The perfect corner back is still just around the corner. This mythical man has the speed of a sprinter and he carries the weight of a shotputter.
Tom Brookshier, who was close to the perfect combination and who played with the Philadelphia Eagles for seven years, says, "You have to be big enough to come up on a run and stop a fullback like Jimmy Brown. And you have to be fast enough to take the best receiver on the other team man-to-man." Brookshier's football career ended two years ago when he broke his leg coming up to stop Willie Galimore, the fast but not very big Chicago Bear halfback.
"You give up a little size for the speed," Brookshier says, "because if you don't knock the fullback down there's a safety behind you to help and maybe you've slowed the big man enough for the safety to nail. But if you don't cover the receiver and he gets behind you it's Katie bar the gate."
Corner linebackers, playing closer to the line, usually are chosen for size rather than speed, since their primary responsibility is against the run; if they are forced to cover receivers, it is only on short patterns where they have backup help.
October 20, 1963
The corner back is the man who plays out on the wing. Pro defenses, as conceived today against the passing of the pro attack, are set up in three waves: the four men on the line of scrimmage who correspond to what used to be called linemen but are now, in many defenses, called the rushmen, since their first responsibility is to rush the passer; the three men just behind them—the middle and two corner linebackers—who combine some of the mobility of pass defense with some of the size and strength of the front line; and the secondary defenders.
A corner back is a member of the secondary, which might more properly be called the tertiary, since it is the third wave of defense. As the area of attack has expanded in both width and depth with the development of the passing game, the corner back's job has grown more important and more difficult.
The extensive use of the pass-and-spread attacks has changed the game of football as much as the mobile units of World War II changed the tactics of war. The old seven-diamond defense—seven men on the line, with the other four in a diamond shape behind and up close—had almost entirely a lateral responsibility. The linemen were concerned with an area, say, a yard deep along the line of scrimmage and some 10 yards wide, since the ends, tackles and guards on offense all played cheek by jowl. Depth was no problem; passes were seldom thrown and, if they were, they were not deep. So the effective area of attack covered about 10 square yards.
Today, with an end spread maybe 15 yards in one direction and a halfback flanked as far in the other, with passing attacks capable of striking 40 or 50 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, the whole aspect has changed. A defense can no longer mass its manpower to create a sort of Maginot Line in the narrow confines of a 10-yard striking area; it must also cover the rear and cover it fast. The area to be defended has exploded from 90 square feet to 13,500 square feet, and there are still only 11 men to do the job.
The linemen—or rushmen—must cover more lateral area, since three players—the linebackers—have been taken off the line to help in deep coverage. These linebackers must lend aid on lateral as well as deep coverage against passes. And the defensive backs, even the safeties, must be capable of coming up to the line of scrimmage to help defend against the run, although their first and by far more important assignment is to stop passes.
The loneliest man in this new and complex system of defense is the corner back. Because the offense has put flankers far out on either side, the defense has had to assign a man—the corner back—to cover these flankers. And since the flankers are generally the most dangerous receivers, the corner back in most defenses has the unenviable job of covering, unaided, the fastest and most evasive men on the other club. His position far out on the wing obviates any assistance, although he may occasionally receive a little help from a safety on a deep pass, or from a linebacker on a shallow one. But most of the time he is completely isolated.
There is only one occasion when the corner back has an opportunity to fraternize, and it is a dubious privilege. That is when a sweep comes around his side. Then he must come up and, at the least, peel off a blocker from the runner's convoy. Brookshier, a sturdily built, handsome man who was a little shorter than ideal height at about six feet, was particularly adept at that.
"I studied it," he says. "I saw some of the big runners like Jim Brown and Taylor absorb the shock of a tackle by taking the impact on their free arms, so that the tackier never reached the body, and I found out you can do the same thing with a blocker. I'd come up hard, try to take the shock of the block on a rigid arm, then relax the arm. Sometimes the blocker slides off and you get a shot at a tackle on the ballcarrier."
Brookshier, during his career with the Eagles, was a deadly tackler. "You have to come up as soon as you read run," he says. "If you come up early enough and fast enough, they can't juke you. Your job is to force the runner to the inside, where most of the defense is. You can't let him go outside of you. As far as tackling itself is concerned, it's different on different fields. In the 1960 championship game in Philadelphia when we beat the Packers, the field was greasy. I would take an extra step, keeping on my feet as long as I could, and go through to the head and shoulders of the ballcarrier instead of trying to hit him lower. That meant I could stay better-balanced. On a dry field you might hit lower and commit yourself sooner.
"But no matter how dry or wet the field and no matter how balanced you are, they all jar you," Brookshier goes on. "Brown has that great speed and balance, and he hits. Jim Taylor runs with a real wide base, so you can't knock him down. One of the toughest is John David Crow, the Cardinal back. Every time I hit him, it felt like he had all his cleats in the ground. No give."
But the tackling is only a small part of playing corner back. By far the biggest part is pass defense. "I wish I had been a little taller," Brookshier says. "Ideal size for a corner back is Night Train Lane of the Lions or Erich Barnes of the Giants. They go about 6 feet 4. So if they get beat a step on a pass, they're still tall enough to go up and spike the ball. I couldn't do that."
Brookshier, like most corner backs, played a careful game of averages. He rarely gambled. Lane, on the other hand, began as the other type of corner back—the gambler. "He was the big-play man," Brookshier said. "Came up fast for the big interception. But he sometimes came up so fast he'd outrun it."
