Few plays in football unfold more dramatically than the sweep to the corner. "They say the game has changed," says Reggie McKenzie, a Buffalo Bill last year and now a Seattle Seahawk, "but one rule can't be changed. Winners run the football. That's how you beat the Miami Dolphins. You knock them down. I've always enjoyed the long pull to the corner. I take pride in it. It takes a special talent. The cornerback and safety and linebacker, me, the blocking back and the runner, all coming together at high speed."
NFL ballcarriers have been trying to turn the corner ever since the days of Red Grange, who ran to the outside and cut back "against the grain." Gene Hickerson and John Wooten led Jim Brown into the corner; Jerry Kramer and Fuzzy Thurston did the same for Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor. McKenzie himself showed O.J. Simpson the way in the early 1970s and, more recently, Joe Cribbs. This season he will run interference for rookie Curt Warner.
No NFL runner gets outside better than Marcus Allen, whose style reminds one of Gale Sayers'. As an NFL rookie in 1965, Sayers scored 22 touchdowns; his career, however, was shortened when a San Francisco cornerback, Kermit Alexander, tore up his right knee on a sweep to the left in 1968. "If you can turn the corner," Allen says, "you've got to feel you can go all the way. But you need all the skills—speed to get there, strength to survive there, and cutback ability to get away from there. That's what's exciting, what makes that play special."
Waiting for the Allens at the corner are the linebackers, people like The Pack's Mike Douglass. "My job is to take the guards, fullback and halfback and turn them inside," he says. "You've got to be aggressive, have good feet, hands and eyes. You have to feel where the runner is—look past the blocker to the runner. But you still have to handle the blocker and you don't know what he's going to do. I spend a lot of time studying halfbacks, guards and fullbacks to figure out their techniques. Some guys try to overpower you, hitting you high. Others just go for your knees."
August 31, 1983
Once a linebacker gets tangled up with the blockers, the job of making the tackle is left to a defensive back. Dick (Night Train) Lane, a Hall of Famer whose career spanned 14 seasons in the '50s and '60s with the Rams, Cardinals and Lions, had no peer as a tackling cornerback; in his day face masks were just coming into style, and Lane, a very large, fast and unapologetic man, would foil the corner sweep by wrenching the masks of blocking guards and running backs, turning heads in more ways than one. The NFL's 15-yard penalty for grabbing the face mask was put into the game in reaction to Lane's tactics. Before the 1981 Super Bowl game between Oakland and Philadelphia, Lane went to the Raiders' locker room to give a bit of advice to Cornerback Lester Hayes, who that year had intercepted 13 passes, one short of Lane's single-season record. Lane's message to Hayes had nothing to do with pass defense, however. "Be mean!" he said. Translation: Don't let them get around the corner. And Hayes didn't, as the Raiders won that Super Bowl.
San Francisco beat Cincinnati in the '82 Super Bowl with two rookie cornerbacks, Ronnie Lott and Eric Wright, and Washington beat Miami last January with rookie Vernon Dean playing corner. One trait that Hayes, Lott, Wright and Dean share is an affinity for contact. Says Lott, "I want to take on the blocker and make the tackle. I want to challenge them. I coached some young players this summer, and they had been taught to cut the blocker, or avoid him. That's good, I suppose, but if you want to be a great player, you make the tackle, too. That's pure football."
The corner sweep is, in a sense, the Judgment Play. If a runner "can't turn the corner," he dons blocking pads and plays fullback. If a guard can't pull and get to the corner ahead of his ballcarrier, he checks the help-wanted ads in the papers. If a corner-back can't handle blockers and deliver a sternum shot to the ballcarrier, he checks the airline guides for the next plane out of town. "I love the competitiveness of the play on the corner," says McKenzie. "I say, 'Here I come. Let's get it on.' "