Defining do-mi-nant in NFL terms: You wake up extra early on game day, Sunday morning, with your stomach all aflutter because your hometown side, the team you love and have rooted for since childhood will be squaring off with the ever formidable Pittsburgh Steelers a little later in the day.
Your guys really need a win, but it's the Steelers, Roethlisberger is on a roll, and that defense — "whoa, whoa, wait a minute!" And a brief period of quiet ensues as you rub the sleep out of your eyes simultaneous to perusing the preview you've had on sleep all thru the wee hours so at any waking moment you were able to reach out and hit refresh to get a quick update on game conditions.
Then, "Holy bleep, what a break ... what a break!", it's a cracked, phlegmy, bloody murder howl, and this causes your very alarmed wife to come running, "What's the matter with you?", she asks, "The kid's are still asleep."
"The matter? Nothing's the matter!", and you might even get up and do a little jig, "Nothing's the matter at all", and then you point to the illuminated screen, "Polamalu's out! Can you believe it? We just might be able to kick some Steelers butt today after all."
At this point, depending on her NFL tolerance level, the wife may give you a little pat on the butt or kiss on the cheek, but she'll still insist you keep the volume down, at least until you hear the patter of little feet.
But that won't keep the mantra-like buzz out of your head.
"Polamalu's out, Polamalu's out!", maybe you'll make a fist, pop it into your off hand. Then you check the clock, eye the phone, check the clock again, "what the hell", you say, "the guys have got to wake up sometime ...."
Now this may not be the Websters text book definition of the word do-mi-nant, but we're pretty certain avid football fans will get the idea.
In NFL terms we are referring to the games truly unstoppable forces; The Juice, Jerry Rice, Anthony Munoz, Joe Montana, Emmitt Smith, the great Jimmy Brown, and the bruising, highly determined walls, countless possessors of the pigskin have more than occasionally run into.
To be sure Troy Polamalu is just such a defender. One of the NFL's all time great safeties he is a vicious hitter, an intimidator, possessor of great closing speed and ball hawking skills.
Without him the Pittsburgh Steelers are tough, but beatable. Over the past two seasons the fearsome Black & Gold are 17-4 when Polamalu plays but a middling 6-7 when he does not.
With him, (as we have seen over the past decade), they are a Super Bowl caliber contingent capable of beating any team in the game, and in 2010/2011, with their last line of defense back in the line-up after a late season Achilles injury it can come as no great surprise to anyone that this up to date version of the famed Steel Curtain is heading to Dallas for the Feb. 7th season finale against the red hot Green Bay Packers.
But even with all the plaudits, with Polamalu chasing down his third Super Bowl ring in a storied career that still has much to tell, fans and followers of the game will debate the notion that he is the games single most dominant player.
And why not? The National Football League is filled with majestic, game changing players. We see it every weekend.
So with that in mind we've pulled together a reasonably short, up to date list of those we see as potential threats to the crown. How will this grouping stand up to your own perception of the NFL's most dominant players?
There's only one way to find out.
Let it roll,
In round two of the NFC Playoffs vs. Atlanta, Woodson came off the left side and precluded Falcon QB Matt Ryan from getting a pass off by leaping to full extension from about five yards away.
If you blinked you could have missed it. Buck and Aikman were calling the game, neither made a particularly big deal of the play, or Woodson's contribution. Ryan ended up going down in a heap, (largely as a result of the hitch in his giddy-up), and a down later Atlanta was punting the ball back to the Green Bay side of the field.
However fleeting this mini clip of the Green Bay All Pro corner up high enough to smack two hands on the middle of the backboard, (precluding Ryan from a couple of body lengths away from even attempting to heave the ball somewhere up along the first row of high paying fanatics), has been indelibly deposited into my NFL memory bank. In all the years of watching football played at the highest level I just don't think I've ever seen anything quite like it.
Simply, Charles Woodson's athleticism is otherworldly. He was a two way star at Michigan where he won the Heisman, has returned kicks on both the college and pro level to great effect and when fully motivated, (which wasn't always the case in Oakland), has proven himself to be one of the great all around corners in the history of the National Football League.
