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The perfect corner back is still just around the corner. This mythical man has the speed of a sprinter and he carries the weight of a shotputter.
Tom Brookshier, who was close to the perfect combination and who played with the Philadelphia Eagles for seven years, says, "You have to be big enough to come up on a run and stop a fullback like Jimmy Brown. And you have to be fast enough to take the best receiver on the other team man-to-man." Brookshier's football career ended two years ago when he broke his leg coming up to stop Willie Galimore, the fast but not very big Chicago Bear halfback.
"You give up a little size for the speed," Brookshier says, "because if you don't knock the fullback down there's a safety behind you to help and maybe you've slowed the big man enough for the safety to nail. But if you don't cover the receiver and he gets behind you it's Katie bar the gate."
Corner linebackers, playing closer to the line, usually are chosen for size rather than speed, since their primary responsibility is against the run; if they are forced to cover receivers, it is only on short patterns where they have backup help.
The corner back is the man who plays out on the wing. Pro defenses, as conceived today against the passing of the pro attack, are set up in three waves: the four men on the line of scrimmage who correspond to what used to be called linemen but are now, in many defenses, called the rushmen, since their first responsibility is to rush the passer; the three men just behind them—the middle and two corner linebackers—who combine some of the mobility of pass defense with some of the size and strength of the front line; and the secondary defenders.
A corner back is a member of the secondary, which might more properly be called the tertiary, since it is the third wave of defense. As the area of attack has expanded in both width and depth with the development of the passing game, the corner back's job has grown more important and more difficult.
The extensive use of the pass-and-spread attacks has changed the game of football as much as the mobile units of World War II changed the tactics of war. The old seven-diamond defense—seven men on the line, with the other four in a diamond shape behind and up close—had almost entirely a lateral responsibility. The linemen were concerned with an area, say, a yard deep along the line of scrimmage and some 10 yards wide, since the ends, tackles and guards on offense all played cheek by jowl. Depth was no problem; passes were seldom thrown and, if they were, they were not deep. So the effective area of attack covered about 10 square yards.
Today, with an end spread maybe 15 yards in one direction and a halfback flanked as far in the other, with passing attacks capable of striking 40 or 50 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, the whole aspect has changed. A defense can no longer mass its manpower to create a sort of Maginot Line in the narrow confines of a 10-yard striking area; it must also cover the rear and cover it fast. The area to be defended has exploded from 90 square feet to 13,500 square feet, and there are still only 11 men to do the job.
The linemen—or rushmen—must cover more lateral area, since three players—the linebackers—have been taken off the line to help in deep coverage. These linebackers must lend aid on lateral as well as deep coverage against passes. And the defensive backs, even the safeties, must be capable of coming up to the line of scrimmage to help defend against the run, although their first and by far more important assignment is to stop passes.
The loneliest man in this new and complex system of defense is the corner back. Because the offense has put flankers far out on either side, the defense has had to assign a man—the corner back—to cover these flankers. And since the flankers are generally the most dangerous receivers, the corner back in most defenses has the unenviable job of covering, unaided, the fastest and most evasive men on the other club. His position far out on the wing obviates any assistance, although he may occasionally receive a little help from a safety on a deep pass, or from a linebacker on a shallow one. But most of the time he is completely isolated.