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The Safety Championship Belt, Part IV

On Monday, we began our journey through the history of the Safety Championship Belt — i.e., who held the title of best safety in each year from 1950 to 1970. And then on Tuesday, we revealed the winners from 1971 to 1990.  Yesterday brought us from 1991 to 2002. Today, the final twelve years.

2003: Roy Williams, Dallas Cowboys / Rodney Harrison, New England Patriots

Hey, for eight months, Buster Douglas was once the best boxer in the land, too. Williams became something of a punch line over time, and his five Pro Bowl selections only show how that honor can devolve into little more than a name recognition contest. But there once was a time when the Oklahoma Roy Williams was a dominant player, and that time was 2003. At his best, Williams was as feared as any safety in the league, a physical player who was essentially a linebacker playing in the defensive backfield. While Ray Lewis justifiably ran away with the Defensive Player of the Year award that season, Houston’s John McClain actually selected Williams as his top defender in all of football in 2003.

The ’03 Cowboys, you might forget, finished in the top four in most major categories on defense, including points allowed, yards allowed, first downs allowed, passing yards allowed, net yards per attempt allowed, rushing yards allowed, and yards per carry allowed. Here’s another way to put it: the team went 10-6 with Quincy Carter at quarterback.

For all the success he had with New England, whenever I think of Rodney Harrison my mind goes to what he and Junior Seau did on the ’98 Chargers. That team had the 3rd worst Relative ANY/A of any team in the last 20 years,1 as Ryan Leaf and Craig Whelihan shared the quarterback duties. Seau and Harrison were seemingly the only thing keeping the Chargers from 0-16, and the duo guided San Diego to a first-place ranking in yards allowed.

That’s a small diversion to remind you about how good Harrison was on a bad team; in New England, we saw how valuable he could be on a good one.  Harrison had “only” three interceptions and three sacks in 2003, but he added two more interceptions in a dominant run during the playoffs.  Harrison was a first-team All-Pro selection by the AP and Dr. Z, and Peter King chose Harrison as his DPOY (King wasn’t on an island here; Rick Gosselin at the Dallas Morning News had Harrison as his runner-up to Lewis, and Ira Miller at the San Francisco Chronicle also picked Harrison as the best defender in football.)

Just about everyone who didn’t pick Williams or Harrison as the best safety in football in ’03 selected our next player, who clearly took over the title the following year.

2004: Ed Reed, Baltimore Ravens

In 2003, Reed was a first-team All-Pro according to the Sporting News and the Pro Football Writers; a year later, he was even better.  In 2004, Reed became the first safety in 20 years to win the AP Defensive Player of the Year award; perhaps more impressively, he emerged out of the shadow of Ray Lewis (the ’00 and ’03 winner) to become the star of the Baltimore defense. Reed intercepted a league-high nine passes and returned those picks for 358 yards, setting an NFL record in the process. He also forced three fumbles and had two sacks, but the ’04 Ravens wound up missing the playoffs and instead starred in the Billick Index.

It goes without saying that Reed was a unanimous first-team All-Pro choice, and several other organizations selected Reed as the best defensive player in the NFL.  But the Baltimore star missed six games in ’05, allowing the title belt to change hands to…

2005: Troy Polamalu, Pittsburgh Steelers

Polamalu entered the NFL in ’03, made his first Pro Bowl in ’04, and then began building his legendary career in ’05. He was a unanimous (AP, PFW, SN, Dr. Z, Peter King) first-team All-Pro THAT YEAR, and oh-by-the-way, helped lead Pittsburgh to the team’s first Super Bowl title since the ’70s.

Brian Urlacher was the runaway DPOY, but Polamalu picked up three out of 50 votes, and Rick Gosselin had Polamalu third to Urlacher and Ronde Barber.   And it’s easy to see why Polamalu was in the discussion. The Steelers ranked in the top three in points allowed, net yards per attempt allowed, touchdowns allowed, rushing yards allowed, and yards per carry allowed, but Polamalu was the defense’s only first-team All-Pro.  But, as it turned out, the Steelers star safety was just leasing the championship belt.

