The Myth of the Short Cornerback
When the Broncos drafted Alphonso Smith with their first pick in the second round of the NFL Draft, a huge cry went up among the pundits. Smith? No! He's too short! Shorter cornerbacks are at too big of a disadvantage. The belief was that if a receiver is taller than the coverage guy, all the offense has to do is to have their quarterback throw the ball up out of the cornerback’s reach and they will have reception after reception. This is such a common representation that I started to fire up NFL Rewind and to look for instances when it was true. The more football I watched, the more I realized that it only infrequently happened. Receptions commonly occur when the receiver is in front of the cornerback (and height doesn't matter that that point) or when the quarterback places the ball perfectly out in front as both are running (in whatever direction) but I could count the receptions where the wide receiver snared a pass that was thrown over a shorter corner such that the receiver leaps for it perfectly on just one hand. If it didn't work with just one receiver (looking specifically at taller receivers vs. shorter CBs) or in one game, sure, but in game after game it was a rarity and in most it didn't happen at all. I started to wonder, 'Why?'
This article is not meant to argue that there are no advantages to having a somewhat taller corner. There are, certainly, in some situations, depending on the other skills or lack thereof on the part of the players. However, a trade-off is at play here. Taller corners are often, although not always, slightly less nimble than the smaller corners. In a position where the ability to get around a receiver and to flash in and out of his circle, nimble means more balls defended and less penalties incurred. Of course, the number-one skill of the NFL cornerback - which is the ability to never lose your confidence, according to former Broncos cornerback Charles Dimry (himself over 6 feet) - has nothing to do with size. Quickness, both in foot speed and in hand speed, along with balance, vertical leap, body control, vision, controlled aggression, and courage are all important factors regardless of height.
Is there, however, a good example of a cornerback whose height has permitted him to use his (unusual) quickness to extraordinary example? If you were thinking of Michael Haynes, Hall of Fame cornerback and punt returner, you were right on the money. In a career that included stints with the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Raiders, Haynes managed to garner 46 interceptions during that time and gained 1,159 yards as a punt returner over the course of his career. He was the Patriots' first of three 1st-round picks (5th overall) in the 1976 NFL draft. Haynes was a true rarity, a 6'2" cornerback who was both fast and quick. Obviously - if you have a cornerback who has that kind of height and yet does not sacrifice any speed or quickness, he has a chance to be something truly special. Haynes was. But as I watched more and more games, I realized how much of a rarity he was.
As I watched the plays, still not seeing this link between the taller receiver and the high reception out of the smaller CB's reach, I realized that the answers to why it didn't happen were many, but they were also fairly simple. Obviously, most cornerbacks are quick, fast and nimble. Many of them – most of them, in fact (since it's a job requirement), have excellent leaping skills and excellent hand speed. That turned out to be one thing that really did matter. In one sense, their job is much easier than the wide receiver's. They don’t have to catch the football – Hoosierteacher has pointed out that it’s far more important to consistently bat the pass away than it is to intercept it, although interceptions are certainly appreciated. Passes defensed is a much more important number than interceptions, at the end of the day.
Colinski has been writing on the Magic Inch idea recently. To summarize (I hope), he's referring to the fact that if Smith was a fraction of an inch taller and was thus listed at 5'10", for example, few would have blinked at drafting him. Is that fraction-of-an-inch all important? My belief is that it's not, and there are several reasons that I feel this way. They are the same reasons that the height advantage seemed overplayed when watching film.
The first reason is this – all the cornerback has to do is to deflect the ball. While it's a very good thing to intercept a pass, defending all of them is an even bigger job. The CB can leap, and at the top of that leap just nudge it enough to change its trajectory out of the hands of the receiver. He can do so with a single hand – most of them do - while the receiver, in most cases, needs to be able to grasp the ball with both. Most cornerbacks are very skilled at leaping - new Bronco Alphonso Smith is justifiably famous for his 'hops' ability, and it should stand him in good stead.
