Cornerbacks are tasked with slowing down the NFL's aerial movement. It's difficult, but not impossible. Shutdown corners still exist in the NFL (despite the grumblings of some retired players to the contrary), but the job has changed. Corners are under more pressure than they once were because teams pass more often than they used to — seven of the top eight players in career pass attempts per game are active. (And the recently retired Peyton Manning is the eighth).
Even in today's NFL, a corner will completely dominate a game every once in a while, shutting down all passes thrown his way. This has come to be known as putting a receiver on an island. The Jets' Darrelle Revis made the phrase famous in 2009 when his side of the field became Revis Island, because wideouts in that area felt stranded.
In the years since, many more islands have formed. Richard Sherman has helped make Seattle one of the stingiest defenses in the league. Patrick Peterson of the Cardinals has done the same in Arizona. This fall, look for an island to pop up in Washington. In the off-season, the Redskins made former Carolina Panthers star Josh Norman the highest-paid cornerback in history. Norman finished fourth in voting for 2015 NFL Defensive Player of the Year — the only cornerback to receive a vote. When quarterbacks dared throw in his direction, he made them pay, intercepting four passes and returning two for touchdowns.
CONFIDENCE IS KEY
It takes a special character to earn his own island. For that reason, corners have acquired a reputation as eccentric trash-talkers. In the 1990s, Hall of Famer Deion Sanders become famous for flamboyance, wearing flashy gold jewelry, high-stepping into the end zone, and earning the nickname Prime Time. No one today is quite like Sanders, but plenty of corners still exude confidence and bravado.
Norman is one such outspoken defender. An intense on-the-field battle with Odell Beckham Jr. of the Giants and the ensuing trash talk off the field gave a glimpse into Norman's bold personality. He also said on ESPN that playing against Atlanta's Julio Jones "completes" him, and that his favorite hobby is horseback riding, which he imitates for his touchdown dance.
The loudest are often the best. Sherman, for example, became a household name for his postgame rant after swatting the ball away in the final seconds of the 2014 NFC championship game. He had eight interceptions that year and had just made the play that sent his team to the Super Bowl.
AVOIDING THE FLAGS
Playing corner in the NFL is trickier than it used to be. Gone are the days when strength, speed, and size alone allowed corners to lock down receivers. Today, it takes control. The NFL favors its offenses, and so do the rules.
Pass interference. Illegal contact. Defensive holding. These three penalties haunt secondaries, forcing them to find a way to slow down wideouts without making too much contact. In recent years, officials have become much more strict in their enforcement of these rules. (Sherman argued that it was done to keep passing numbers up — and thereby make fantasy football more exciting.) In 2006, a total of 364 of those three penalties were accepted. Last season that number rose to 510, an increase of 40%.
In 53 career games, Norman has been flagged only twice for pass interference. To avoid making illegal contact with receivers, he takes full advantage of his senses.
"My hands are my eyes," he says. "I don't badger wide receivers. When I place my hand on them, it's like a soft touch. I'm keying in on the quarterback, and then I'm feeling the receiver and where he's at. You get in trouble when you overcommit yourself, and I don't do that."
Fast-forward to Monday night, September 12. Washington will open the season against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Norman will try to bring Antonio Brown, regarded by many as the best receiver in the world, to his island.
Norman, also known as the Dark Knight on game day, plans to do this by entering Batman Mode. "Making a play, saving the day, being that hero," Norman says. "I think that's what I'm cut out for."
Photos: Margaret Bowles/AP (Sherman), Gregory Shamus (Peterson)