"Troy is the best player in the game right now," said Steelers linebacker James Harrison, who won the award two years ago and finished third this year. "He's our MVP. I'm extremely happy for him. He's that guy this year."
The league's MVP award will be handed out Sunday, and it would be an all-time shock if Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady didn't win it. Since the award was established in 1957, there have been only three seasons in which it didn't go to a quarterback or a running back. The last defensive player to win it was Lawrence Taylor in 1986. So it's going to be pretty hard for Polamalu to ever win the big overall prize. But the more you watch the Steelers play -- with and without him -- the more you think he belongs in the MVP discussion.
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"Playing with Troy is like having a front-row seat to the circus every week," Steelers safety Ryan Clark said. "It's amazing, each and every week, to watch him go out there and do his job in a way that I don't think anybody else could do it."
Polamalu is one of the league's unique and irreplaceable players. Over the past three seasons, the Steelers are 32-8 when he plays and 6-7 when he doesn't. The reason is that while whoever replaces him might be a great athlete and a great safety, Polamalu's instincts aren't replicable. He has a seemingly innate ability to put himself in the right place to make a play on the ball, even when he starts out far away from it.
"Troy is a beast," Steelers receiver Hines Ward said. "He just does things. Even if he's supposed to be in coverage, he'll get out of coverage and make a play. He just has a sixth sense about where the ball's going to go."
That reputation, and the consistent manner in which Polamalu lives up to it, works on opposing offenses all week. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said you spend your Steeler week game-planning to face their outstanding defense but that every meeting includes one particular instruction.
"Know where he is," Rodgers said. "If you don't identify where he is on the field, you're making it a lot tougher on yourself. Even if you do know where he is, he still might show up where you didn't expect him to be. But you have to be aware of him if you're going to have a chance."
Polamalu's trademark hair, which along with that of Packers linebacker Clay Matthews and the remarkable mountain-man beard of Steelers' defensive lineman Brett Keisel was the focus of many media day questions, makes him easy to spot. But when he's on the field, he makes the Steelers a lot more difficult to beat.
"All the positives that you can mention, from character to athletic ability, are reflected in Troy," Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said. "But beyond all of that are his instincts. He has the amazing capability of studying film and being able to instantly apply that in the game situation. That's why he makes so many big plays. Troy is exceptional."
Polamalu is an MVP-worthy player because of how much better his team is when he's on the field than when he's not. But the other thing you want in an MVP candidate is a good teammate. Polamalu's teammates rave consistently, and to a man they expressed pure joy over his award. Clark said he texted Polamalu to congratulate him, and Polamalu's response was that it was a team award.
"I think that's the most amazing thing about him," Clark said. "He can do all these great things on the field and you'll never hear him talk about it. It's great to be around a player like that with such humility, with no ego."
Polamalu backs up all the praise. He remains unassuming and cool and professional even as he excels at playing a violent game. He is strong and self-confident and happy to help. He seemed to genuinely enjoy the hour he spent at his media day podium fielding all manner of crazy question.
"I try to represent something bigger than myself, whether it's on the football field or off, and to represent the same person," Polamalu said. "I wouldn't be somebody that's a rah-rah, 'look at me' guy on the field and not off the field, or vice versa. I think if you see people like that, there's something that's not authentic in their life. They're either fake outside the football field or fake on the football field. I just try to be the same person."
Along the way, he's emerged as one of the most important -- and most valuable -- players in the NFL.
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