Can you still be an elite DB in the modern NFL?

In an interview with CSN’s James Palmer, Houston Texans cornerback Jonathan Joseph spoke about how frustrating he found being a defensive back in the NFL.  Joseph had of course just come off a humiliating second loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars which saw the Texans, who were pre-season candidates for the Superbowl, slump to 2-11 and ultimately cost coach Gary Kubiak his job.  Joseph was but one Texan who has underperformed this season, but happens to play in a position where the shortcomings of an individual can be exposed like no other.

Two years ago, an article appeared on ESPN.com which emphasised that the fact that the NFL had become more of a passing league made life for corners very difficult.  Nnamdi Asomugha (currently of no fixed abode) commented:

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.

The rule change on hitting a defenseless receiver made life very difficult for any defensive player who might find themselves tackling a receiver.  The fact that the new rules were being implemented last season with replacement referees made things all the tougher.

Many defensive backs are considerably smaller than their opponents.  This has been the case with long, athletic receivers like Calvin Johnson (6’5″), Andre Johnson (6″3″) and Brandon Marshall (6’4″) for a while, but the emergence of down the field tight ends like 6’6″ Rob Gronkowski and 6’7″ Jimmy Graham has made it even tougher for a guy like the 5’11” Joseph.

Perhaps the toughest rule to overcome is the NFL’s “spot of the foul” pass interference rule.  This rule is messed up from both perspectives.

The recent Patriots-Panthers game ended with a pass interference call being overturned because the pass that Tom Brady threw to Rob Gronkowski, the subject of the interference, was deemed uncatchable.  Unfortunately the NFL only goes so far as to define “uncatchable” as “clearly” which is a super-subjective rule to allow for what can be a particularly expensive penalty.

From the defensive perspective, the rule can be very expensive.  If you are chasing a receiver down the field and are deemed to have impeded his ability to catch the ball, you will be penalized as if the receiver had caught the ball at the spot of the foul.  In theory this could be almost a length-of-the-field penalty.  Again, the subjectivity of the call is very high.  It is well known that many coaches tell their players to play physically because the referees are unlikely to call penalties on every single play.  This is clearly related to the additional protection afforded to both passers and receivers under the new (ish) laws: the game is more entertaining when huge catches are made.

The people who lose out, unfortunately enough for them, are the defensive backs who end up with all these penalty yards against their name.  This season, Joseph has accounted for 55 penalty yards, two of which have been on third down.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers give up 77 yards a game in penalties, the most in the NFL.  Second is Seattle who give up 74.25. What do these two teams have in common?  They both have supposedly “elite” cornerbacks in the shape of Darrelle Revis and Richard Sherman.

In his career, Sherman has given up 176 penalty yards; 81 this season.  Of his five penalties this season, three are for pass interference, two for unnecessary roughness.  Revis has been more successful, giving up 132 yards and only three this season (in a pass interference call).  Revis is also two years longer tenured than Sherman.  Sherman is, however, the member of the more successful team.

So it can be argued that it is indeed still possible to be an elite cornerback in the 2013 NFL, it’s just a lot harder than it used to be.

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