NASHVILLE -- Though at least a few National Football League quarterbacks might dispute the results, a recent Sports Illustrated poll of the league's players rated Pittsburgh Steelers defensive back Troy Polamalu as the NFL's most liked player.
Fifth on that list?
The QB who will face Polamalu today -- the Tennessee Titans' Matt Hasselbeck.
"I guess that means I've got some work to do," Hasselbeck joked late Thursday afternoon when told of the poll. "Actually, I kind of wish I was a little less liked, to be honest with you."
He is quickly becoming beloved in the Music City. Arriving in late July after Seattle cut him loose following the lockout, Hasselbeck has led the Titans to a 3-1 record heading into today's 1 p.m. kickoff at Pittsburgh, and he has eight touchdown passes, just three interceptions and a 104.7 quarterback rating.
Yet numbers are far from the only reason the Titans sought him out.
"One of the big reasons we brought him in, other than the quarterback need, is the leadership that we thought he would bring," coach Mike Munchak said. "When you have success right away like he did, that helps. That makes it easier for him to spread his message. But this is a guy who brings instant credibility, a guy who's proven again and again that he knows how to win in this league."
Or as Denver Broncos safety Brian Dawkins noted after watching Hasselbeck drive the Titans 95 yards in the closing minutes for a victory two weeks ago, "He's a veteran guy; he's not going to get rattled. We got to him a couple of times, [but on the winning touchdown] he was able to step back a little farther and make the throw. He's a pro's pro."
Hasselbeck has downplayed his leadership skills, saying after the Denver win, "The word 'leader' takes on all different kinds of descriptions. Because I play quarterback, sometimes that label comes to you right away. But we have a bunch of guys who lead in all different kinds of ways. Some guys lead in the weight room; some guys lead in the film room. It's kind of a team effort."
Nor does he want too much made of the fact that his passer rating is second only to New England's Tom Brady in the AFC at the moment.
"It's just four games," Hasselbeck said Thursday. "Let's not get too carried away yet. There are [QBs] you know can play and there are guys who are still fooling people."
Asked which one he is, Hasselbeck smiled and said, "That's for you guys to figure out."
Figuring out how to stop the Titans could be more difficult this week with fullback Ahmard Hall back from his banned-substance suspension. The veteran blocker should further open holes for Chris Johnson, who had his first 100-yard rushing game of the season last week at Cleveland.
"It's good to have [Hall] back. He can do a lot of things for us," Munchak said. "He looks really good so far."
Yet four games along, no one in Titans blue looks better than their quarterback, who was on the losing end against the Steelers in Super Bowl XL as a member of the Seahawks.
"Every big game you lose sticks with you," Hasselbeck said. "We lost the [Massachusetts] state title game to Brockton High my senior year by a score of 18-17, and that still hurts."
Yet physically, despite the Titans playing without wideout Kenny Britt the rest of the year, the Steelers actually are hurting more. Intimidating All-Pro defensive lineman James Harrison is out for a month, and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger could be a late scratch due to a sore foot.
Steelers veteran receiver Hines Ward told the Pittsburgh media this week that none of that will matter once the Titans take the field.
"We have a lot of guys who are [ticked] off right now," Ward said of the Steelers' 2-2 start. "We know we're not playing good football."
Which brings us back to Hasselbeck, a three-time Pro Bowler who may be playing the best football of his life.
"There's still a lot of work to be done," he said. "But this was also a good fit for me here. A lot of pieces were already in place."
Maybe enough for the fifth nicest guy in the league to finish first.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...
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