I can give you a second reason, and you can test it for yourself. Try this sometime – Standing next to a tall wall, leap upwards with one hand and tap a wall at the top of your arc. Notice how high you can reach this way. Now – try to leap up and ‘grab’ just about 6 inches above that mark (the height you'd need to grab a football) with both hands. Rarely will you be able to do so. That’s another reason that the cornerback has a strong advantage. Again, tipping the ball at the top of his jump and tapping the ball is all that’s necessary for a cornerback to make a play.
There’s a third reason, and you can see this during the course of any football game. In order to catch a pass, you usually have to reach up or out and get your hands around the ball, control it and bring it down or at least into your body in order to keep control. Consider this – from the moment before the ball reaches your hands to the moment you control it against your body, the ball is vulnerable, and so are you. Your obligation as a wide receiver is to bring it down – in other words, to bring the ball right into the cornerbacks’ area of interest. While you, the receiver, are bringing the ball down and into your body, the cornerback has his opportunity to knock the ball away. Height no longer matters, because if the cornerback is taller than your waist, you’re working for him.
That's why Alphonso Smith forced 6 fumbles between '07 and '08. This short internet show at the 'fumbles' link starts off by noting that 5'9" corners are generally nickelbacks in the NFL but states specifically that Smith defies that stereotype. It shows his leaping ability, timing and ability to get between the ball and the receiver, with photos to explain why that's true. It should be required watching for MHR members and visitors - agree or not, you'll understand the draft pick much better when you see it.
Is there an exception among receivers? Interestingly, the sole exception who is frequently named by players and coaches alike is former Viking and current New England Patriot Randy Moss. At 6’4", he is about the same size as Brandon Marshall. In different books, both Mike Shanahan and former quarterback Phil Simms mentioned Moss as a very rare 'someone' who lets the quarterback play ‘playground football'. If you put it up, Moss seems to have a unique skill at bringing it down, protecting it and completing the reception. But, according to each of them (Simms and Shanahan) that’s a single exception, and there are a lot of passes thrown every Sunday. I'm sure that there are other such players in degree (and Brandon Marshall also comes to mind), who also have some of this skill, but Moss draws the most attention. It's worth noting that at 6'4", Marshall is a lot taller than any of the NFL corners. It's one of his advantages, but much shorter CBs still stymie him at times. It's really about the skill of the corner, and I haven't heard a soul claim that Smith lacks that.
The fourth reason that the size issue seems to be overstated is that throwing the pass in such a way as to throw over the up-stretched hands of the cornerback but not to overthrow the receiver at playing speed requires an unusual level of skill, even for an NFL quarterback. Is it impossible? No, of course not . But it’s very difficult and much more so to achieve at game speed with any kind of consistency. Watch a few games for yourself on TV or on NFL Rewind and see for yourself. The exception? The fade route in the corner of the end zone, which teams practice diligently. That does work, but it seems to work equally well against taller corners too; I'm honestly not sure that height is a big advantage there. It's mostly physics and geometry - if you can throw the ball over the cornerback and over the head of your receiver and if the receiver is behind the corner he may, if thing are perfect, be able to catch the ball before stepping out of bounds. That can happen to any corner of any height. Is reach a factor? Always - but generally not a conclusive one.
There is just one more reason that you don't see that high reception and it has more to do with safeties than cornerbacks although it can happen with either. Putting that pass in high is often referred to as 'laying the receiver out'. Sure, if all the factors line up and the pass is thrown perfectly, you can, in some situations, throw it over the cornerback, just exactly high enough to permit the WR to leap and catch it perfectly. But if that happens, you'd better pray that there isn't a safety helping out over the top and just begging for such a circumstance to permit him his moment of fame on SportsCenter as he sledgehammers the receiver's kidneys clear through the front of his uniform. Perfectly legal, very desirable, perfectly miserable for the receiver and probable cause for a 'chat' between quarterback and WR regarding why that's a very, very bad idea.
This myth has taken on a life of its own. Some players and coaches and most of the pundits will affirm that you need height to guard height. But in the harsh lights of the game itself, that rarely seems to matter. It might be interesting to keep an eye out for this during the coming preseason and regular season and to make note of examples both for and against.
As far as the question of this 'myth', if it is one, apparently no one has told the 5'8" Darrell Green about it. He's currently sitting in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Perhaps we should go there and ask him about it.