By: Chris Dagonas
Cornerback might be the loneliest position in football. No one notices you when you’re playing well, and if you make a mistake, the whole world knows it. A 3-yard separation behind a wide receiver can seem as impossible to cross as an ocean, especially with 70,000 people watching and cheering (or booing).
It’s considered a premier position on the defense, one that teams will happily pay big bucks to acquire in free-agency. A team that happens to draft one who turns elite in his first or second season is sitting on a gold mine.
There are two types of coverages that cornerbacks are expected to have mastered. The first, man-to-man coverage, which is exactly as it sounds, requires the shadowing of an offensive player for the entirety of the play. The other is zone coverage, which is more tactical and requires a deeper understanding of the game. (As I can attest after having attempted, and mostly failed, to install a zone defense with my Grade 6 girls’ basketball team). Most teams generally lean one way or the other about 70 percent of the time, so as long as that cornerback can understand either one or the other, he is good within that system. Some of the league’s more cerebral defensive coordinators, in an attempt to confuse the quarterback, will employ a mixture of both. For that, they require players who understand the subtleties of both man and zone coverage. Those guys usually end up being considered the best in the league.
As recently as 14 months ago, Darrelle Revis was considered the league’s best cornerback. He was coming off an All-Pro season with the New York Jets, but in a Week 3 game against the Miami Dolphins, tore his ACL and was ruled out for the rest of the year. That left a void at the top of the NFL’s cornerback pyramid, and several candidates rose to the challenge.
Though the debate is nearly impossible to settle, most NFL watchers would probably agree that Seattle’s Richard Sherman and Arizona’s Patrick Peterson are the two best right now. Younger up-and-comers include Cleveland’s Joe Haden and Tennesee’s Alterraun Verner, the former of which I have discussed before, while the latter has emerged this season as a potential Pro-Bowler.
The position requires, as most others in football, speed, quickness and agility. Unlike many other positions, cornerbacks also require a stamina unmatched by many other sports, let alone other football players.
Watch as Haden jumps the route and picks off Andy Dalton’s pass for AJ Green and returns it for the defensive touchdown. Haden had to quickly read the play, completely alter his physical momentum, and jump back into the path of the pass.
But the one defining muscle that sets cornerbacks apart is not their arms or legs; it’s their mouths. Every cornerback must be well-trained at the art of trash talking. Cornerbacks are like the yipping little pups that never stop barking, but rely on the big dogs to handle the biting. Here is a clip of the aforementioned Sherman against the Vikings all Sunday afternoon.
By any measure, the undisputed king of cornerback trash talking is the New England Patriots’ Aqib Talib. Since his college days, Talib was widely known for jawing at opposing receivers, tight ends, quarterbacks, linemen, coaches, fans and anyone else who would listen.
He brought that quality with him to the NFL, first with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, then last year and this year with the Patriots. He has also been involved in some off-field issues, but is respected throughout the league by players and coaches alike.
On Monday night, Talib was responsible for shadowing infamous Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith. Like Talib, Smith is a rampant trash talker, has been through more than his fair share of off-field issues, and is tremendously respected around the league.
As you might have expected, Talib and Smith did not get along very well. There was this. And this. And, after the Panthers had defeated the Patriots and Talib had left the field with a nagging injury, there was this.
Smith and Talib did get physical a couple of times, but overall kept their cools and probably earned a mutual respect for each other. Talib, responding to Smith’s “Ice up, son!” comment, said that he did not take it personally, and called Smith a “great competitor.”
This is exactly what I like to see in professional athletes. They battled it out for 60 minutes on the field, but left their tension on the field and were still able to say something positive about each other. Even Smith’s comment was more tongue-in-cheek than actually insulting.
Held against the staged fights of the hockey world, or the bench-clearing brawls of baseball, and the NFL looks almost gentlemanly by comparison. Sure, the words used and the context in which they are used might be far from gentlemanly, but there is definitely a shared understanding between players that a few curse words and name-calling add to the excitement, not the brutality.
Trash talk on, you brave gridiron warriors. It makes for great viewing.