From what I can find in the newspapers, the first shutdown corner in pro football history was a two-time Pro Bowler named Eric Davis … or a Hall of Famer named Ty Law. They kind of shared the honor.
In Rick Gosselin’s 1997 NFL season wrap for The Dallas Morning News, he wrote: “Carolina has a shutdown corner in Eric Davis, as does New England in Ty Law.” And that’s the first reference I can find to a professional player being called a shutdown corner.
What’s interesting is that Goose — as we all call Rick Gosselin — didn’t explain or define the term. He wrote it as if everyone would just know what “shutdown corner” meant. So it’s certainly possible that the idea of the shutdown corner was already very much in the air.
But it’s also possible that it wasn’t, because I can’t find it used again until 1998, when it was written by Rick Gosselin (in this case, he pointed out that Jacksonville lacked a shutdown corner). It would make me happy to know that Goose, who covered pro football for almost a half-century and is widely admired in the football community, coined the term “shutdown corner.”
The first non-Goose reference I can find came in 1999, before the NFL draft, when an agent crowed that Georgia corner Champ Bailey was going to be a “shutdown cover corner.” Bailey did indeed become that. That same year, Jacksonville drafted Fernando Bryant out of Alabama, and coach Tom Coughlin announced that the team wanted to address its “shutdown corner” situation.
It’s interesting — at first, it seems like “shutdown corner” was used more generally by coaches to describe not one player but a class of player, like so: “In order for us to be effective, we need a powerful 2-technique defensive lineman, a solid Mike linebacker and a shutdown corner.”
But as it became clear how rare it is to find a true shutdown corner — a player who can truly shut down a wide receiver — it started to become a description of the very best corners in the game.
“Sam Madison,” Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson said late that year, “is what you would call a shutdown corner.” This might be the first time that a coach directly called someone a shutdown corner, and Sam Madison was indeed a good one, a four-time Pro Bowler and a two-time All-Pro.
Over the next few years, a few players got the shutdown corner tag — Tennessee’s Samari Rolle, the Giants’ Jason Sehorn (though only after he got hurt and reporters could say he was “no longer a shutdown corner”), Aeneas Williams, Todd Lyght, Quentin Jammer (called a shutdown corner dozens of times leading up to the 2002 draft), Charles Woodson, etc. Sometimes, people would retroactively call Deion Sanders a shutdown corner even though he had retired by then.
But, I have to say, the first NFL player to really own it, to basically be called a shutdown corner by everybody, was Darrelle Shavar Revis, a 5-foot-11, 200-pound defensive genius who played for the Jets, Bucs, Patriots and Jets again before finishing his career at age 32 with the Kansas City Chiefs.
And I think the reason Revis came to own the shutdown corner tag is that he took the concept to a whole other place. Before every play, while the opponents huddled, Revis would wander over to where the ball was spotted and peer into the huddle to find the other team’s best wide receiver. “I want to let him know I’m waiting for him,” Revis would say.
And then, when the team broke the huddle, Revis would mirror the best receiver’s movement all the way.
“Left side or right side, in the slot or out wide,” Revis used to say, poetically, “I’ll follow you everywhere you go.”
The challenge was clear. Darrelle Revis was out to make your greatest wide receiver simply disappear. And you know what? For a short handful of years there, he was better at it than perhaps anyone has ever been. He was so good that teams simply gave up on trying to beat him. They just said, “Fine, we’ll just play without our best receiver.”
It was like the year when managers intentionally walked Barry Bonds 120 times.
Herb Adderley played before anyone came up with the term “shutdown corner,” but that’s what he was in the 1960s, when he anchored Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers defenses.
“Herb Adderley,” his old teammate Bill Curry says, “was from another world. Just the other day, someone asked me who was the most gifted athlete I ever played with. I told him Herb Adderley. I idolized Herb. You put together his physical gifts with his will, with his ability to intimidate, with his extraordinary effort, I mean, he did everything. He tackled, he had great technique, he had great anticipation, he intercepted passes, he ran them back for touchdowns …”
It’s interesting to me that both Adderley and Revis loved basketball first and loved basketball more. Maybe there’s something to that, something about playing ferocious man-to-man defense in basketball that easily translates to playing cornerback in football. Revis was a star basketball player in Aliquippa, Pa., and would have loved to take his game in that direction had he grown taller.
And Adderley — growing up all the way across Pennsylvania in Philadelphia — probably had his basketball dreams jolted when his Northeast High team faced off against their bitter rival Overbrook High, and Adderley found himself matched up with a pretty talented center.
“Adderley holds Chamberlain to 48 points,” one newspaper wrote of Adderley’s defensive efforts against Wilt. According to Adderley’s book Lombardi’s Left Side, Northeast coach Ike Wooley complained to the reporter about the sarcastic line. And the reporter insisted it wasn’t sarcastic at all. Chamberlain had scored 90 in his previous game.
Adderley moved on to other sports: Track, baseball and — somewhat reluctantly — football. As Bill Curry says, he could do anything, play anywhere. When his football coach asked what position he wanted to play, he simply said, “Somewhere I can touch the ball.” That’s how he ended up at halfback and that would be his primary position throughout high school and at Michigan State.
He played a little defensive back in college, and played it well — he made a famous goal-line-stand tackle against Notre Dame to secure a Michigan State victory — but he was a running back first. When the Green Bay Packers drafted him with the 12th pick, Lombardi called him a “fast running back,” and added, “we didn’t get one bad report on him.”