2006: Ed Reed, Baltimore Ravens

It’s easy to get lost in the Baltimore shuffle, but the ’06 Ravens had one of the greatest defenses in NFL history. With Polamalu less effective and limited to 13 games, Reed re-asserted himself as the best player in the game, and was named a first-team All-Pro by the AP, PFW, and SN.  The Ravens star had five interceptions and one sack, but it is rarely about numbers with players like Reed.

The ’06 season would likely have been the middle year in a five-year string of first-team All-Pro seasons had Reed not been injured in ’05. An honorary vote here goes to Arizona’s Adrian Wilson, who was the first-team All-Pro choice by the Sporting News and Pro Football Writers, and fell one vote shy of being a first-teamer on the AP team, too.

2006 (Playoffs) – 2007: Bob Sanders, Indianapolis Colts

Sanders missed nearly all of the 2006 regular season, and the Colts defense struggled significantly in his absence. But when Sanders returned, it was like the defense added a Hall of Famer — or maybe two. Indianapolis allowed over 100 rushing yards in every game in the regular season, but held the Chiefs, Ravens, and Patriots under the century mark in the playoffs. And the Colts defense held the Chiefs, Ravens, and Bears to just two offensive touchdowns combined. Sanders also recorded two interceptions in four playoff games, including one that helped Indianapolis lock up Super Bowl XLI.

And when your encore is winning the Defensive Player of the Year trophy, that’s a good way to eliminate any doubt as to who was the game’s best safety. Sanders destroyed the field in the 2007 AP voting, and he was a huge factor in the Colts leading the league in points allowed that season. He also was named the DPOY by the majority of organizations that year, not just the AP.  I have records of 16 different sources naming All-Pro safeties in 2007, and all 16 had Sanders as a first-team All-Pro. Unfortunately, injuries derailed his career, including the 2008 season. That opened the door for the two best safeties of our era to share the title.

But it would be neglectful to leave this space without mentioning Sean Taylor.  The fifth overall pick out of Miami in 2004, Taylor managed to live up to the hype.  In ’05, he got an honorable mention on Dr. Z’s All-Pro team, and he made the Pro Bowl in 2006.  At the halfway mark of the ’07 season, Dr. Z thought that Taylor was perhaps the league’s best free safety, a position that he assuredly did not hold alone.  Tragically, Taylor was shot and killed in his home during a burglary just two weeks later.  Despite playing in just nine games, Taylor actually tied Polamalu for the fourth most votes on the AP’s All-Pro team at safety, giving him a 2nd-team All-Pro nod.  Taylor, who succeeded Reed at Miami, was on pace to join Reed and Polamalu as the game’s best safeties; no discussion of the best safeties of that era would be complete without mentioning #21.

2008 – Ed Reed, Baltimore Ravens/Troy Polamalu, Pittsburgh Steelers (tie)

Every organization you can think of named Reed and Polamalu as their first-team All-Pro safeties in 2008.  The duo ran away with the AP vote, capturing 96 of the 100 possible votes. The Steelers and Ravens had dominant defenses that season, and wound up meeting in the AFC Championship Game. This was the height of the Steelers/Ravens rivalry, and these two were playing the position as well as its ever been played.

If you want to give one of the players the nod, it would probably be Reed.  Both were so far ahead of the class at safety that you have to look at other voting sources.  In the AP vote, James Harrison captured 22 of the 50 votes; Reed had 8, while Polamalu had two.  Reed was selected as the DPOY by Rick Gosselin at the Dallas Morning News and Leonard Shapiro of the Miami Herald.  Polamalu may have been harmed by “splitting the vote” with Harrison so to speak, but I can’t find any source that named him DPOY. And in the NFL Alumni Player Awards, Reed did capture the title of Defensive Back of the Year.  But my hunch is Steelers fans would argue for a different tiebreaker.  In any event, this one deserves to be a draw.

2009 – Darren Sharper, New Orleans Saints

The bigger picture: Sharper is a monster who plead guilty or no contest to raping or attempting to rape nine women in four states. That is the Darren Sharper story.