Last year he won the Defensive Player of The Year award in a walk, and while he was thrown at less frequently in 2010 he still added greatly to the Packer cause with a career high 76 tackles, (a career high 16 assists), and two more picks giving him 30 in his five full seasons in chilly Green Bay.
1A) Derrelle Revis: The definition of a ballhawking, shutdown corner. Revis has great hands, closing speed, and is a solid tackler although he has not come close to matching the 74 tackles he made as a rookie in 2007.
Honorable Mention: Nnamdi Asomunga, Raiders, who's been thrown at so infrequently in Oakland these past couple of years you sometimes forgot he was even in the NFL.
That's about to end though as the crazy $45 million dollar contract Al Davis heaped on Asomunga two years ago just got voided over a vague incentive clause that immediately makes him the leagues hottest free agent.
NFL Legacy, Clay Matthews, has the explosive pass rush ability of Cowboy purple people eater Demarcus Ware, is just about as effective against the run as Pittsburgh stud James Harrison, and comes with the inherent ability to drop back in pass coverage when need be as well.
We gives him the slight edge at this game changing position.
1) Clay Matthews
2) James Harrison
3) Demarcus Ware
4) Terrell Suggs
Honorable Mention: Miami's Cameron Wake, who was outstanding in 2010, second in the league with 15 sacks, but we need to see it for another year.
After losing most of the 2009 season to injury, 'Midway Monster' Brian Urlacher returned to form in 2010 with 125 tackles, two forced fumbles and four sacks. Still a mobile, agile, ferocious hitter, look for him to be even better in 2011 as he came on super strong in the latter stages of 2010.
We like S.F.'s Patrick Willis a lot too. At 25 he's a sideline to sideline guided missile, can play the pass and get after the quarterback, (six sacks in 2010).
He's got a lot of rah, rah in him as well, brings a blast of energy to the playing field ... now if they could only get him a supporting cast in San Fran his Q factor would rise immeasurably.
Past His Prime: All respect to Raven lovers and Ray Lewis, but he's simply not the dominant player of five, six seasons ago.
Coming strong: 24 years old Steeler RILB Lawrence Timmons has all the goods, hits like a tank, and has been Pittsburgh's leading tackler in both the Divisional round against the Ravens and Conference final against the New York Jets.
Yes, he's a rookie, but from day one it's been clear that Ndamkung Suh's offensive line shattering talent exceeds even the veteran best the league has to offer; The Ravens Haloti Ngata, Green Bay's B.J. Raji, New England's Vince Woolfolk.
Suh's 49 tackles, 17 assists, 10 sacks, a fumble recovery, interception and touchdown scored speak ear drum destroying volumes. He has the speed, strength and skill set to be one of the best interior lineman in the history of the game.
Not quite what he was in his Carolina heyday when he really could have been considered the games predominant defensive force, Peppers still looked good enough in his first season in Chicago to make first team all pro.
Our number two? Not John Abraham who we see as a pure pass rusher, but the Giants Justin Tuck who can do everything on a football field and had 11.5 sacks, five forced fumbles, 48 tackles and 28 assists in 2010.
We've already stated our case for Polamalu, but it's hard to look away from Ed Reed when you consider the games all time great safeties and/or dominant position players.
This pair of back-line stalwarts have been division rivals for years, and while we love Polamalu for the savage way he impacts football games it's tough to match Reeds big play ability. (Twelve touchdowns, six via picks — 106 &107 yard returns amongst them — two fumble returns, three punt block's for six and a 64 yard punt return.)
He's second all time in career interceptions yards, (1. Rod Woodson (1483), 2. Ed Reed (1438), 3. Darren Sharper (1412), 4. Deion Sanders (1331), 5. Emlen Tunnell (1282)), and his 54 picks are #1 active, #17 all time.
Reed won the Defensive Palyer of the Year Award in 2004 and has been voted first team All NFL five times. If Trou Polamalu is truly the league's most dominant player, at least on the defensive side of the ball, Ed Reed is 1A.
Obviously the man over center gets the majority of the touches and is in the best position to take over a football game and for us Aaron Rodgers has ascended to the top of a great five man crop of QB's.
