Ed Reed’s future as a Hall of Famer is about as assured as it gets for a still active player. In fact, it is probable that he will be a first ballot selection.
His 64 career interceptions are a statistic unto themselves, but his overall play in every facet of the game has truly been rare among NFL players. Routinely praised for his instincts, Reed has always demonstrated a rare ability to predict what the QB intends to do, either before the snap or after, and put himself in a position to make a play.
In his younger days, Reed was a quality contributor on special teams, with numerous return touchdowns. Only two players in NFL history have multiple return touchdowns of more than 106 yards and both are Ravens. Of the 17 return touchdowns of that distance, only Reed’s came on an interception. He simply was able to do things other defenders could not or would not. After all, taking the ball out from seven years deep in the end zone actually is a little crazy.
He was famous for even crazier plays like lateraling the ball to extend the return. Lateraling during a return is the sort of play that causes fans and coaches alike to cry out in fear but Reed was one of those few who not only made it work, but also made it look good.
Reed recently went on record as wanting to play another year. It’s a natural sentiment for any athlete, especially one of Reed’s caliber. His mind works as well as ever, but his body is unlikely to allow him to play another year effectively. If it does happen, it will likely be with a team that is more than a little desperate.
However, Reed stands to gain in one very notable way by playing one more season.
Currently, he is sixth on the list of all-time career interceptions with 64 behind Ken Riley (65). Ex-Raven Rod Woodson is fourth with 71.
Another season from Reed offers a reasonably good chance of getting another interception(s) to break the top five.
Reed hardly needs the accomplishment, nor will it affect his Hall of Fame case, but it is a nice accolade nonetheless.
Two of the players ahead of Reed played in the pre-Super Bowl Era. The NFL in those days was built around running the ball and heaving deep. Interceptions were racked up at a truly astonishing rate unseen in today’s NFL. There have been 19 seasons since 1940 in which an NFL team has thrown 35 or more Interceptions.
15 occurred before the first Super Bowl was ever played.
Perhaps even crazier is that one team threw 48 interceptions and still went 11-3. The NFL was simply different then and as a result Reed's accomplishments are all the more impressive.
Making an interception in today’s NFL is simply more difficult than it was in 1960. Not only has the game speed gone up considerably, but the skill level of the quarterbacks is immensely better. In fact, everything about players and the game is faster, more complex, and more compelling. The game focuses less on deep heaves and more on intermediate throws to sustain offense, with myriad moving parts. Thus, Reed’s stats easily stand up on an equal level to the two leaders, Paul Krause and Emlen Tunnell, given the game’s evolution. In any event, on paper, he is still sixth.
No other active defender even comes close to Reed’s production. Far behind him at 56 interceptions is Charles Woodson, a 38-year-old finishing his great career with the team that drafted him. Champ Bailey (52) and Asante Samuel (51) are the only other two defenders with more than 50. The nearest retired player is Darren Sharper (63) who himself would likely be a Hall of Fame inductee if it wasn't for the astonishing legal troubles he's found himself in.
Often incorrectly paired with Reed in the "best safety in the NFL" discussion is Troy Polamalu. Reed rejected that illogical comparison several years ago, not out of disrespect to Troy, who has been a great player, but because clearly Reed has produced far above Polamlu. Additionally, Polamalu fits the strong safety mold, often playing near the line and in run defense, although he has performed very well in pass defense. Polamalu is 177th on the all-time list with 32 interceptions, just one interception more than Ray Lewis (180th). Suffice to say, Reed has been the better defensive back by a considerable margin.
I bring Polamalu up not for the purpose of discrediting his accomplishments, but to point out just how good Reed actually has been despite the commonly held myth that they are two halves of the same coin.
One of the finest but often forgotten accomplishments Reed ever put together was his 2010 campaign. In that year, Polamalu won Defensive Player of the Year.
Below are Reed's and Polamalu's stats for 2010, let’s see if you can guess who is who:
Those statistics are fairly comparable but Player B has the clear edge for a defensive back, with five more pass deflections, one more interception, and more return yardage.
Now here’s the rub:
Player A started 14 games in 2010. Player B started 10.
Player A is Troy Polamalu and Player B is Ed Reed.
The reason Reed was robbed of the 2010 DPOY Award essentially boils down to the fact that he was written off from contention for missing six games by being on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list. Yet if anything, that should have strengthened his case given that he produced more in fewer games than Polamalu.
Further complicating matters, the Steelers narrowly won the No. 2 seed on tiebreakers over Baltimore. Pittsburgh fielded a slightly better overall defense than Baltimore did in 2010 as well. These factors gave Polamalu an additional element of support. If Baltimore wins the No. 2 Seed, Polamalu might still win by virtue of Reed’s six-game absence but it would have significantly complicated the vote.
In any event, Reed does not need another DPOY award to secure his place in Canton, although it would have put him in that special company of only five defenders in NFL history to win multiple DPOYs. Moreover, the 2010 year is a fascinating insight to how good Reed was that he could outperform that year’s DPOY on four fewer games following hip surgery. Few will cite this statistic in his Hall of Fame argument, but it might be among his finest achievements.
Reed stands alone as the best Safety of the post-2000 era, and really his only competition was Darren Sharper, not Polamalu. More than just a safety though, it is hard to argue against Reed as the best defensive back overall — a torch he received from Ex-Raven and Steeler Rod Woodson, who arguably held that title from 1987 until 2003 (though one could argue Deion Sanders, too).
It will be interesting to see who takes on the title of best and most productive defensive back from Reed. Richard Sherman has 20 interceptions in three years, is only 26, and for my money, he's the best defensive back in football now. He would be a worthy successor to the great No. 20 as the game's best defensive back in the next era.
Even though a degraded Reed is something that few of us wish to see in 2014, seeing him break the top five would not be that bad either.