Complex offenses have ended the days of the great cover cornerback
Posted: Wednesday October 29, 2003 4:42PM; Updated: Wednesday October 29, 2003 4:42PM
Mel Blount couldn't play in today's game. The Steelers' big, physically intimidating Hall of Fame cornerback would be legislated out of existence. Or moved to strong safety. Riding a receiver, steering him out of his pattern, shading him, all the things that used to draw praise from the defensive coaches would draw flags now.
The great turn-out-the-lights, one-on-one cover cornerbacks don't exist anymore. Deion Sanders, Darrell Green, Lester Hayes, Aeneas Williams, Mike Haynes, Albert Lewis, guys who'd spend so many afternoons locked in man-coverage, shutting down the enemy's best receiver, have been replaced by system cornerbacks. Be smart, don't screw up your zone assignments and for God's sake, don't miss the tackle -- that's the credo of today.
The offense, through formation, has destroyed the old Raiders' one-free defense, with man coverage all over the field and the safety free to roam. Today offenses will bring in four wideouts and spread them. The defenses had better go zone or they'll find themselves covering the fourth-best receiver, who isn't really that much worse than the best one, with their fourth-best cover corner, who's a lot worse than their No. 1.
"They're dictating that you have to go to zone coverage because they spread you out so much," says Minnesota strong safety Corey Chavous, who once was a cornerback. "It's amazing how many empty backfields you see these days."
So what we have now are double zones; the Cover Two, in which a corner and safety play the short and deep areas, respectively; the banjo coverage scheme, in which the corner and safety bracket a receiver, each taking a side; the zone blitz, which drops a lineman into the short zone, relieving a corner of that responsibility; and all manner of variations and switches off these basic coverage schemes. And what all this has done is erode the skills of the great one-on-one cover guys. Sure, there are corners who will show flashes on a given afternoon, but then next week they could give up two touchdowns.
"Me and Denard Walker, our left cornerback, were talking about this," Chavous says. "about how the day of the shut-down corner might be gone. As a fan, I sure would like to see how Deion would have done against, say, Andre Johnson of the Texans, playing him man to man all day, but I don't think we're ever going to see something like that."
If the offenses don't get 'em, the officials will. By 1977 defensive teams, led by the mighty Steelers, ruled the NFL. The league's competition committee, keyed by the Cowboys' Tex Schramm -- a promotions man, a trinket salesman -- decided this was bad for business. The offenses simply needed help scoring points. The fans deserved more scoring, he hollered, although no fan surveys were ever taken. I mean, the people in Pittsburgh liked their Steel Curtain defense just fine. Ditto the Minnesota fans with their Purple People Eaters or Denver with its Orange Crush or Dallas with its Doomsday Defense. No, said the league, the rules must be changed. So the cornerbacks' legal bump zone was cut from unlimited space to five yards, and the holding rules for offensive lineman were liberalized.
It was the start of a process of restricting the defense and helping the offense that is still going on, as the pass interference rules get pickier and pickier.
"They're giving the cover corners an even smaller window than they had before," says Scott Pioli, the Patriots' director of player personnel. "Now the guys who play hard at the corner get flagged all the time. What players like Hayes and Lewis did so well, steering a receiver with their body, is one of the arts that is now lost. The great cover corner is absolutely rare and special."
"When I was playing," says Mike Giddings Jr., a former wideout at Illinois who works for Pro Scout, Inc., a private scouting service used by 15 NFL teams, "a cornerback would backpedal and turn and get on your inside hip, and it was an effective means of steering you. You'd climb up his hip and fall. In those days it was considered great coverage. Now they'd call interference on it."
"You've got to tweak your game to the rule changes," Chavous says. "Now it's a flag if you turn into a guy while trying to make a play. It didn't used to be that way. I got flagged one time for turning my head. 'You didn't turn it away,' the official said. Now why would I want to turn away from a ball that was coming my way?"
According to Bill Walsh, who bears the title of "consultant" with the 49ers these days, it's becoming almost impossible to find great corners. The receivers coming out of college far outnumber them.
"You'll find 15 receivers to every two cornerbacks," he says. "When your scouts get together they'll be talking about all kinds of receivers at every school. Corners? Well, there's that guy in the Northeast, and one in the South and one on the Coast..."
"Who would want to play the position these days?" says Raiders former All-Pro tight end Todd Christensen. "In this era of self-promotion and TV highlight reels, the better a corner plays, the more anonymous he becomes. What's his reward for doing his job well? No one throws to his side."
Well, being a historian, I still feel that the great bump-and-run cornerbacks of the past, such as Willie Brown and Night Train Lane, were such good athletes that they would adjust their games. They'd play lighter and change their style. But someone like the 49ers' J.J. Johnson, a magnificent coverage guy who I believe ranks with Deion as the greatest corner who ever lived, would, through pure skill, figure out a way to conform to today's game. He and Deion would be precious antiques, admired and revered, although not necessary a match to the room in which they'd be showcased.
"Defense today involves tremendous mental preparation," Giddings says. "In the old days, pass defenders would line up and play and make the quarterback beat them. Now they try to confuse him."
Just to avoid further confusion, I've dipped into the roster of today's cornerbacks and tried to sort out a few of them for you, based purely on personal choice.
BEST CORNERBACK FOR THIS ERA: Ronde Barber, Bucs. Basically a zone guy who has good man-to-man skills -- when needed. Smart, fine ball reactor. When they're in the nickel, he goes inside, and when he and Derrick Brooks are manning an area, few passes for significant yardage will be completed there. I like Barber better inside than outside.
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BEST COVER CORNERS, MAYBE, SOMETIMES, I THINK: Champ Bailey, Redskins; Sam Madison and Patrick Surtain, Dolphins; Charles Woodson, Raiders. Well, they should be great, but they're inconsistent. Surtain is a natural man-coverage guy who showed what he was capable of last Monday night when he undercut David Boston twice on two slants and came up with a pair of picks. At times, though, he has looked confused, maybe because the Dolphins are playing more zone now. Madison doesn't seem to be fully back from last year's injuries. Woodson and Bailey are outstanding at times but have lapses in concentration, and Bailey simply misses too many tackles. Detroit's Dre' Bly is a gambler but has the talent to move to a higher level.
BEST CORNERBACK PLAYING THE FORCE: Antoine Winfield, Bills. Smaller than most at barely 5-foot-9, 180 pounds, but he's a deadly tackler who plays with a real passion.
LOST A STEP BUT STILL EFFECTIVE: Troy Vincent, Eagles. Has had shut-down afternoons in the past. Knows the angles.
CORNER I'D MOST LIKE TO HAVE COVERING A BIG WIDEOUT: Bobby Taylor, Eagles. Can get a bit rough, even with today's rules, and seems to know how to get away with it. A real man out there.
UP AND COMING: The Broncos' 6-4 1/2, second-year corner, Lenny Walls, was drawing raves early in the season, but there's a caveat here. There never has been an effective cornerback this tall. The next tallest corner now playing regularly today is 6-2. Scouts mention a lack of fluidity when a cover guy is too big. The Vikings' Brian Williams is having a fine season so far, although the Giants gave him trouble last Sunday. He played lights out against the Lions' Charles Rogers in Week 3. Nick Harper of the Colts was off to a hot start, and the Seahawks' Marcus Trufant looks like the best of the rookie DBs.
MOST OVERRATED: Dale Carter, Saints. At one time he was effective in all phases of the game. Now he's OK near the line, but downfield he watches people run away from him.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Paul Zimmerman covers the NFL for the magazine and SI.com. His Power Rankings, "Inside Football" column and Mailbag appear weekly on SI.com.