Cornerback is a difficult position to analyze because these players are not often on the television screen during the action. If you cannot always see them, can you properly analyze their performance? Were they in man or zone coverage? Did they have safety help? Were they a liability against the run or did that even really matter? Then there is the problem of darn near perfect coverage and still allowing a reception.
Regarding the difficulties of the position, Willie Brown said, “The cornerback has to concentrate more than anyone else on defense. A receiver can run anything he wants, but I don’t hear the crowd or anything else. I key on him all the way. Another thing about cornerback is that you have to forget things in a hurry. The reason some cornerbacks break is that they can’t forget. Either you forget or you’re out of the league.”
As noted in a prior post, the four U.S. Presidents immortalized on Mount Rushmore represent the birth, growth, development, and preservation of the country. Therefore, this project calls for a pioneer at the position, another who grew the position, another who developed it and another who preserved it. The preservationist often will be viewed as the prototype.
Dick (Night Train) Lane (Los Angeles Rams 1952-53; Chicago Cardinals 1954-59; Detroit Lions 1960-65) is the pioneer. He was the first huge superstar of the position. Lane intercepted 14 passes as a rookie which is still a record. A nasty hitter, Lane was adept at baiting passers to throw in his direction so that he could intercept the pass. His ability to both play the run and defend the pass at a high level made Lane one of the greatest and most complete cornerbacks.
Willie Brown (Denver Broncos 1963-66; Oakland Raiders 1967-78) grew the position. If not exactly the first to employ the bump and run technique, Brown was certainly the greatest. A dedicated film viewer and highly instinctive player, Brown would stick his hands or arm in the chest of a wide receiver at the line of scrimmage. This molestation would throw off the receiver’s timing. Sometimes Brown would let a receiver slip past him. No problem. He’d catch up. He might even then get a pass thrown his way. Good chance he’d pick it off.
Charles Woodson (Oakland Raiders, 1998-2005, 2013-15; Green Bay Packers, 2006-12) developed the position. After starting off his career with a high level of traditional cornerback performance, Woodson hit a lull in his final few years during his first Oakland stint. It was when he joined the Packers that his play truly blasted off and his style became more diversified. Woodson would play outside, he’d play in the slot, he’d blitz, he would move to safety here and there, he would help stop the run. He finished his career with 65 interceptions and 20 sacks. This puts him in the rare 20/20 club and the more rare 30/20 club and the more rare 40/20 club and… Okay, enough of that. If you are looking for the most complete cornerback of all-time, Woodson is who you would probably find.
Darrelle Revis (New York Jets 2007-12, 2015-16; Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2013; New England Patriots 2014; Kansas City Chiefs 2017) preserved the position. He is the prototype. Put on the film of his 2009 season and you will witness the most consistently spectacular coverage skills in league history. See him drape receivers with quick hip action, footwork, and vision. During that season Revis was credited with 31 passes defensed. He intercepted six passes and was the overwhelming reason why the Jets allowed the fewest points in the league. He typically would align in press formation but unlike Brown, Revis would not usually look to engage in hand fighting. Rather, he would backpedal and then mirror the receiver. This technique is known in certain circles as soft-shoeing. During the bulk of his career, wideouts simply could not get much done against this technique. Through various rule changes, the league has been effectively legislating quality cornerback play out of the game since roughly 2004. Taking this into account and considering the difficulties of playing the cornerback position in general, Revis was an astonishing performer.