It is no surprise that the first-round draft pick of the Bengals' star-crossed draft class of 2005 is having a Pro Bowl life. But David Pollack admits, like the rest of Bengaldom, he does wonder "WHAT IF?"
"I do it all the time," said Pollack last week, finally getting chased down after another ESPN assignment. "I was just starting to get it. That was a big learning curve going from a 4-3 defensive end to a SAM linebacker. But I had a good end to the season and … ."
Pollack registered the only postseason sack ever by a Bengals rookie in the Wild Card loss to the Steelers that season (he had 4.5 in the last eight games) and in the second game of the next year his career was over with a frightening broken neck.
But it wasn't just him. Maybe Cedric Benson and Adam Jones, top 10 refugees from that '05 draft laced with ill fortune, restocked some of the lost karma on the Bengals roster.
Yet there was too much irreplaceable.
Pollack's Georgia teammate drafted right behind him in the second round was an NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year finalist. But middle linebacker Odell Thurman never played again in the NFL after that Wild Card game he tied Pollack with a team-high 10 tackles when he became ensnared in drug and alcohol problems.
The late Chris Henry, the Bengals third-rounder that year, left the Wild Card game after catching a 66-yarder on the second snap and played in only 41 more games in a career limited by three NFL suspensions before he died in a truck accident while on injured reserve during the 2009 season.
Both Thurman and Henry came in with character red flags that were hoisted once they arrived. But Tab Perry, the versatile sixth-rounder who scored a touchdown rushing, receiving and returning that rookie season, badly injured his hip in the same game Pollack got carried off the field on the board and played in just four more NFL games.
"Lord no," said Pollack, pondering the improbability of it all. "The draft is such a crapshoot. (The losses) changes the dynamic ... so many things can happen when you get drafted. From my fluke play to Odell's problems off the field to Chris' accident to Tab's injury, I guess you could say that class had them all. It had whatever could happen."
All of them had huge plays down the stretch in what amounted to the 2005 AFC North title game, a 38-31 win in Pittsburgh where Perry ripped off a 94-yard kick return, Thurman had a late interception, Henry converted a third down in the winning drive, and Pollack sacked quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on the last series.
There is no doubt in Pollack's mind there would have been more AFC North titles to come if that class stayed together instead of imploding on character and circumstance.
"Absolutely; they won one two years ago," Pollack said. "We had a good enough nucleus to do some real damage. I think we had most of the parts on defense and we could have concentrated on offense a little bit more while we developed.
"Odell was going to be one of the best players in the league. Big, he could run, he could hit, make plays. And he was a charismatic guy. But he hung around with the wrong people. Chris was up and down, but it looked like he had finally come on."
At 28, Pollack is still relentless even in his spare time. He spends his fall Saturdays crisscrossing the country as an ESPN analyst calling games and working the studio covering virtually every conference. He also does a daily radio show on Atlanta's 790 WQXI-AM while he and wife Lindsey raise two children, Nicholas, 2 1/2, and Leah, 11 months. Plus, they're putting the finishing touches on his foundation that is earmarked for children's wellness and nutrition.
As usual, he's still opinionated after watching reams of film. And he's always been watching film:
» If the Bengals draft the soon-to-be 23-year-old wide receiver A.J. Green with the fourth pick, Pollack says he'll be an immediate upgrade over 33-year-old Chad Ochocinco.
» Monday's news reports linking TCU quarterback Andy Dalton to a very enthusiastic Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden would be no surprise to Pollack. Last week he said the quarterback the Bengals should pursue in the second round is Dalton if he's there.
» After watching what happened to his '05 class, Pollack says character has to be a huge part of the evaluation process. But he also realizes a lot of it is luck. He says he's for the changes the NFL is making for player safety, but he says they wouldn't have altered his career-ending tackle of Browns running back Reuben Droughns.
"I've taken 300 hits that were a lot more violent than that one," Pollack said. "I used my head a lot, but that hit wasn't that bad. It was a fluke. It was the perfect angle."
"The league is doing it for the right reasons," said Pollack, who is for moving the kickoffs up to the 35-yard line. "They're trying to protect against head trauma and they should."
Pollack is also all for the Bengals taking another Georgia product No. 1 because he says Green is as advertised even when stacked up against Alabama's Julio Jones.
"No question," Pollack said. "Julio turned some heads at the combine, but there is no doubt that the best receiver if you watch film is A.J. He's 6-4, 215 pounds and he just goes up and snatches the football. He's smooth. He's got great body control and he's a good kid. He won't give you any lip."
Pollack is extremely impressed with Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett's arm, but the off-field questions concern him. He says if the Bengals get Green at four then Dalton should be their man at 35.
"He knows where to go with it right away," Pollack said. "He's smart and he gets rid of it. I think if you get to that point in the draft, they're looking for a guy like Andy Dalton."
Pollack, naturally, has been watching defensive tape, too. He wonders if Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley is on cruise control after charting tape for a draft special in which it was easier to find Alabama's Marcell Dareus.
Ask Pollack if there is one guy in this draft that reminds him of himself and it's a guy definitely not on cruise control. Try Wisconsin defensive end J.J. Watt. After talking to Watt on his radio show and then conversing through a few text messages, Pollack discovered Watt liked the way he played and told Pollack how much he respected his hustle.
"I don't know where he found that old film; that must have been on Beta," Pollack said with a laugh. "You know his story, right? Started out at Central Michigan, transferred, and ended up working in a Pizza Hut to pay for his first year at Wisconsin. He tested well at the combine, good 40, good shuttle time. But he's just a hard-working, lunch pail kind of a guy."
Which is exactly how Pollack set a Georgia-record with 36 sacks in 44 starts. He had enough charisma and work-ethic substance that in the moments after the Bengals drafted him one club insider called Pollack a defensive version of Boomer Esiason.
And it's why Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis thought he could go against the book and convert a first-round projection and moved Pollack from defensive end to SAM. Despite a three-week holdout and some hamstring problems, it looked like the club had pulled if off in the final, heady month of that rookie season. Lewis, the former Ravens Super Bowl defensive coordinator who once coached the Steelers linebackers, envisioned Pollack as a latter-day Peter Boulware of Baltimore.
"I love Coach Lewis. He made sure there was no stone unturned. We watched film all the time after practice," Pollack said. "We'd watch Boulware, Levon Kirkland, Kevin Greene. I was always asking questions and he'd be there for me. I really liked playing linebacker. It's a position where you're always in the mix and you can make even more plays."
Five years after his draft and four years after his last tackle, Pollack is still watching tape.
"I need my football fix. If I didn't have it, I'd think I'd go crazy," said Pollack, who, just like everyone else, still wonders.