It just so happens that in 2009, he was also the game’s best safety, especially with Polamalu limited to just five games and Reed missing four games. Sharper was a unanimous first-team All-Pro choice who also ran away with the AP vote, courtesy of nine interceptions, 376 interception return yards, and three touchdowns, all league-leading marks. In fact, his 376 yards gained on interception returns broke Reed’s mark and remains an NFL record.  Sharper didn’t get much consideration outside of the position — he was at best the third best defensive back in the NFL that season, behind Charles Woodson and Darrelle Revis.  But his case as the best safety of ’09 is pretty clear.

2010-2011 – Troy Polamalu, Pittsburgh Steelers

The 2010 season may have been Polamalu’s finest: he recorded seven interceptions in 14 games, and helped the Pittsburgh defense finish first or second in points allowed, yards allowed, net yards per attempt allowed, and yards per carry allowed. Trailing the rival Ravens 10-6 late in the fourth quarter, Polamalu made a leaping tackle that forced a critical fumble; the Steelers scored a touchdown on the ensuring drive, and won the game. That helped fuel Polamalu’s Defensive Player of the Year campaign, and he wound up beating Clay Matthews by two votes to snatch the award.2

In 2011, Polamalu and San Diego’s Eric Weddle were the runaway best safeties in the NFL. Reed, now 33, was in decline (2010 was his last great season).  As a result, Polamalu and Weddle ran away with the voting, and both were named to the first teams of the AP, Pro Football Writers, and Sporting News. Polamalu did edge Weddle in the AP voting and also was rated higher by Pro Football Focus, and as always, tie goes to the defending champ.

2012-2014: Earl Thomas, Seattle Seahawks

Thomas has been a first-team All-Pro choice by the Associated Press, Pro Football Weekly, and Sporting News in each of the last three years. And in each season, he’s helped the Seahawks finish first in points allowed. One might want to argue that Eric Weddle, Jairus Byrd, or Dashon Goldson were slightly better 2012, or perhaps that Eric Berry or Devin McCourty were better in 2013, or (most convincingly) for Weddle last season. But over the last three years, Weddle and Thomas have been the clear best safeties in the league. And while Weddle may be underrated by the general public, that only strengthens the claim that Thomas has been the nominal best safety in the NFL over the last three years.

By my count, Thomas was best in 2013, when he finished third behind Luke Kuechly and Robert Mathis in a tight AP DPOY vote. That year, like Joey Browner with the Vikings in ’88, he and Pete Carroll helped build one of the greatest pass defenses of all time.  And while there are other great safeties currently playing, Thomas is the one history will remember, as an indispensable member of one of the more dominant defenses in NFL history.

That concludes this series on the Safety Championship Belt.  I hope it was half as much fun to read as it was to write!

  1. Ahead of only the ’05 49ers and ’10 Panthers. []
  2. For what it’s worth, the AP was an outlier that year, as most seemed to go for Matthews as the DPOY.  On the other hand, Polamalu actually beat out Tom Brady in the Alumni Association NFL Player of the Year voting.  Then again, that same organization also named Aqib Talib its Defensive Back of the Year. []
  • eag97a

    Chase,

    Have you ever done something the same for QBs ? I seem to remember an article you did but it was in a spreadsheet form.

  • Ryan

    This was awesome Chase…thanks!
    Any chance we see historical defensive player rankings for any positions this offseason?

    • Glycoproteins

      ^Ditto.

      I really enjoyed reading these and would very much like to see similar posts about other positions and perhaps coaches / GMs, although that might be difficult given the degree subjectivity involved.

      • Thanks! I do have something similar but different on deck that I think people who enjoyed this series will enjoy.

    • Hey Ryan,

      Glad you enjoyed. I’m not inclined to do something like that any time soon, as I’ve got little faith in my ability to do it accurately. At least right now: perhaps as we get access to more data and more ways to think about how to use that data, I’ll be more motivated.

  • Ben Fitzgerald

    No titles for Weddle just feels wrong somehow.

