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DAVIE, Fla. – Darren Sharper's(notes) currency in his profession had supposedly gone counterfeit, which might be the worst thing that can happen to a player at his position. Linebackers can be camouflaged. Cornerbacks can be shifted. Even defensive ends can be schemed into relevance. But once an NFL safety becomes a liability – once his body is unwilling and his ball skills have eroded – he becomes impossible to obscure, like trying to hide a zeppelin under a bed sheet.
A year ago at this time, that was the dark cloud following Sharper once it became clear the Minnesota Vikings were turning their back on him. For a player whose tender was creating game-changing plays, his one forced turnover in 2008 spoke volumes. And to the NFL at large, the then 33-year old Sharper's bank appeared to be empty.
"That was the talk, right?" Sharper said with a Cheshire grin. "…  didn't go the way I wanted, but yeah, I was surprised at the perception. Someone [messed] up on that one, huh?"
Of that reality, there remains little doubt. Not only is the New Orleans Saints safety coming off one of his finest seasons, he took note that the Vikings sorely missed a playmaker like him this season. In fact, he delighted himself with the thought a few days before the NFC championship game, then promptly went out and helped the Saints deal the death blow to Minnesota's Brett Favre(notes)-inspired fairy tale.
This is what nine interceptions, three defensive touchdowns and a career-capping Super Bowl appearance purchases: revenge (the Vikings are feeling it), respect (Indianapolis Colts wideout Reggie Wayne(notes) dubbed Sharper "like an Ed Reed(notes) who is everywhere") and a measure of career rejuvenation (if he returns in 2010, Shaper will earn one last healthy chunk of cash as an unrestricted free agent).
For all the talk about Saints coach Sean Payton's surrendering $250,000 of his own salary to land defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, and the buzz about Williams' aggressive schemes turning the NFC landscape upside down, it's Sharper's ability to create big plays that arguably jump-started the chemistry of the Saints' defensive remix. As any NFL coordinator will attest, hard-hitting, turnover-forcing, touchdown-producing safeties take scheming to another level.
Or, as defensive end Will Smith(notes) put it succinctly, "We lacked a playmaker at the back end, and he's come in and made a lot of plays – big plays at crucial moments. We didn't have that last year."
That's why when Colts quarterback Peyton Manning(notes) began his exhaustive breakdown of Saints film over a week ago for Super Bowl XLIV, he focused more on Sharper than any player on New Orleans' defense. And it's why understanding the blitz packages wasn't enough – Manning had to know in painstaking inches how Sharper reacts in every situation.
"Gregg Williams, his scheme is very complex, but his players make it work," Manning said. "And Sharper is kind of the quarterback of the defense back there."
That's high praise for a player New Orleans signed for a relatively cheap one-year, $1.7 million deal. So while the masses delight in making this Super Bowl about Manning vs. Drew Brees(notes), the more accurate game within the game will be Manning vs. Sharper. Much like facing New York Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis(notes) in the AFC championship game, Manning will likely make his living on offense where Sharper isn't. Because as Manning has explained in the past, film study is as much about finding out what not to do.
While Sharper has never picked off Manning, the Colts quarterback has seen Sharper feast on his younger brother Eli, intercepting four passes thrown by the New York Giants quarterback and returning two of them for touchdowns. Amazingly, that stat is even slightly merciful – Sharper picked off Eli Manning(notes) in Week 6 this season and returned it for a score only to have it negated by a personal foul penalty on Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma(notes).
Maybe that's what Peyton Manning had in mind when he either accidentally or purposely referred to Darren as "Jamie" Shaper during ESPN's broadcast of the Pro Bowl on Sunday. Jamie Shaper is a onetime NFL veteran and Darren's older brother. While it appeared to be a slip of the tongue, it's not beyond Manning to play subtle mind games, either. Whatever the case, Sharper noticed, at one point jokingly referring to Peyton as "Eli" during Monday's meet-and-greet session with the media.
Surely, Manning took note of Williams' talk of delivering some "remember me" shots on the Colts quarterback – a goal of abusing Manning, an extension of what the Jets tried and failed to do in the AFC championship game. But the Saints have an edge the Jets didn't in Sharper, whose hitting ability, hands and ball skills far outshine those of anything New York had to offer.
"You always pick and choose [against Manning]," Sharper said. "If you pick one thing to do [schematically], he'll kill you. He'll burn you many times. He knows how to change things up and adapt to what defenses try to do to him. You always have to play that little game. Gregg Williams likes to play those chess games. It will be a good one."
And Sharper could very well be the difference. For all the hype about offenses and quarterbacks and coaching styles, a Super Bowl has rarely passed this decade without a pivotal defensive play. From the 100-yard interception return by Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison(notes) one year ago, to the strip and forced fumble by Giants defensive end Justin Tuck(notes) in 2008, to a litany of other game-changing moments, arguably no other defensive player on the field stacks up to Sharper's big-play résumé.
As he put it shortly before the NFC championship game, "I was brought here to be a difference maker and make things happen."
That expectation will never be larger than on Sunday against the Colts.