He's what we call a Five Tool Quarterback; He can run for forward yardage with any QB in the game this side of Michael Vick. He can step out of the pocket, pump off defenders endlessly, has the deft touch for the little dump and the superb timing and laser arm for anything mid range or beyond.
Rodgers is cool as ice, is seemingly able to shrug off any deficit with a couple of slant throws and a pump of the fist. He's got a helluva supporting cast in Green Bay but he's the one who leads this Packer team and they thrive off his tremendous skill set.
2) Ben Roethlisberger: All the way back from this past summer's Madness in Midgeville, en route to his third Super Bowl there's little not to like about Roethlisberger's ability to commandeer the ever dangerous Steeler attack.
As much as any quarterback in the league Roethlisberger gives you the idea that he could come in cold without a game-plan, diagram plays in the dirt and still lead his team to victory. He's not quite as speedy as Rodgers, doesn't have the same kind of high octane fastball either, but also has the five pre-eminent tools and this match up in Supe XLV between two of the leagues dynastic members engenders starry eyed dreams of a can't miss thriller.
3) Michael Vick: Remember we're working off the game dominator premise here and Vick can do things to an opposing defense that few others have ever pondered. If he can improve on his short drop timing routes the Eagles will be unstoppable in 2011.
4) Tom Brady: As a drop back passer Brady has no flaws as his miraculous 2010 — 37 touchdowns only 4 interceptions— continues to illustrate. What he is not blessed with is mobility and twice now against New York defenses he has proven himself to be vulnerable to an ultra effective rush.
It's nitpicking, but the NFL has evolved in a way where quarterbacks will at some point require elusive skills to deal with the ever more athletic breed of defender and this may continue to hinder Brady in critical playoff matches going forward.
There is also the point to be made that the Pat's managed fairly well under Matt Cassel in 2008, who at that point hadn't made a start since his senior year in high school. (But you didn't hear it from us.)
Honorable mention, Drew Brees: Last year Brees might have been on top of this list, but for the Big Easy QB last years 4,620 passing yards, 68% completion rate, 33 touchdowns and 22 interceptions amounted to an off year (and the post season loss in Seattle certainly shook some luster off the Supe XLIV champs.)
New Orleans needs a running game and some defensive reinforcements and they'll be right back in prime playoff position in 2011.
Noticeable in their absence: Peyton Manning and Phillip Rivers. In the immortal words of the no longer immortal Al Davis — Just win baby!
The only negative thing you can say about the Kansas City Chiefs Jamaal Charles is he hasn't gotten enough carries yet to top the single season 2,000 yard mark.
A supreme runner/receiver with extraordinary break-ability, he's just now at 24 coming into his own and who knows how high the sky is for the former star out of Longhorn U. (His 1467 rushing yards in 2010, 6.4 per carry, 45 catches for another 468 yards only seem to scratch the surface of the third year backs unlimited potential.)
Is there a more gifted athlete in the NFL? Quite possibly not, and if he isn't already at some point in the very near future we could be referring to Charles as one of the leagues truly dominant players.
2) Maurice Jones Drew: We aim to surprise, though really when you come to think about, Jones Drew, on a team with limited offensive weapons (and an utterly middling to substandard offensive line) has proven himself capable of dominating opposing defenses that have had little to do the week prior other than to game plan fully for the 5-8, 205 pound cannonball out of UCLA.
His 2010 numbers don't lie: 14 games, 1324 yards rushing, 317 yards receiving, seven touchdowns and only two fumbles in 333 touches. That's off a comp season in 2009 when he had a combined 1765 yards and a more impressive 16 scores.
Drew's got soft hands, breakaway speed, and the kind of determined running style that makes him ultra tough to bring down.
Noticeable in their absence: Chris Johnson, his performance in 2010 was nowhere near what it was the year prior. Adrian Peterson, the Vikes went pass crazy under Favre, A.P. can return to the top of the heap if the Vikes start dosing him again with a steadier diet, (and he doesn't fumble the responsibility away). Arian Foster, you've go to do it more than once.
Andre Johnson: The former number three pick in the draft out of the University of Miami was hindered all year with a high ankle sprain, but still managed 86 catches for 1216 yards. At 6-3, 215 he has the power and speed to dominate any corner, or even any double team.
