- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 10, 2009

If an NFL strong safety ever wrote a book, it would probably be titled “Adventures of a Crash Test Dummy” or “Bell Ringing in Five Easy Lessons.” When you’re talking about the position these days, you’re talking less about players, it seems, than projectiles - guys who launch themselves into receivers and running backs with bone-jangling force.

Being an unlicensed chiropractor has its risks, though, as Troy Polamalu and Bob Sanders have reminded us. Sanders headed back to the Colts’ injured reserve list after appearing in just two games this season, and Polamalu says he might need “a whole lot of prayers” to return to action for the Steelers this year. With Bob, it’s a torn biceps; with Troy, it’s his posterior cruciate ligament. Next time - and there’s almost always a next time with strong safeties - it’ll be something else.

Nobody who loves pro football can be very happy that two of its top defensive playmakers are again on the sideline. There are, after all, so few of the species in this era of one-bump pass coverage and all but legalized intentional grounding. It’s never been harder in the NFL to pick off a pass - or to sack the quarterback, for that matter. Fumble rates, meanwhile, are way down, thanks (among other things) to the fashion accessory known as the tacky glove.

So players like Polamalu and Sanders, players able to pry the ball away from the offense via interceptions, heavy hits or surprise blitzes, are absolute gold. Indeed, Sanders was the AP defensive player of the year in 2007, and Polamalu might win that honor himself someday - if he lives long enough.

You look at the medical records of these two - Sanders has never played a full 16-game season, and Polamalu has missed substantial time three of the past four years - and you wonder: Is the problem them? Do they just play too hard, too recklessly? Or is the problem the way the position has evolved - to the point where strong safeties are expected to be Baby Butkuses?

Neither of them is really cut out to be a linebacker, but that’s what the job entails much of the time. Sanders is 5-foot-8, 206 pounds, and Polamalu goes 5-10, 207 (hair included). And yet they’re constantly hurling themselves into larger objects - like tight ends and blocking backs and Vincent Jackson-sized receivers.

Reed Doughty, the Redskins’ roughneck strong safety, says, “I think what you see” with these injuries to Sanders, Polamalu and others - “is speed on both sides - the receiver running full-speed in the middle of the field and the safety running full-speed and meeting him at a collision point.”

“Collision point.” Interesting choice of words. In the NFL of the new millennium, apparently, nobody makes anything as mundane as a tackle. Instead, you rendezvous with the ball carrier at a collision point. Wham! Film at 11.

Doughty, of course, knows whereof he speaks. “I’ve had back surgery myself,” he says. Ask yourself: How many quarterbacks his age - he just turned 27 - have had back surgery? How many running backs? How many wideouts?

The thing is, with the increasing popularity of the West Coast offense and other spread formations, there are more and more of these collisions because teams are throwing the ball more and more. It’s debatable whether the hits are any more violent than they were a generation ago, when such ruthless creatures as Ronnie Lott and Andre Waters prowled NFL secondaries, but there’s no question they’re more frequent.

“I feel like we’re a mixture of cornerback and linebacker,” Doughty says. “Lots of times we’re up in the box, involved in the running game, but we also have to cover. On some of these big hits, it’s often a case of the [safety] coming from 15 yards upfield to meet the [ball carrier], and there’s all this built-up acceleration.”

In such situations, something has to give - a biceps, a ligament, a vertebra. And while everybody enjoys the NASCAR nature of the game, the net result is stars like Sanders and Polamalu being incapacitated. None of this, though, gives Doughty much pause.

Don’t forget, he says, “We’re the ones making the hits. We’re not being blindsided or anything. The way I approach it is: I’m going to be relentless and tenacious but not illegal. I’m not going to lead with my head. But you can’t be thinking about getting hurt when you’re out on the field. You just can’t play football like that.”

So much attention is being paid nowadays to protecting quarterbacks and being careful with concussions. Maybe the league also needs to look at the demolition derby the strong safety position has become - or at the very least, come up with a new name for the position that doesn’t include the word “safety.” It just doesn’t apply anymore.

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