. My intentions are go out there and play football, and I just so happen to hit hard playing football.
Indeed, hard hits are part of the game, and those who hit the hardest are going to get the greatest attention—from coaches, from fellow players, from fans and from the league, sometimes in the form of fines. What has come of those hard hits have helped define how Pollard is viewed as a player and why we now know he hates germs and doesn't like to be interviewed clothed.
It's why he seems so scary on the field, but in reality he's just the same as everyone else—complex, opinionated, a little strange. And it's why we can all assume he'll make a game-changing play in this Sunday's Super Bowl.
Because that's just how he does his job.