At some point in the not-so-distant past—probably around the time Terrell Owens and Chad Johnson were at their shucking-and-jiving peak—the National Football League gave itself over to the Age of the Wide Receiver.
Rule changes made it infinitely more difficult to adequately and consistently cover a lightning fast, physical beast without committing some manner of infraction.
The game soon adapted.
Whether or not the garrulous talents on the peripheries of most offensive formations actually drive success and failure on the gridiron, the perception in many circles is that a stud receiver is one of the fundamental elements to successfully procuring a Super Bowl ring—right up there with an elite quarterback and gnarly defense.
Skeptical? You shouldn't be.
Super Bowl XLIII
The game gave us the dueling blinders authored by the best wide receiver in the league—Arizona Cardinal Larry Fitzgerald—and the best wide receiver on that day—the Most Valuable Player and Pittsburgh Steeler Santonio Holmes.
Super Bowl XLII
No football fan will ever forget David Tyree's absurd catch and the city of New York will never forget Plaxico Burress height of glory, nabbing the game-winning catch to crush the New England Patriots' undefeated dreams.
Super Bowl XLI
I'll take the Rex Grossman Defense i.e. any game in which he figured prominently is, by definition, an anomaly.
Super Bowl X
Despite all the hoopla surrounding the Steelers' Jerome Bettis returning home to Detroit to play for the championship, it was wide receiver Hines Ward who stole the show.
The game's MVP registered five catches for 123 yards and touchdowns, including some enormous catches to place and drive nails into the Seattle Seahawks' coffin.
Super Bowl XXXIX
I could merely say that this was a Patriots victory in which Tom Brady played well, yet it was wide receiver Deion Branch who took home MVP honors.
That statement alone tells you enough about the perceived importance of the guys on the other end of the QBs' bombs.
Of course, that would unjustly neglect another key figure in the contest, the Philadelphia Eagles' Terrell Owens.
Both men went over 100 yards on the day—Branch had 11 catches for 133 yards while TO had nine grabs for 122—and were primary decisive weapons in the shootout.
Super Bowl XXXVIII
Yet another Pats' victory and this time Brady did take home the hardware, but check the box score:
Branch played a huge role once more—10 grabs, 143 yards, and a score—and he was joined by the Carolina Panthers' Muhsin Muhammad (4/140/1).
The League's Transformation
Consequently, the NFL became a place where outrageous, self-aggrandizing antics are almost the norm from the superstar wide receivers. It seems, no sooner has a new phenom arrived that the indomitable and tedious ego blossoms. Worse, it has been tolerated as a necessary evil in order to keep a focal point of the magic gameplan engaged, cooperative, and effective.
Well, don't look now, but there's something in the NFL wind.
Patience for the extracurricular nonsense is running thin, but there's another trend taking shape.
I don't know if it's a reaction to the perceived significance of the wide receiver in the modern game or to the inherently seductive challenge of stifling obnoxious conceit, but we're starting to see young shutdown cornerbacks pop up with more frequency.
Cornerback has become arguably the most difficult position on the field due to the rule changes protecting quarterbacks and simultaneously exposing the cover men.
Nevertheless, recent years have pulled back the curtain on some blanket wizards.
Old faithfuls like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Ronde Barber (34 years old), the Green Bay Packers' Charles Woodson (33), and the Denver Broncos' Champ Bailey (31) still inspire throws elsewhere by even the bravest gunslingers, but their legacies are secure when the day comes to finally retire the cleats.
The Philadelphia Eagles' Asante Samuel (28) already has seven interceptions for the Eagles' typically stout defense. The Chicago Bears' Charles Tillman (28) leads the League with a ridiculous six force fumbles on the season—the same number of passes defensed.
Also demanding mention are the Pats' Leigh Bodden (28 and establishing himself), the Tennessee Titans' Cortland Finnegan (25, a 2008 All-Pro, and getting less credit than Vince Young for the Titans' resurrection while being just as significant), the Cincinnati Bengals' young pair of corners Leon Hall and Jonathan Joseph (both 25 and large reasons for the Bungals' shocking defensive uprising), the Bucs' other corner Aqib Talib (23 and withstanding the lion's share of the opposition's attention), and the Cardinals' Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (22 and already a pseudo-household name after last year's performance in the playoffs).
Ultimately, if you're talking cover corners in the NFL, the list of the most elite practitioners starts and stops with two men—the 28-year-old Oakland Raider, Nnamdi Asomugha , and the 24-year-old reason Lito Sheppard works in a shooting gallery, the Jets' Darrelle Revis .
Asomugha is comparably old news.
This wide receiver's nightmare has been in the NFL since the 2003-04 campaign. His act was apparently slow to catch on, but the 2005-06 season saw him defend 14 passes and make 55 solo tackles. Then, in 2006-07, the former Cal Bear yanked eight interceptions, defended 19 passes, made 48 solo tackles, made the Pro Bowl, and was named a second-team All-Pro.
Word was out.
Since his first Pro Bowl, the opposition has basically quit throwing at Asomugha. He's amassed a total of 18 passes defended since then, including the two he's tallied this year.
In addition, he's made only three picks (one this year). Yet he made another Pro Bowl in 2008-09 and graduated to the first-team All-Pro.
By contrast, Revis still has that new-car smell.
The former Pittsburgh Panther made the Pro Bowl last year, but what decent New York athlete doesn't make the All-Star equivalent? In all seriousness, the Pro Bowl may mean you're a bad man...or it can mean group think worked in your favor that year.
In Revis' case, it was clearly the former even if it's only now becoming crystal clear.
For those of you who are familiar with fantasy football, you know that the Jet is a death sentence for even the A-list wide-outs because he follows his mark for the duration. While Asomugha usually plays one side of the field, there is no quarter when you face the New York's American Football Conference representative.
For those of you unfamiliar with the dynamic, check out his game log . Pay particular attention to the games against the Houston Texans, the pair against the Pats, the New Orleans Saints, the Buffalo Bills, the Jacksonville Jaguars, and the Panthers.
Note those games because each team mentioned has an identifiable No. 1 receiver and he's a monster. Except when he is covered by Darrelle Revis:
- Texans, Andre Johnson—four catches, 35 yards
- Patriots, Randy Moss—nine catches, 58 yards, one touchdown, one pick, in two games
- Saints, Marques Colston—two catches, 33 yards
- Bills, Terrell Owens—three catches, 13 yards
- Jaguars, Mike Sims-Walker—three catches, 49 yards, one touchdown
- Panthers, Steve Smith—one catch, five yards, and Revis returned one of two picks for a touchdown
Against six of the best wide receivers the NFL has to offer, Darrelle Revis has yet to give up more than 50 yards in a single contest, has more interceptions than touchdowns allowed, and has one fewer touchdowns scored than allowed.
I guess that'll work.
Nnamdi Asomugha and Darrelle Revis currently sit atop a heap of talented cornerbacks rearing up to resist the Age of the Wide Receiver, but who knows how long their reign will last?
If the last couple years are any indication, the heap is growing faster and faster. Furthermore, the guys at the bottom seem anxious and able to quickly tackle the ascent.
That's bad news if you make your living catching the pigskin.