Stanford Routt in 2007, just when things were getting good. (AP)
Few NFL players could tell you more about the circuitous route taken by most cornerbacks than Stanford Routt, the former Oakland Raiders and current Kansas City Chiefs pass defender. A speedster out of Houston, Routt was taken in the second round of the 2005 NFL draft by a Raiders team that has long valued two things in their cornerbacks: demon speed and the ability to play man coverage to the exclusion of everything else. Routt fit the bill on paper -- his 4.27 scouting combine run still stands as one of the fastest ever -- but on the field, he spent a couple years outrunning more advanced coverages as he learned the game from the nickel slot.
By 2010, he had learned enough to excel as Oakland's No. 2 cornerback behind the great Nnamdi Asomugha, and he parlayed that into a No. 1 role after Asomugha left for the Philadelphia Eagles. What came with that was a five-year, $54 million contract that was Al Davis' last major expenditure on a starting man corner concept that went back to the days of Willie Brown in the 1960s.
However, carrying on that lineage before and after Davis' death in October of 2011 was made far more difficult by several schematic changes that occurred almost immediately after Davis' passing. When Shutdown Corner spoke with Routt in an exclusive interview on Monday evening, he refused to throw anyone in Oakland -- player or coach -- under the bus. That wasn't really necessary, because the changes in Oakland's defense were obvious to anyone with access to a DVR, or NFL Game Rewind. Straight from a series of effective hybrid fronts and man coverage concepts, the Raiders moved to schemes that had linebackers covering intermediate zones like proverbial headless chickens, run support safeties playing deep quarters, and cornerbacks playing force defender and run support roles against multi-receiver sets.
Add in that there was limited time for the existing personnel to switch from man to zone coverage due to the lockout, and what seemed to be a complete misunderstanding of how best to use the roster on hand, and it's no surprise that defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan was fired after the season was done.
For Routt, the results were as regressive as they were for many other Oakland defenders. In 2010, per STATS, Inc., Routt had the second-lowest Burn Rate (targets divided by catches) in the NFL among cornerbacks with 50 or more targets. The best guy? Someone named Darrelle Revis. Routt gave up just five touchdowns on 99 targets, and seemed to be ready to take his place as an elite cornerback.
Not quite so fast -- in 2011, and in some very questionable schemes, Routt's Burn Rate was still above average (46 catches in 97 targets; 19th in the league), but he gave up eight touchdowns and led the league with 17 non-declined penalties (Seattle's Brandon Browner led the league with 19 called penalties, but three were declined).
It all came to a head after ex-Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Dennis Allen replaced Hue Jackson as the team's head coach. Routt, who had already restructured his contract once, was sent packing by a coach he hadn't met, as Routt put it, "until we had the break-up."
Routt said that no specific reason was given -- his farewell was marked by the same "We've decided to go in a different direction" stuff you see whenever a player is cut -- and he was on the market before he knew it.
"Hindsight is always 20/20 -- I really don't know," Routt said when asked if he would have restructured again. "There's no telling what I might have done [given that option]. As far as being surprised, it was a little bit of a surprise, but it was in the back of my mind as something I knew was possible."
The 2011 season was as much a disappointment to Routt as to everyone else in Oakland, and he refused to put the blame elsewhere. The penalties, however, came with the caveat you might expect from any NFL player who has watched officiating crews call illegal contact and pass interference with frustrating inconsistency over the last few seasons.
"I could probably give you a thousand different reasons, but I'll never know what a referee is thinking," he said. "I got nine of those penalties in a three-game stretch [Weeks 15-17], and it is what it is. Obviously, that's something I'm going to need to work on going into next year, but whenever you're playing man coverage and you're playing aggressively, penalties are going to happen. Not to say that it's right, or that it's acceptable, but they're just going to happen. Every Monday, the coaches would get a report back from the league on which team penalties were actually verifiable and correct, and which ones seemed suspect. And according to those sheets, about half the penalties I got were deemed not penalties. That said, it's very easy to be a Monday morning quarterback, and none of that stuff really matters."
Browner, who played man nearly exclusively for the Seahawks, would probably agree.
