Watching Tom Brady and Randy Moss play Keep Away from the Redskins’ secondary the other night made you realize how much the game has changed in the NFL in the last decade or so. Granted, there’s only one Tom Brady - and only one Randy Moss. And granted, the Washington defense was keeping it pretty vanilla, this being the preseason and all. But still…
Even though Moss was tailed much of the time by DeAngelo Hall, whose strength is man-to-man coverage, the Patriots All-Pro managed six catches for 90 yards and touchdowns of 26 and 27 yards (not counting the 15-yard facemask penalty on Hall). It could have been worse for the Redskins, too, if Bill Belichick hadn’t given Randy the second half off.
The fact of the matter is the Shutdown Corner, as he’s affectionately called, is all but extinct in the NFL. You just don’t find cornerbacks anymore who can impact a game, week in and week out, the way Deion Sanders did in his prime - or the way Mike Haynes, Lester Hayes, Ronnie Lott, Rod Woodson or even Darrell Green did before him.
As Jerry Gray, the Redskins’ secondary coach, puts it, “It’s hard to be that kind of guy now.” Back when Gray played in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, “if you had a good corner, you’d use him to shut down one guy, you’d double the receiver on the other side and you’d pretty much nullify the passing game,” he says.
Nowadays, though, the top cornerbacks are less influential because offenses flood the field with so many receivers - sometimes five wideouts, sometimes multiple tight ends, sometimes backs who specialize as pass catchers. “The field has shrunk” for corners, Gray says. Instead of taking away half of it, as Deion did, the better cover men only take away “a quarter.”
Thus, the key to curtailing a Randy Moss or a Larry Fitzgerald isn’t having an all-world corner - though it never hurts. The key, Gray says, is “being good up front, being able to pressure the quarterback and playing smart on the back end.”
What teams are looking for in a cornerback, he goes on, is “a smart guy who can understand concepts” and play within a system “instead of a guy who can lock up a receiver” man-to-man. It sounds less than heroic, sure; but then corners aren’t the stars they used to be. It’s the safeties, players like Ed Reed, Troy Polamalu and Bob Sanders, who have become the household names - largely because they pick off more passes and have the freedom to make more big plays.
Only one cornerback in the league last year had more interceptions than Hall’s five (the Packers’ Charles Woodson, who had seven). So in the offseason, the Redskins signed DeAngelo to a six-year, $54 million deal. But is he worth it? Given how the game is played these days - and the way the position has evolved - is any corner worth nearly $10 million a year?
During the 2008 offseason, the Eagles gave Asante Samuel a six-year, $57 million contract - but they/he still couldn’t stop Fitzgerald (nine catches, 152 yards, three touchdowns) in the NFC title game. Not long before that, the 49ers secured Nate Clements’ services for $80 million over eight years. How’s that working out?
Then there’s Champ Bailey. He might be the best cover guy of his generation - and he’s got the $9 million average salary to show for it. But the Broncos’ defense is still abominable. So is the Raiders’, even though they’ve guaranteed Nnamdi Asomugha $28.5 million over the next two seasons. Makes you wonder whether the money might be better spent elsewhere.
The Steelers, after all, just won the Super Bowl with their vaunted Fire Zone Defense (described by Gray as “rushing five guys - only you don’t know which five - and playing zone behind it”). For 10 points, name Pittsburgh’s starting cornerbacks. (Answer: Ike Taylor and Bryant McFadden.)
Even Hall concedes the difficulty of trying to be a latter-day Deion in 2009, what with “the rules [favoring the offense], the schemes [defenses use] and the way [offenses] play.” But say this for him: He wants to be a Shutdown Corner. He relishes the opportunity - like the one he got against the Patriots - to cover the same receiver on every snap, regardless of where it might take him.
“I did it for three years in Atlanta,” he says. “And with Carlos [Rogers] out [of the New England game], I followed Randy all over the field. Whatever the team needs me to do. If you’re the best cover guy on the defense, why shouldn’t you be covering the best receiver man-for-man? If you can play on the left [side], you can play on the right. It’s all the same.”
Brave words in this era of the Incredible Shrinking Cornerback. It’ll be interesting to see whether Greg Blache wants to risk it this season, wants to put Hall head-up on certain wideouts (e.g. the Lions’ Calvin Johnson). Bucking a trend leaves a coach open to second-guessing - unless, of course, his stratagem works.