There's not a team in the NFL, (outside of Arizona, maybe young Calvin Johnson in Detroit), who wouldn't trade their top receiver, maybe even their whole receiving core for Johnson. Obscured to a certain extent in Houston he's still on the short list of the NFL's all time pass catching greats.
Larry Fitzgerald: Would somebody please get this man a Quarterback! Even with the garbage over center Arizona peddled in 2010 Fitzgerald managed 90 catches for 1137 yards and in 108 career games he's caught 613 balls for 8,204 yards with 65 T.D.'s.
He was amazing with Warner, had the unforgettable 7 catch, 127 yard, 2 touchdown performance in Super Bowl XLIII, but imagine Fitzgerald with Rodgers, Brees, Brady ... he could be chasing Jerry Rice numbers at some point.
Stay tuned for the next decade or so. It still may happen.
Antonio Gates is still great when he's out there, caught fifty balls and scored ten touchdowns in a 2010 season shortened by a torn right plantar fascia that he is expected to fully recover prior to next season.
The 6-4, 260 pound ex baller from Kent State is definitely one of the toughest covers in the game, tight end or otherwise, and at 30 years old should have plenty left in the tank to continue a stellar career, (119 games and counting), that has already seen him score 69 touchdowns.
Now the cry you just heard came from a sea of Tony Gonzales fans, no doubt one of the great tight ends in the history of the game and for a good stretch one of the NFL's most dominant players.
It's not so much that a majority of his numbers are down these past couple of years, (or that he's no longer the deep threat he once was), but more so — considering how long he'd been waiting to hit the post season spotlight — how much more we expected out of him in what should have been the game of his life against Green Bay.
Of course he's still awesome, but with all due respect Tony Gonzales doesn't take games over like he was able to earlier in his career, so that has to make him something less than the truly dominant player he once was.
On the horizon we love Green Bay's Jermichael Finley, (a 6-4, 240 pound stud with great speed and soft hands), and Detroit's massive, multi tasker Brandon Pettigrew, (especially if QB Matt Stafford can stay on the field in 2011.)
Either or both are capable of emerging in full at this position over the next year or two.
Worth mentioning: Dallas Cowboy catcher, Jason Witten, of course, (no Romo, no problem, 94 grabs, nine touchdowns in 2010), Baltimore's Todd Heap, S.F.'s Vernon Davis, Jacksonville's Mercedes Lewis & the Jet's Dustin Keller.
Similarly, there are no Anthony Munoz, or Jonathon Ogden types out there right now either.
Conventional choices for the top of the heap would be Miami's Jake Long, Denver's Ryan Clady, Cleveland's Joe Thomas, (all high draft picks who have performed well since joining their respective clubs), Guard Jahri Evans is a mauler out of New Orleans, Minnesota's Steve Hutchinson is a perennial all pro, New York Giant RG Chris Snee is vastly under-rated, New England's Logan Mankins will always be accounted for on a list like this as will his line-mate Matt Light.
But our surprise choice for the leagues top offensive lineman is New York Jet Center Nick Mangold.
A first round pick out of Ohio State he took over for one of the all time studs in the middle, Kevin Mawae, in 2008 and has made three consecutive Pro Bowls leading a Jet O-Line that certainly has to be counted amongst the leagues best — if it's not the best outright.
New Jersey's best, (sorry Giant fans) have made two straight playoff appearances with young Mark Sanchez at QB, and no doubt Mangold's steady hand has contributed greatly to the teams success. He may not be altogether dominant, but from our point of view, at the ever critical center position, he's got the combined skills to be the most highly regarded offensive lineman in the NFL, and to be sure Nick Mangold is only going to get better.
Well by now it's a little more difficult to tell, and six of our top choices, Polamalu, Woodson, Rodgers, Roethlisberger, James Harrison and Clay Matthews will have the worlds biggest stage to make statements on in Dallas come February 7th.
It's a lot to look forward to, sure as heck should be one helluva showdown.
And we know you won't be surprised to see the long haired guy wearing number 43 make the kind of plays late that decide football games. We've seen it too many time before, and Troy Polamalu will be all business come Supe XLV.
If he's not already.
That's it for now,