CORNERBACKS ARE human motion detectors. They notice nuance. When Terrell Owens leans on a defensive back's body, it means he's about to dash the opposite way, a good reason why cornerbacks cannot afford wasted movement. "One little hop, and that's three inches," Woodson says. "And that's a ball going over your hand for a catch." Cornerbacks are film students of human patterns. They know Chad Johnson can wiggle or circle his way to just about any route. "The best [wide receiver] I've covered is Chad," says second-year Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis. "In Cincinnati's offense he has the freedom to make any move he wants to." Some routes are more easily defended, but the timing patterns induce night sweats, particularly the fade to the corner of the end zone, when a pass arches over the receiver's back shoulder, landing in a spot unreachable to anyone but the quarterback's target.
The skinny post is devious, too. Just because a cornerback knows it's coming—Manning might flick his skin all day long—doesn't mean he can stop a play one cornerback calls "a bitch to cover." As the receiver plants downfield and breaks inside, the ball is already whistling past the cornerback's head. Clairvoyance is the only defense. "First time I played against the Colts, I was on the field before the game," Harris says of watching Indy run the route in warmups. "And my teammate in Philly, Troy Vincent, well, Troy never went out pregame. He stayed in the locker room and did his prayer. But I'm like, 'T, come on out here, you've got to see this play.'"
Not every pass play requires decoding. Some moments are just as they seem: "If your man is running like dogs are chasing him ... you know the ball is coming, and it's going deep," Winfield says. "If a receiver is jogging, I pretty much relax." Receivers, if you ask a cornerback, treat contact like cooties. Really, how many crossing patterns does Moss run? But then there is Ravens receiver Derrick Mason, human projectile. "I mean to tell you, I could have slept for two days and gone into hibernation after playing him," says Finnegan. "On run plays he'd want to lock up every single time. And the whole game, he was just talking. It was talk-talk-talk, block-block-block. He'd say, 'I'm going to wear you out all day.' It was constant. All you can do is just smile and chuckle, and when you get a good hit on him, you just smile a little bigger."
Comeuppance can soothe a cornerback's weary body and mind. These are moments to indulge in because so many others—all the mistakes that cry out for a highlight film—wind up on an endless loop on SportsCenter, for everyone to witness. Friends see the clip and text a few jabs. Family members watch the goof and deliver jokes at Thanksgiving. "I have a 12-year-old son who's a corner," says Harris. "He's been doing drills since he was two. He'll see a highlight and say, 'Daddy, you didn't get a jump on that one, did you?' And I'll say, 'Let's turn off that TV.' Personally, I can't watch it."
What about the other cornerback highlight? The big hit that turns a game around, the strip of a ball that leads to a turnover, the interception to prevent a score? "Oh, that one? Oh, I can watch that all day long," Harris says, laughing. "I'm like, Hey, when's the next SportsCenter? Keep that TV on."
Don't touch that dial. Can't the cornerback—a.k.a. Fried Shrimp and Scorched Earth—get a little love?