Recently, however, Lane has quit gambling freely. Most defenses in pro football are now so carefully plotted there is no room for it. "I changed after the fourth game last year," Lane says. "I got four touchdown passes thrown over me in the first four games, one in each game. So I spent a couple of days looking at the movies trying to find out why. I found out I was gambling on third down and, say, six or eight to go. I'd come up real tight on my man, gambling on them going to a sideline or a hook for the first down. They were running hitch-and-goes on me, faking the sideline or the hook, then throwing deep behind me. I changed my habits and they quit doing it."
Brookshier, the conservative, was rarely stung on a hitch-and-go. "I let it be known early that I could be beat on a sideline," he says. "I never intercepted a sideline in my life. You can't shut out everything, and you get hurt least on the sideline. I tried to shut off the deep post and corner patterns. They often miss the sideline for one reason or another."
Much of the battle fought by a corner back is a purely personal contest between him and the man he is covering. "The most important thing is to play personnel," Brookshier says. "I used to spend three or four hours a week studying film of the guy I'd be covering on Sunday. Then Pete Retzlaff and I would rehearse during practice." Retzlaff is the fine offensive end for the Eagles.
"I'd play Jimmy Hill for him if we were playing the Cardinals," Brookshier says. "I'd cover him like Jimmy does. Jimmy plays real tight without much room for errors, and he can do it because of his speed. I'd cover Pete real tight, too, so he'd be used to it. Then Pete would be Sonny Randle for me and give me all Sonny's moves and run the patterns the way Sonny runs them. We'd do that for each club. It was a big help."
Although most pro defenses depend on man-to-man coverage, where each defensive back with the exception of one safety has a specific man to cover, sometimes they go to a zone—which takes a little of the pressure off the corner back. The zone, if it is recognized by the opposing quarterback, is vulnerable to flooding an area, however.
"We used to hide it real good," Brookshier says. "We'd make it look like man-to-man until the ball was snapped. You can play farther up in the zone, because you get help in the corner from your safety. Of course, you have to help him, too. Lynch used to be real good helping Patton. He'd get a piece of the flanker on every play, so that Patton could wait to go to the corner for the deep cover."
Another way the defensive formation can be used to help the defenders is the fake blitz.
"Sometimes you make them think you're coming in," Brookshier says, "so they'll hold in another man or two to block, and this cuts down on the receivers. Then you can do the same thing individually. Sometimes I used to set up on the inside to make the outside look inviting, then move out when it was too late for the quarterback to call an audible. But mostly you play the personnel. And the other guy plays you, too."
Almost all the receivers covered by the corner backs are exceptionally good or they would not be playing out on the flank of the attack. They are good in various ways, though.
"Some of them have all the moves," Brookshier said, "and they show them to you on every play, whether they are the primary receivers or not. They'll give you every fake in the book. I never liked to cover that kind of receiver. He gives you too much to think about as the game goes on. By the half he's shown you a dozen different moves, and you can't figure what's coming next. I like the guy who tries to hide his moves and just gives you one or two when he's not getting the ball. You don't have so much to think about—except maybe the ones he hasn't shown you."
One of the toughest receivers of all for Brookshier to cover was Raymond Berry, the extraordinarily adept end for the Baltimore Colts.
"He doesn't have a whole lot of speed, although he is faster than most people give him credit for," Brookshier says. "But he has every fake there is and, working with Unitas, who gets the ball away quicker than anyone else, Berry is close to impossible. I remember one game I'm on him man-to-man. He and Johnny really worked on me. Berry caught 10 balls, and I was never more than a step away on any of them."
On the other hand, there are some receivers who achieve deception by their very lack of finesse.
"I used to have trouble with Frank Gifford," Brook-shier says. "I'd be on him man-to-man and I'd drop back waiting for the fake and the move and be ready to go with him, and he wouldn't give me any fake at all. He'd just go right on by me."
Because the quarterback usually has no more than three to four seconds in which to get his pass away, most fakes come in the first 10 to 12 yards of a receiver's route.
"You hang back and let them come," Brookshier says. "You figure they'll get their point across by the time they've run 12 yards, and the next move will be the right one and you can go with it. You always give them a hard time. You let them know you're playing them tough. I'd take one interference penalty a game to get that point across."
Aside from all the other difficulties of playing the position, the corner back often suffers unjust condemnation from the spectators, since his mistakes—and sometimes good plays which are misjudged as mistakes—occur in the open, where they are easily seen.
"You get beat, you get it right out in front of God and everybody," Tom says. "I don't care how good you are, you'll get beat. You have to. You have to hope you don't get beat too bad. Often a coach takes a calculated risk letting you have a real good receiver all afternoon, figuring you'll get beat some. Like Lindon Crow in the Baltimore-Giant game in 1959 in Baltimore. Landry put him on Lenny Moore all by himself, and Crow did a bang-up job. Moore got one touchdown and set one up, but Landry had figured that if Crow could hold him to two touchdowns the rest of the Giant defense could shut off the rest of the Colt defense. The only thing he didn't figure was that the Colt defense would score—which it did. But Crow caught the devil from the fans when actually he had played one of the best games anyone could want."
With faster receivers and stronger passers coming up all the time, the modern corner back has to be faster and cagier to compensate. "Used to be the depth of a pass depended on the speed of the receiver," another corner back said last year. "Now it depends on how strong the passer's arm is. Receivers like Frank Budd of the Redskins can run farther than most passers can throw in the five or six seconds between the snap of the ball and the time the ball reaches the receiver's hands. Budd can make about 55 yards. It takes quite a man to keep up with someone like him, much less keep ahead."