    • bubqr

      While I like Weddle, I feel like he never had a season at the level of the other safeties of this list (apart from maybe Darren Sharper’s one).
      Quitte odd how quickly Bob Sanders faded away in my mind, despite being incredibly good for those 2 years (and the other years he was not injured). Sad his body could not withstand the violence of his play.
      I really loved this serie Chase!

      • Thanks, bubqr. I’m glad to hear you enjoyed it. This thing was a lot of work, but also a ton of fun.

    • I hear you, but do you think he ever held the title of best safety in the NFL? Maybe he was rated as the best by some, but if you think of it in terms of perception, I don’t think he’s ever really been THE GUY. Which, of course, doesn’t mean all that much.

  • I understand why you made the decisions you did, so this is not meant to be an argument with them, but I just want to say that I think Rodney Harrison was really the best safety in the league roughly 1996-2002. Junior Seau was a great player who undoubtedly deserved his Hall of Fame selection, and I’m not sure he was the best player on those defenses, because Harrison was just incredible. People didn’t really notice him on forgettable San Diego teams with laughably poor offenses, but he was great. It should say quite a lot that he was so good in New England during his decline.

    I thought Brian Dawkins might have trouble making this list, too–his career overlapped with Harrison, Reed, Polamalu, Lynch, and the short-lived prime of Bob Sanders, so I thought he may not ever crack the top spot.

    This has been a fun trip through history, Chase!

    • sacramento gold miners

      Harrison was terrific, but had bad timing in his last Super Bowl with New England, which has affected his legacy. The Patriots were trying to make history, and Harrison allowed the David Patton catch, and couldn’t rip the ball out in one of the most famous plays in SB history. It’s not fair, but something Harrison is connected to in the last postseason game of his career. He also had a reputation for taking some very questionable hits, including taking out his college teammate(Trent Green) in a preseason game.

      • I honestly forgot it was Harrison on that play. Truthfully, I so thoroughly do not think of him as a Patriot that if someone asked me who was in coverage on that play, it would probably take me half a dozen guesses before I would remember that he was there.

        The PED suspension and the (earned) reputation for dirty play have clouded his legacy considerably, too. He’s part of the “Patriots=cheaters” narrative, and that isn’t going to help him.

        However, I think the biggest effect on his legacy is from people not having paid attention to how good he was in his first nine years in the league. He was in his decline the entire time he was in New England, and yet he was still that good.

      • Yeah, Harrison certainly had that reputation, which probably hurt him even more when it came to voting for Pro Bowls and All Pros. He probably was a dirty player. But considering that Troy Polamalu is already retired, I’m not inclined to penalize Harrison too much for failing to make a play at age 35.

    • Thanks! Glad you enjoyed this series.

      I hear you on Harrison. I loved watching him, and he was a tackle monster for those playing IDP fantasy back then like me.

      I was also glad to see Dawkins make the list: honestly, he’s one of the guys who I’m most on-the-fence about for the HOF, both the “will he” and “should he” question. I almost feel like he’s the line.

  • John

    The 2006 Ravens defense was loaded.

    • No doubt. And had Rex Ryan at DC.

  • 2015 was a weird year for safeties. Thomas certainly had a down year, and Tyrann Mathieu had an awesome year. The thing is, Mathieu was really more cornerback than safety: https://www.profootballfocus.com/blog/2015/12/02/pro-tyrann-mathieu-cb-s-or-db-dpoy/

    Mathieu led the way in All-Pro voting. Eric Berry, Reggie Nelson, Charles Woodson, Earl Thomas, Harrison Smith, and Reshad Jones all received between 8 and 16 votes. To the extent we call Mathieu a safety, he clearly took the belt this year. But if not, I don’t really know if anyone else did enough to steal it from Thomas. According to PFF, the top three safeties were Harrison Smith, Malcolm Jenkins, and Earl Thomas, with Eric Berry not far behind.

  • John

    Darian Stewart: 2016 Safety Belt winner.

    • Richie

      Why?

      I’ve never heard of him.

      • John

        He is Denver’s free safety.

        • Richie

          What makes him deserve the title of best safety in the league?

          • John

            He had a pretty good year. For example, he beat the Saints practically all by himself.