"He was a master at conversation," Ross says. "He had a new line for every play. He'd say, "Young blood, you shouldn't even be out here, you know that?' Then he'd say, 'You're going to learn about Raider football. Commitment to excellence is going to be on your butt.' Then, 'Look behind you, there's a lot of green, and Deron isn't there to help.' " Branch caught one pass for 18 yards, and in the second period Ross returned an interception 71 yards for a touchdown. At the end of the season he was voted the Mack Lee Hill Award as the Chiefs' most courageous rookie.
The three other defensive backs look at Ross admiringly. With Cherry it's a little different. Respect, yes, but it's more of an unspoken kind of thing. He's the guy who pushes the buttons.
Cherry has been an All-Pro for four straight years and the NFL's leading interceptor during that period. He is physically gifted, but that's a relatively small factor in his success. The one constant in Cherry's athletic career has been his ability to identify a problem, analyze it and then figure out how to solve it. He was an honor student at Palmyra ( N.J.) High, where he was a quarterback who called his own plays and a free safety. They still talk about a play against Gloucester in the finals of the South Jersey playoffs. Cherry read an option play so quickly that he stole the ball from the quarterback coming down the line and ran 50 yards for a touchdown.
His problem coming out of Rutgers in 1981 was that he had a No. 1 draft choice's mind but a free agent's body. He was 5'11", 185 pounds and his 40 times were in the high 4.7's, low 4.8's, which would have been pretty nifty if he were a defensive end. But he had a hook: His defensive coordinator at Rutgers, Ted Cottrell, got a job as linebacker coach with the Chiefs, and he knew Cherry had been a good punter in college. So Cottrell got him into camp.
Cherry didn't beat out the incumbent punter, Bob Grupp, and he didn't survive the last cut—Burruss, the third-round pick, was the rookie K.C. kept—but in the third game strong safety Herb Christopher pulled a thigh muscle. As a result, Burruss became the starter, and Cherry got a spot on the roster, eventually working in as a nickelback. He had a knack for figuring out what the offense could do, but with 4.8 speed, so what?
"I worked with track men in the off-season and got my speed down into the 4.6's," says Cherry. "My bench press went from 250 to 335. My weight went from 185 to a solid 195."
In 1983, when All-Pro free safety Gary Barbaro held out, Cherry became the starter, and his Pro Bowl streak began. He had seven interceptions in '83 and became a master of sneaking in from the quarterback's blind side. "Films tell you what you want to know about a quarterback," he says. "About everything, actually. That's why our unit spends so much time studying film together. You might not see things the first time. The key is the second, third and fourth look. Some quarterbacks, like Marc Wilson, are predictable. They'll throw where they're looking. Others, like Dan Fouts and Jim Plunkett, always try to look you off. Plunkett tries to use his upper body and shoulders to fake you out, so you have to be patient and wait until he brings up his arm."
Gifted with an almost freaky field of vision, Cherry is the all-seeing eye for the secondary. He sets the coverages and switches people out of alignments that don't seem right. "We're the patrol cops," Lewis says, "and Deron's our switchboard operator. Without him we wouldn't know where the crimes are."
"Before the snap we're asking him to look through the guard and tackle into the backfield triangle," says defensive backfield coach Dave Brazil. "He has to see five players before the snap, and he can do that. If it's a run, he has to call it instantly. If it's a pass he has to see the quarterback and all five receivers. I'd never been around anyone who could see all five, but he can. In the past three years there have been maybe 10 blown coverages exploited by the other team, but Deron reacted and covered them. He sees everything, every mistake."
"On a lot of teams a linebacker makes the calls for the whole defense," says Cherry. "I'm glad they let me call the coverages. I can see everything that happens, the breaks, the snap. I can see the receivers and the backfield motion. Sometimes I use a color to call my change-ups, sometimes a number. It's never the same."