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"It's baffling," he says, "but I hit a streak where I felt that I had such a positive, driving force at work that I simply couldn't be beaten on a pass. I think I had four or five shutouts in there."
In the first playoff game Houston's Kenny Stabler tested Hayes six times and completed three passes, but Hayes intercepted two and ran one back 20 yards for a touchdown. Hayes also sacked Stabler twice on blitzes. Cleveland's Brian Sipe tried him five times, completing one—an 18-yarder to Reggie Rucker. Hayes picked off another two. The San Diego Chargers were a different story. Jefferson had beaten Hayes for two touchdowns in their first meeting of the season; there would be no fear here. But in the AFC title game in San Diego, Dan Fouts threw 17 times against Dwayne O'Steen's coverage on the other side, and only five against Hayes's. All five went to Jefferson. One was completed. On another, Hayes got his fifth postseason interception. The other three fell incomplete. Hayes's interception streak ended in the Super Bowl. Eight Philadelphia passes went his way, and three were completed.
A week later in the Pro Bowl in Hawaii, Hayes turned in one of the most remarkable cornerback performances in history. Ron Jaworski and Steve Bartkowski tried him 11 times. Only one pass was completed, a 15-yarder to Alfred Jenkins on third-and-22. Hayes also had one interception. His postseason report card: nine of 35 passes completed, no touchdowns, six interceptions. Pro Bowl included, for the season he had 19 interceptions; some cornerbacks don't pick off that many in a career.
The Raiders are flying to Detroit to play the Lions (they lost last Sunday 16-0 to make their record 2-2), and Hayes is sprawled in a window seat, watching the Rocky Mountains turn into the Great Plains. His shirt is light across his chest, his pants strain against his formidable thighs. Davis says the first thing he noticed about Hayes in college was his "raw power, his explosion," and yes, Hayes does give off a feeling of intense energy. There are two kinds of cornerbacks playing in the NFL, the smooth and graceful instinctive pass coverers, like the Washington Redskins' Lemar Parrish, and the physical types, who can be little, like the Rams' Pat Thomas, or big, like Hayes and the Steelers' Mel Blount. In Hayes's first two years at Texas A&M he was a 220-pound linebacker, but the Raiders melted him down to 205. The bump became his trademark. Not a push, not a timid brush by a defender who would prefer a safer style, but a meaningful bump, the Riddell technique. It's flirting with disaster. Miss your bump and you're chasing feet. It takes an unnatural amount of confidence to be a true bump-and-run cornerback. Plus pride. Tremendous pride is another of Hayes's trademarks, but now, in the fourth week of the 1981 season, that pride is being questioned by something Willie Brown has said.
Brown, one of the great cornerbacks in NFL history, works with the Oakland defensive backs, and he has been asked about Hayes's slow start. Lester had no interceptions in the first three games. In Minnesota the Vikings' Sammy White beat him on a non-scoring 44-yarder. What's the problem?
"He's forgotten about how hard he worked last year," Brown said, choosing his words carefully. "He's forgetting about what it takes to be a good cornerback. The concentration he had last year—well, it wasn't there in that game in Minnesota. He's doing things now that he wasn't doing last year. He's turning the wrong way, not concentrating on the receiver. He's being lackadaisical. He's not giving the respect to the receiver that he should. He doesn't think the ball's going to be thrown on him; he thinks it'll go somewhere else, and the next thing he knows it's thrown to his man and he has to bust a gut to get over in time."
The words might be a bit of a psychological spur. The old psych game is very big in Pride and Poise country, but whatever the words are, they have had the desired effect on Hayes. He is bristling.
" Willie Brown said that?" he says. "He said I'm showing a lack of concentration? Look, I know what the problem is and I'm living to correct it. It's a matter of technique, a wrong step. It's a matter of my stance, being cocked at an inside angle a smidgen too much. You know, you make All-Pro and it's almost like you're a marked man. Teams are homing in on every wrong step I make. I've never seen that before.
"But look at the three-game ratio compared to last year. Last year after three games I'd gotten three interceptions and been beaten for three touchdowns, two by Jefferson, one by Ricky Thompson of Washington. This year I have zero interceptions, but they've scored zero TDs on me. It's very easy to talk concentration from a coach's standpoint. It's an old clich�: If an All-Pro gets beaten, it's always lack of concentration or lack of fundamentals. Some people think I never should be beaten. Look, I live off HO and breathe the same air other poor mortals breathe. Every now and then it's going to happen that I get beaten on a pass. But as far as lack of concentration—that's a true falsehood." (Two days later against Detroit, Hayes will intercept his first pass and almost a second.)
Hayes stares out the plane window for a minute. Things still aren't settled.