A LIGHTNING ROUND of charades is unfolding on the edge of the field. The man doing the guessing is the cornerback, perched on the line of scrimmage—or, as he sees it, on a limb. He must distill the clues: The animated Peyton Manning is doing the hokeypokey behind center, picking his left foot up, putting his left foot down, and then, as if scratching an itch, he flicks the skin on his arm. Skin rash? No, skinny-post route. "He touches his arm, and the guy is going to run that route," says third-year Titans cornerback Cortland Finnegan, who faces Manning and the Colts twice a season in the AFC South. "Some quarterbacks tap their heads, and that means a go route." In the next instant a cornerback must apply split-screen vision, one eye still on the quarterback—a three-step drop indicates a quick route; a five-step portends deep trouble—and another on the receiver.
An intense hand of poker plays out. The Patriots' Randy Moss is breaking downfield in cornerback Quentin Jammer's shadow. In lockstep with Moss, the Chargers' Jammer is focused on the receiver's narrow hips. Don't bite on shimmies. Don't be a sucker for shakes. Hips are the directional arrows. Besides, Moss possesses more clever deceptions as a player gifted with height, agility and robotic eyes: He can make lids, lashes and sockets resist natural reflex. His eyes never widen at the sight of a spiral, eliminating a tip cornerbacks crave in determining when to turn and look for the pass. "Randy's really good at it," says veteran Green Bay cornerback Al Harris. Moss keeps gliding downfield as if on casters, with a strategically bored expression on his face. He gives up nothing, won't even lift a finger. Instead of raising his hands for the catch, another red flag for a defender, Moss lets the ball find him, allowing the pass to materialize in his grip, as if he has just plucked it from behind the cornerback's ear hole. "You can't panic," says Jammer, who confronted this scenario against Moss in a game on Oct. 12. "All you can do is make a play on the ball in his hands. I poked it out." Touchdown saved. Humiliation avoided.
Somewhere, a sportscaster, with clichés in the pocket of his tweed blazer and Ted Baxter in his voice, will have to tuck away his go-to nicknames for the poor, beaten cornerback: Toast, Grilled Cheese, Baked Alaska are popular. Anything charred, broiled or fried might be used to describe a position that is picked apart more than ever in the high-flying NFL. Embarrassment is part of the job description. Perhaps no corner has suffered more ignominy than the Saints' recently retired Fred Thomas, the hapless star of a YouTube clip entitled Worst Cornerback Ever. The four-minute, 35-second montage has drawn more than 135,000 views of Thomas flailing on at least 35 big pass plays. T.O., Ocho Cinco, Plaxico—he gets skunked by them all, as Iron Maiden's Man on the Edge, with its refrain "falling down, falling down," plays in the background.
That's just so wrong. HeHateMe isn't only for Rod Smart's jersey anymore. The conspiracy against cornerbacks isn't simply a viral phenomenon on the Internet; it's a contagion within the NFL rules, which, for the sake of fan-lovin' offense, have given receivers room to roam. No contact after five yards. No grabbing jersey fibers on a catch. The laws have been on the books for years, but only in 2004—after a leaguewide slump in offense, after Indianapolis complained about New England's clutching Marvin Harrison until he wrinkled in the AFC title game—did the NFL begin to enforce them strictly. Flag the culprits, the NFL declared. The persecuted cornerback was left with no other choice but to kill the zebras ... with kindness. "I stroke them before the game," Harris explains with a laugh. "I go talk to them. You know, 'Hey, ref, how you doing; how's it going to be today?' And he'll say, 'I'm all right, Al, but I'm calling it tight.' They always do."
