WHEN ST. LOUIS played Oakland two years ago, one compelling matchup featured the Rams' Pro Bowl wideout Torry Holt against the Raiders' rising-star corner Nnamdi Asomugha. A fourth-year veteran at the time, Asomugha had never faced Holt, and the receiver's two TDs against Chicago the previous week gave Asomugha cause for concern. He spent game week refining his man-coverage technique, breaking down tape and conferring with his position coaches. Despite the cramming, Asomugha still felt underprepared and was eager for anything that could help him on game day. So he did what cornerbacks looking for an edge do: He called another corner, specifically, Green Bay's Charles Woodson, a former teammate and mentor in Oakland.
Thanks to a tip from Woodson, Asomugha says, he held Holt to four catches for 59 yards and, most important, kept him out of the end zone. Though Asomugha's performance didn't prevent a 20--0 Raiders loss, it did convince him of the value of networking with others who play his position. "I remember telling Charles that that was the best advice he had ever given me. We laughed!" And what was the tip? "I don't dare release [that]," says Asomugha, "until I know I never have to play [Holt] again."
Players at other positions might be loath to swap trade secrets with peers outside their team, but corners—the most vulnerable players on the field—often reach out to friends on other clubs, or even a stranger, for advice. Such conversations can touch on everything from a quarterback's tells to the habits of a coordinator, but they're dominated by talk of wide receivers. If the Redskins' Fred Smoot, for example, is about to face a receiver that his good buddy and former Vikings teammate Antoine Winfield played the week before, he won't hesitate to pick up the phone and ask, "Toine, what did he give you?" The Jets' Darrelle Revis says that as a rookie last year, he called 13-year veteran Ty Law of the Chiefs—both are from Aliquippa, Pa.—before each game. When the Raiders' DeAngelo Hall was a member of the Falcons, he'd watch not only his own tape but also that of his close friend and mentor Dré Bly of the Broncos, with whom he routinely exchanged critiques and clues.
To keep information flowing and insights secret, corners heed unspoken rules—one of which Hall broke two years ago. Before an Atlanta-Cincinnati game he contacted cornerback guru Deion Sanders for advice on defending Chad Johnson. Sanders told Hall to keep an eye on Johnson's gloves at the line of scrimmage because the receiver tended to tug on them if the ball was coming his way. The tip didn't do Hall much good—Johnson had six catches for 78 yards and a TD—but what was worse, Hall disclosed the tell to Johnson after the game. Within the cornerback fraternity the act was tantamount to treason. Says Asomugha, "I help receivers on my team every now and then, but I'm slow to do even that because they could end up my opponent the following year."
The dangers are obvious. "I could shut down Randy Moss for three quarters," says Smoot. "I could run three interceptions back. If he burns me to win that game, y'all have forgotten everything I've done. Ain't but two people going to love you after that: your wife, if you've got one, and your mama." And the only guys who'd understand are other members of the cornerback club.