The noted sabermetrician Bill James has brought so many different concepts to sports in the last three decades, but one of my favorites was the Peak Value/Career Value lists he put in his early Historical Baseball Abstract books. The lists were somewhat subjective, but I liked the idea of rating players over a set period of time on two different grades - the short-term, single-season value versus the long-term career perspective. It shows how mercurial the rise and fall can be for some players, and how difficult is it to maintain a top-tier level of supremacy at any position.
Perhaps no position is harder to keep at that level than that of cornerback; the myth of the shutdown corner is far greater than the actual evidence of such individuals. Since Oakland Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha(notes) was selected with the 31st overall pick in the 2003 NFL draft, there have been a host of names orbiting his - Champ Bailey(notes), Asante Samuel(notes), Charles Woodson(notes), Darrelle Revis(notes), Brandon Flowers(notes) - but in terms of year-to-year consistency, Asomugha stands alone. For years, he's been given the greatest compliment any pass defender can be: quarterbacks simply don't throw his way, and it's come to a point unseen since the salad days of Deion Sanders in San Francisco and Dallas.
As Raiders head coach Tom Cable said this week, Asomugha doesn't just go out there and wing it; he's as prepared as any player on the field. "He's obviously talented, but he worked hard every week and prepares himself to be the best. If you ask for just one thing [that makes him special], it's just the way he prepares."
Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll, whose team will be facing the Raiders in the Black Hole today, was even more effusive in his praise. "He has extraordinary speed and tremendous length. That wingspan that certain guys have, broad shoulders and long arms, allows them to just envelop guys as they come off the ball. Receivers releasing in bump-and-run just can't get away from him. Then, he has that great speed to race with guys. He's perfect - he's exactly what you're looking for in a press corner.
"He doesn't get tested very much - we've got to make sure we still make him work and test him out there, because we wouldn't want him to get bored."
That's good news and bad news for Seahawks receiver Mike Williams, who is in the middle of an extraordinary NFL comeback but will be lucky to get much of anything done today. Not only can Williams expect to see Asomugha all over him when he lines up wide, but this year, Asomugha is playing in more positions. You may see him lining up against the flanker, the split end, or in the slot. This is a change from the way Oakland has done things in years past - their cornerbacks used to have more rigid right-and-left designations - and that suits Asomugha just fine.
"There have been games in particular where I've just taken who the top receiver was on the team; it all depends on what we want to do that week and how we plan on attacking them," he said recently. "But absolutely, there hasn't been one game this year where I've just been on the right and haven't either been in the slot or on the left side at some point. I've been able to help out our defense a lot more when we've been able to do that; those types of coverages and schemes."
A quiet and relatively humble man given his position in the league, Asomugha does his talking on the field, and these days, he speaks more languages fluently than ever before. Translating his coverages and breaking the codes is therefore more difficult for receivers than it has ever been. And that's appropriate for the cornerback who may have the greatest career value of his era at the toughest play-to-play position on the field.