Receiver freedom has been a boon for offensive coordinators with deep thoughts. In 2003 the Colts led the NFL with 261.2 passing yards per game; after Week 7 this season Drew Brees had the Saints on a magic carpet, passing for 318 yards per game. In 2003 two QBs threw for more than 4,000 yards; last year the number was seven, which might seem unlucky for the cornerback until you consider how the pay and prestige has escalated with the job hazard. In '07 the 49ers set the market for top corners, signing free agent Nate Clements to an eight-year, $80 million contract. Since then the Eagles' Asante Samuels and the Raiders' Nnamdi Asomugha and DeAngelo Hall also signed for around $10 million a season. "Now it's just as valuable having a great corner as a great receiver," says Rod Woodson, the 11-time Pro Bowl defensive back who retired in 2004. "I think you'll start seeing more kids want to play corner. Kids say, 'I want to be a quarterback' or 'I want to be Jerry Rice.' Those are the limelight positions. But cornerbacks have risen to a level where they're getting recognized. They're on TV just as much."
MORE THAN a few cornerbacks possess the ham gene handed down by Deion Sanders to a generation of showmen who embrace the heightened scrutiny. The attention makes some want to put on their dancing shoes after a big hit or interception or incomplete pass. Neon Deion, a nine-time All-Pro from 1991 through '99, made coverage cool as he played the role of barnacle, and then Barnum. He was an act to be followed. So some cornerbacks juke, others moonwalk—and one recently pole danced. On Oct. 6 against New Orleans, the Vikings' Antoine Winfield picked up a blocked field goal, darted 59 yards for a touchdown, then celebrated by sliding down the goalpost. The NFL fined him $10,000. "A lot of [corners] have swagger," Winfield says. "It's confidence."
A healthy self-esteem provides a shield for every touchdown given up, for each missed open-field tackle, for the high rate of failure. "You're more exposed than anyone else," Winfield says. "It's always the cornerback's fault." Every man who plays this most vulnerable position longs to be known as a shutdown corner. Clements's website, lockdown22.com, features his image next to a padlocked chain. Harris's depicts him unveiling his full Rastafarian 'do as he yells into a lens next to the headline FEAR THE DREADS.
Some cornerbacks are less disciples of Deion than of Denver's Champ Bailey, noted for his quiet consistency. He is solid, strong and 6 feet tall on thick soles. Finnegan, who like a lot of corners stands shy of 6 feet, is packed with muscle, giving his body the look of a stocking stuffed with rolls of quarters. He didn't aspire to a stage, though he grew up in north Florida, not far from Florida State, where Sanders received his Prime Time start. The Seminoles didn't recruit Finnegan; no elite program did. He was playing mostly safety at quaint Samford, in Alabama, when the Titans drafted him in the seventh round in 2006 and changed his career track. "I remember saying to myself, I definitely don't want to be a cornerback. They don't tackle," Finnegan says. "But now I get to blitz. Now I thrive on challenges."
Hubris can make a cornerback feel a half-foot taller, a mental victory given the common height differential between corners and wide receivers. Jammer gave up four inches to Moss if you believe the rosters, six inches if you believe your eyes, but few cornerbacks suffer a Napoleon complex. They are a secure bunch. "You've got to gamble," Finnegan says. "You gaze back into that receiver's eyes, and you bring it." Cornerbacks have a pool shark's mentality. They see angles; they take risks; they hone tricks. "I cheat a little bit," says Winfield. "If you show me something on film, trust me, the next week I'm going to play that route. If you do something different, well, I'll get beat." Of all the players on the field, the cornerback is arguably the most fearless, because he has the most to lose with each decision.
It doesn't matter if the defense is in man-to-man, Cover Two or Cover Three; it's always a catch-me-if-you-can matchup as the cornerback and receiver fly down the field, close enough to hear each other grunt, to sense each other's anxiety. In the lead-up to Super Bowl XLII, Moss suggested he could see fear in the eyes of a defensive back. Winfield senses it too when he watches his peers. "You can see fear by a cornerback's body language, if he's standing too far off a receiver, giving up too much cushion," Winfield says. "You can tell when a guy is afraid to play. You can see it."