Lombardi’s Packers had lost to the Eagles in the 1960 NFL Championship Game, and he wanted to add speed and big-play possibilities to the Green Bay special teams. The Packers already had the brilliant defensive back Willie Wood to return punts, and now they had Adderley to return kicks.
But it didn’t start off very well for him — there was no place on offense for Adderley to play; the Packers already had a couple of Hall of Famers at running back in Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor. And in the early going, when Adderley did play, he made mistakes. He dropped a pass. He fumbled a kickoff.
“The target of coffee shop criticism in recent weeks,” the Green Bay Press-Gazette wrote, “the Packers’ No. 1 draft pick was written off as a ‘flop’ and a ‘mistake’ by the more vocal drug store quarterbacks.”
Then, on Thanksgiving Day, regular cornerback Herb Gremminger got hurt at the start of the third quarter, and Adderley was inserted as a cornerback. He’d had one day of practice at the position.
“I was scared to death,” Adderley told reporters. “But when they threw to my side a couple of times, and I made a few tackles, I felt better.”
Late in the quarter, with the Packers down 9-7, Lions quarterback Jim Ninowski tried to squeeze a pass to his favorite receiver, Gail Cogdill, and Adderley stepped in front of the pass, picked it off, and returned it to the Detroit 40. The Packers went on to score the game-winning touchdown.
“He never played the position before, and he comes off the bench, picks one off, and we go in to score,” a stunned Bob Skoronski said after the game. “Everybody did a real fine job, but THAT was really something.”
Lombardi knew immediately — Adderley was his cornerback. He could do everything. He was instantly the best cover corner, taking the mantle away from the legendary Night Train Lane. He was a ferocious tackler. And, as a lifelong running back, he was a dangerous return man whether on kickoffs or interceptions.
In 1962, Adderley might have been the best defensive player in the NFL. He intercepted seven passes, returned one for a touchdown, recovered four fumbles and led a Packers defense that allowed a league-low 148 points. The Packers lost just once all year, and in the championship game against the Giants, New York’s Y.A. Tittle completed just 18 of 41 passes and the Packers breezed to a 16-7 victory.
Adderley kept playing at that level for seven more years with the Packers. In 1965, he returned three interceptions for touchdowns — in all he scored seven touchdowns on interceptions, which tied him with Erich Barnes for the career record. He also had two kickoff returns for touchdowns. “If there was a big play to be made,” Bill Curry would say, “Herb was there to make it.”
After he left the Packers, he went to play for the Cowboys and though, perhaps, he had lost a step of his blazing speed, he still intercepted six passes in 1971 and was an emotional leader — he channeled his coach and mentor, Vince Lombardi — and led the Cowboys to a Super Bowl title. In all, Adderley played in four of the first six Super Bowls, and was part of six championship teams overall.
“We rallied around Herb,” his Cowboys teammate Mel Renfroe would say, “because of his mental toughness and his attitude. And he wasn’t afraid to speak his mind. We needed that.”
A shutdown corner in 1967 was obviously very different from a shutdown corner 32 years later, when Darrelle Revis had his season for the ages. The rules had changed dramatically. Passing games had changed dramatically. The stuff cornerbacks were allowed to do to shut down receivers had changed dramatically.
And, with that context in mind, I don’t think it’s possible for a cornerback to be any better than Revis was in 2009.
The excellent football historian Brad Oremland put it in context — look at how the best receivers in the NFL (some of the best receivers in NFL history) fared in their games against Revis:
— Andre Johnson, 4 catches, 35 yards, 0 touchdowns.
— Randy Moss, 4 catches, 24 yards, 0 touchdowns.
— Terrell Owens, 3 catches, 12 yards, 0 touchdowns.*
*Owens before the game talked a lot about what he was going to do against Revis … as T.O. liked to do. “T.O. is going to be T.O,” Revis said. “And Darrelle Revis is going to be Darrelle Revis.” And that’s how it worked out.
— Steve Smith, 1 catch, 5 yards, 0 touchdowns.
— Reggie Wayne, 3 catches 33 yards, 0 touchdowns
— Chad Johnson, 0 catches, 0 yards, 0 touchdowns
— Chad Johnson again (in the playoffs) 2 catches, 28 yards, 0 touchdowns
They have been keeping the “passes defended” stat in the NFL since 1999. Nobody is even close to the 31 passes Revis defended in 2009. Those Jets allowed eight touchdown passes all season long while picking off 17 balls (six of them by Revis). By the end of the year, teammates were joking how opposing receivers would find themselves stranded on “Revis Island,” and that became his nickname.
Like I say, there has never been another season quite like that one … and that includes Revis himself. And there’s a reason for that — after 2009, most teams simply gave up trying to beat Revis. They found success throwing elsewhere, and challenging Revis seemed too much trouble.
Revis went to Tampa Bay, where he was named All-Pro for the fifth time. Then he went to New England, won a Super Bowl, and was named All-Pro a sixth time. Then he came back to the Jets and helped turn that defense around and was named All-Pro a seventh time.
Of course, you can’t last forever at cornerback any more than you can last forever as the fastest gun in the West. Sooner or later, you lose a step and start getting beat and that’s the end. After he turned 31, it ended pretty quickly for Revis. But for the better part of a decade, he defied gravity. The old St. Louis coach Mike Martz once said, “I don’t believe in that term shutdown corner because, as an offensive coach, I don’t believe any player can truly shut down a great receiver.”
Darrelle Revis and Herb Adderley defied belief.