- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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Our parents love to tell us how difficult life was back in the day. Walking to school in three feet of snow. No cell phones or email. The two-martini lunch. (Whoops.) Self-esteem was an utterly foreign concept.
Oh, and playing defensive back in the NFL.
Nnamdi Asomugha, the Philadelphia Eagles' stellar cornerback, used to hear it all the time from Hall of Fame corner Willie Brown when he was with the Raiders.
"Willie was always saying how tough it was," Asomugha said, laughing. "We'd watch some of his old films and he'd give me advice on technique. I'm sure it was tough, but he was hitting guys 20 yards down the field before the ball was in the air!
"It's like an all-star game now. Fans want to see points. The higher-ups know that, and make life a lot harder on us. I think -- I don't think, I know -- the cornerback position is the most difficult position in all of sports."
More than a dozen people interviewed for this story think he might be right -- of course, most of them were DBs. Quarterbacks, despite those hell-bent pass-rushers, mostly control their own destiny.
Cornerbacks, specifically, and defensive backs in general, have everything stacked against them. They are the proverbial fire hydrants at a dog show, shark bait, crash-test dummies, the Washington Generals playing the Harlem Globetrotters -- doomed to fail again and again.
Granted, it's never been easy for defensive backs:
• The receiver is running forward. At the outset, a defensive back is running backward.
• The receiver and his quarterback know where he's going. A DB doesn't.
• More often than not, the receiver is both taller and heavier than a defensive back. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the average corner is giving two inches and nine pounds to a wide receiver; safeties spot four inches and 49 pounds to tight ends.
Today, a number of emerging factors make it even harder to defend the pass:
• Officials seem to be itching to throw their yellow flags for the inadvertent bump or ill-placed hand past the 5-yard chuck zone; as a result, pass interference and defensive holding calls are at their highest rate in eight years (0.92 penalties per game).
• Quarterbacks are protected like fine china, meaning they have more time and space in which to operate.
• Since last year's crackdown, high hits across the middle are scarce. Even hard hits that appear to be clean are drawing flags. As a result, receivers are more willing to extend themselves for the catch with little worry of reprisal.
Deshea Townsend, who played 13 seasons as an NFL defensive back and is now in his first year as the Arizona Cardinals' secondary coach, said today's game is like "flag football," and the "world's best athletes" have an "impossible" task.
For all these reasons, teams find themselves compelled to pass. More than ever. The percentage of passing plays to run plays is trending toward an all-time record, more than 58 percent. The record for passing yards per game (443.1) is likely to be shattered; through 10 weeks, it's 463.3.
Think about it this way: If an offense is on the 50-yard line, the four, five or six defensive backs are responsible for defending a staggering 25,000 cubic feet of airspace. All it takes is a six-inch window to complete a pass.
Teams understand this, which is why there is no such thing as a third-down defense anymore. Nickel backs often start against three- and four-wide receiver sets. In Week 8, Ben Roethlisberger and the retro-run Pittsburgh Steelers threw the ball 50 times in beating the Patriots.
"As Bill Belichick used to say, 'Television didn't pay billions of dollars to see 6-3 games,'" said ESPN analyst Eric Mangini, a former head coach for the Jets and Browns who served as Belichick's defensive backs coach in New England when they won three Super Bowls. "He was talking about the lack of offensive pass interference calls at the time, but it's true today.
"You don't want to be a DB. There's no tougher position in the game."
An impossible task?
Eric Weddle, as the San Diego media delighted in pointing out, had failed to make the Pro Bowl and produced only six interceptions in four previous seasons when the Chargers signed him to a five-year, $40 million contract in July.
But through Week 10, the free safety -- the Chargers' last line of defense -- was tied for the NFL lead with five interceptions.
"As a DB, you have to be a jack-of-all-trades," he said. "You have to have great instincts and, more than anything, be consistent. You have to be fast enough to stay with the wide receiver and big enough to make tackles in the run game."
