Polley is starting to feel at home in defense after first two games

Once labeled `soft' player, Raven hardly fits that bill

August 25, 2005|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,SUN STAFF

When linebacker Tommy Polley returned to play football in the city where he is revered as an all-time great high school athlete, there was no welcome-back celebration.

Any thoughts of a party were halted by Polley - the two-time area Defensive Player of the Year at Dunbar who signed with the Ravens in April - before they ever materialized. "I was still in the dumps at the time," Polley said.

Once Polley started feeling better about his one-year contract, he instead promised his family and supporters that every Sunday would be a day for celebration, especially the ones when he comes out of the tunnel at M&T Bank Stadium.

If Polley continues to make his presence felt within the Ravens' defense as he has through the first three weeks of the preseason, his coaches could very well be partying with the family.

Polley, playing as the weak-side linebacker, is tied for the lead among the starters with seven tackles through two preseason games. By the coaches' estimation, he also has not missed an assignment.

"First of all, he's fantastic," defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said. "I don't think Tommy has had a mental mistake. In games, I don't believe he's had one physically. He's done an outstanding job for us, so we're really happy with the way Tommy is playing.

"I think he's even more than I expected."

Ryan's expectations were moderately high even before getting an up-close look at Polley, but apparently he was in a minority.

In four seasons with the St. Louis Rams, who originally made him a second-round draft pick, Polley had developed the worst reputation a player at his position could have.

Word leaking out of St. Louis, which was never refuted by its staff, was that Polley lacked intensity and was soft. In basic terms, sometimes he was just out on the field doing very little.

"When you play with the Rams, you're looked at as a finesse team," Polley said. "Of course you're going to get that label. We were a soft defense, and I was a big part of that defense, so of course I'm going to get looked at being soft. It didn't bother me. I knew the perception, but I didn't think it was going to affect me when [free agency] came around. But what can you say?"

Statistics tell a different story. Polley registered 100-tackle seasons in three of his four seasons with the Rams, including 101 last year, tied for third on the team.

Polley is convinced perception overtook production when he hit the free-agent market in March. The Ravens had him rated as the No. 1 outside linebacker on their free-agent list, but with nobody to bid against, team officials only had to submit a contract worth the veteran minimum of $540,000.

"It affected my earning power," Polley said of his reputation. "But you have another year to do it again, and hopefully this year I'll make it."

Polley seems to be on the right path to earning a multi-year deal. Knowledgeable about what kind of player Polley was thought to be, Ryan has seen no evidence of that during practices.

"I see just the opposite," Ryan said. "He might be more of a quiet-storm type, but he's pretty passionate."

Polley admits, though, in the aftermath of his signing with the Ravens, football had lost some of its luster. What happened with Polley during free agency was humbling and discouraging, but then he stepped on the practice field.

"Once I started practicing and seeing the guys I'm with, Ed [Reed], Ray [Lewis], Deion [Sanders] ... " Polley said. "Whoever thought I would be playing with Deion? Being around those guys, it's not all about me. Even though I would like to be secure, I'm still making good money. As long as I play well, things will work out."

In the preseason opener against the Atlanta Falcons, on display was Polley's speed and athleticism, two necessities to be effective in the Ravens' defense.

"He's going to do a great job for us," linebacker Peter Boulware said. "He's a good player."

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