In any case, it was time for Routt to take the tour, and he had three stops. "I first went to Buffalo last Monday," he said. "Flew to Kansas City and stayed there for two days, and then I had a visit on Friday in Cincinnati. I didn't actually realize that they had hired Hue until I had left Cincinnati. Over the weekend, I started doing some soul-searching, and I just felt that Kansas City was the right fit."
Surprisingly, the Bengals' move to hire Hue Jackson as a defensive assistant didn't factor into Routt's decision at all -- he wasn't made aware of the move until after he'd left Cincinnati. In the end, and though Buffalo tried to sweeten the pot with the five-year deal, Routt felt that Kansas City was the pace for him. Thus, he signed a three-year, $19.6 million deal that will be sweetened by the $5 million the Raiders have to pay him as a guaranteed roster bonus.
"When I went to Kansas City, I met everybody. I met Romeo, I met the GM, Scott Pioli, I met Otis Smith and Emmitt Thomas. I briefly met the defensive coordinator -- real quickly, because they were in meetings -- and from the moment I walked in there, they embraced me. They made me feel welcome, even though I was a division rival at one time. Back with my previous team, I was coached by several ex-players, including two Hall of Famers [Rod Woodson and Willie Brown]. And that's basically what I'm stepping into here with my new team in Kansas city. Emmitt Thomas? Hall of Famer. Otis Smith? Super Bowl champion. You've got a head coach and a GM who each have three Super Bowl rings. So, there's definitely some success, and some skins on the wall, so to speak, through that facility."
And while the Raiders are rebuilding their secondary with extreme youth, the Chiefs already have one of the best young defensive backfields in the NFL. Between fellow cornerback Brandon Flowers, and safeties Eric Berry and Kendrick Lewis, the Chiefs have locked up a lot of lockdown guys. Now that Routt's in the fold, the team must make the call on what to do with free-agent cornerback Brandon Carr, who has played opposite Flowers with distinction for years.
"You can definitely tell that they have a lot of good young talent back there," Routt said of his new best buddies. "Eric Berry is going into this third year, I believe Brandon Flowers is going into his fifth year. Kendrick Lewis is another good young guy back there, playing safety. Brandon Carr, too. Not to forget Javier Arenas, either. So, it's definitely a young team, but they're growing, and greatness is ahead of them."
At 28, Routt will be a bit of an elder statesman. What can he impart to the Chiefs' young charges about his own journey to the top, and then down a notch? "I learned that if you don't believe in yourself, nobody will. Confidence is at least half the battle. You're not going to always be perfect, but the main thing is the intent -- you're always trying to be perfect. You know you're not, but you've got to keep striving for the top."
Key among those who taught Routt was Rod Woodson, who came on board as the team's assistant cornerbacks coach. Routt didn't hold back when asked what he gained from working with the Hall of Famer. "Oh. man! I learned a lot from Rod. About football, life, marriage, everything. The main thing I learned from Rod was to pull the trigger. Being a cornerback is great, covering your guy is great, but being a playmaker is really something special. If you see it, go get it. If a receiver is running a route you've seen before, don't be afraid to jump it. Don't be afraid to make mistakes. 'Show me a corner that's never made a mistake, and I'll show you a corner that's never made a play.' That's one thing he would always say."
And that's probably the overarching impression one comes away with after talking with Routt -- he's not bitter, he doesn't dish out blame, and he's just eager to move on with a team that could hold his long-awaited entry into the upper tier at his position. The Chiefs and Raiders play at least twice a year as AFC West tenants, but Routt doesn't look at those games as revenge opportunities. Still, I opined, it probably doesn't hurt that he's gone up against Carson Palmer and all Oakland's receivers in practice enough to know every move, call and audible.
"Yeah, but I'm pretty sure they look at it like they know my moves. They know what I like to do best. So, obviously, that's something to tune in to, watching me go against my old team. But as far as any revenge factor? I had some good years in Oakland - I really did. I learned from a lot of very interesting and successful people. But that chapter's closed. All I want to do now is help the Chiefs win -- be grateful for them they way they're grateful for me, embrace them the way they've embraced me, and just win a title.
"There are a lot of different things going through my mind right now. All I want to do is get started, get the offseason rolling with the workouts coming up in a few months, and get back on the field and keep working. That's the main thing -- just gotta keep working, and keep getting better."
- Stanford Routt
- Kansas City Chiefs