Todd McShay, an ESPN draft analyst, broke down the delicate dance between receiver and defensive back:
"As a receiver, I dictate where I'm going. I have one thing to focus on -- separating from the DB. The defensive back, playing in space, has two things to worry about: the receiver and when the ball is coming. A lot of guys can cover. They have the height, the weight, the speed, the fluid hips to turn and mirror the receiver. But the difference between the good ones and the great ones is ball skills. To stick with the guy and be able to locate the ball over your shoulder -- which, oh, by the way, could be coming at any time -- it's so hard."
All of these issues make Dennis Thurman's life exceedingly difficult. He was a cornerback in the league for nine seasons, from 1978-86, but he's been coaching defensive backs for more than twice that long.
"They've turned it into a game of pitch-and-catch," said Thurman, in his third season as Jets secondary coach. "They've made it fast-break basketball on grass. They're allowing wide receivers to push off at the top of their routes. They push you away and very seldom do they call it.
"If I was coaching wide receivers, I'd coach them to do it, too."
In 2010, offenses threw only 27 passes in the direction of Asomugha -- and completed only 10. That's pretty much the definition of a lock-down, cover corner.
"It was probably a couple more than that," Asomugha allowed. "But when you put the work in, you're hoping for those kind of results."
The bottom-line result for the unrestricted free-agent back in July was a five-year, $60 million contract from the Eagles. Asomugha struggled earlier this year when Philadelphia played a lot of zone defense, but recently he has been deployed more in man-to-man schemes.
Asomugha, who has three interceptions, smiles when people bring up his windfall.
"The money doesn't make the job any easier," he said. "I'll be on the field for 70 plays, and you have to be on for every single play. I'll go 68 out of 70 plays, lights out, and then, the two they find me -- all of a sudden you had a bad game."
And then he laughed.
"I love having these conversations," he said. "I get to complain."
The back-shoulder throw, which has become enormously popular, is another source of complaint.
"If it's executed right," Weddle said, "it's just about impossible to stop. All you can do when you pick up the ball is to shoot your hands between the receivers' and hope to knock it loose."
Said Townsend: "When the ball comes in, usually underthrown, it's too late by the time you get your head turned around. It's either a catch or a penalty."
Antrel Rolle, the Giants' 2010 Pro Bowl safety, says you have to read a receiver's eyes and literally attempt to play through him.
"If your timing isn't perfect," Rolle said, "you lose. A quarterback can screw up and it's only second-and-10. If a DB screws up, it's a TD. You have to have amnesia to survive in this job."
Tipping the scale toward offense
Paul Krause, a fearless 6-foot-3, 200-pound free safety, played four seasons for the Redskins and another dozen for the Minnesota Vikings. Although he intercepted 81 passes -- still the NFL record -- he had to wait 19 years before he was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1998.
Today, he is still fearless.
"Right now," Krause said from his home in Minnesota, "they can't hit anybody. It's just about ridiculous what the league has done to the game of football. When I played, you could hit them with your hands and elbows, as long as the ball wasn't in the air. Wide receivers, running backs, knew to look for you. Now, they don't have to.
"It's not football as it used to be, it's football for television. When I played, they threw it, what, 25 times a game? My goodness, if I was playing now I'd have 100 interceptions."
In Krause's later years, the NFL began to tweak the receiver-defensive back relationship in favor of the offense. Here's a synopsis of its evolution, encapsulated by Joel Bussert, the league's vice president of player personnel and a historian with few peers:
- In 1974, in response to the growing emphasis on bump-and-run coverage, a rule was installed stating that a pass receiver could only be chucked once by a defender after he had proceeded to a point 3 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Any number of bumps was permissible in the 3-yard zone, and a receiver could be bumped by more than one defender beyond the 3-yard zone -- but no more than once per defender. In 1977, a defender could contact an eligible receiver either in the 3-yard zone or once beyond the zone, but not both. This did not solve the problem of a receiver being bumped by multiple defenders as he tried to work his way downfield. In 1978, a defender could establish and maintain contact with an eligible receiver only within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. But beyond the 5-yard zone, no contact -- other than incidental -- by any defender was permitted. Pass-blocking rules changed so that blockers could extend their arms and open their hands in keeping a pass-rusher away from the quarterback.
Which brings us to the New England Patriots, who are one of the best examples of how to exploit defensive backs -- and how to be exploited. Through Week 10, the schizophrenic Patriots were ranked No. 1 in passing offense (326.0 yards per game) and No. 32 in passing defense (308.9).
Quarterback Tom Brady has a set of diverse weapons -- receivers Wes Welker and Deion Branch and tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. Hernandez and Gronkowski, who burned the Jets for two touchdowns in Week 10, run like wide receivers. Like Jimmy Graham in New Orleans and Green Bay's Jermichael Finley, they are matchup nightmares. The old Cover 2 defense, featuring two deep safeties, has been getting strafed by these hybrid tight ends.
And although New England's offense takes advantage of weak secondaries, the Patriots' DB corps is one of the league's thinnest groups. Three of the four cornerbacks, at one point, were undrafted, and all four were unwanted by other teams. Steelers receiver Hines Ward said he could have played with an ankle injury against New England in Week 8, but "wasn't really concerned" because "we felt we could exploit their secondary." Toward the end of the Jets game, receiver Julian Edelman was actually lined up at DB.
Ten minutes after Krause had finished his discourse on the degree of difficulty for DBs, he called back with some more thoughts. He (correctly) savaged the art of tackling in the league today and closed with this haunting thought:
"The way [coach] Bud Grant wanted me to play, I wasn't up on the line of scrimmage making the hard stick. He wanted me back there making sure somebody didn't score.
"That's pressure. You're back there all alone, in front of God and everybody, and if you miss it, it's a touchdown."
There once was an engaging defensive back from the University of Kansas named Elvis Patterson. He had a nice little NFL career, playing for four teams over 10 seasons. He won a Super Bowl ring in 1986 with the Giants, where head coach Bill Parcells sentenced him to immortality by wryly dubbing him "Toast."
Parcells, an old defensive hand, knew every defensive back gets burned once in awhile. Even today, there's a little "Toast" in every pass defender.
On rare occasions, even Darrelle Revis.
"More corners are pressing now, but eventually passing off [to safeties]," explained Thurman, Revis' position coach. "What Revis does is he pretty much eliminates many of the things wide receivers can do. His press technique is probably the best in football."
Oddly enough, according to Thurman, Revis' patience is one of his greatest assets. Remember the scene in "Raiders of the Lost Ark" when Harrison Ford, as Indiana Jones, watches the master swordsman go through his whirling, slicing and dicing gyrations -- and then, with disdain, just shoots him? That's what Revis does on virtually every play.
"He waits for the receiver to do his thing, a lot of motion and making all the jukes and then he says, 'OK, I got you,'" Thurman said. "He's got incredibly strong arms, wrists and forearms. He consistently gets two hands on the wide receiver most get one.
"With two hands, he can jam or reroute most guys."
In many minds, Revis is the early line pick for Defensive Player of the Year.
Good defensive backs understand they are working against overwhelming odds -- but simply don't care.
"Here's the thing," Asomugha said. "I like the challenge. As a defensive back, you have to be so in tune mentally, physically. You can't take a single snap off. Unlike the wide receivers -- that's the easiest position.
"I don't like them much."
Similarly, Weddle said, "I like the pressure -- it's all good. I have a lot of confidence when I'm in a position where I need to make the play."
Townsend agreed, saying, "Everybody at this level can run. There are some better athletes out there, but sometimes lesser athletes with a stronger mentality win out."
McShay said the league is beginning to recognize the value of talented defensive backs. In the period from 2009-11, he said, 27 more cornerbacks were drafted than from 2006-08, including nine more in the first three rounds.
Weddle, a second-round pick in 2007, was a terrific receiver as a junior at Alta Loma High School in California and was recruited by Mountain West and Pac-12 schools to catch the ball. The first available opening at Utah, though, was on defense. Weddle played nine games at right cornerback -- and made the Freshman All-America team.
"Glamorous?" Weddle asked. "Not exactly. But I ended up in the right spot."
Asomugha also was an offensive threat as a California high schooler. He caught 23 passes for 408 yards and six touchdowns as a senior -- and completed 14 of 22 passes for 192 yards and two touchdowns. He was the No. 37 overall pick in the 2007 draft, after quarterback Kyle Boller.
Does he ever wish he was on the other side of the ball?
"No," he said, laughing. "No regrets. None."
Greg Garber covers the NFL for ESPN.com.