‘We’re the decathletes of NFL’: Is cornerback the toughest position in football?

By Ryan Baldi
All Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey intercepts a pass intended for Chicago Bears tight end Jimmy Graham during a game last season
All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey intercepts a pass intended for Chicago Bears tight end Jimmy Graham during a game last season. Photograph: Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times/REX/Shutterstock

The NFL kicked off on Thursday night and the first full weekend of action starts on Sunday. As usual, attention will be heaped on star quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady. Indeed, quarterback is often described as the toughest position in sports. But are we being unfair to cornerbacks? While quarterbacks know exactly which play is coming, cornerbacks don’t – and they also need the athletic chops to go step for step with wide receivers and the robustness to tackle opponents moving at high speed.

We spoke to three former cornerbacks – who, between them, account for almost 400 NFL games, two Pro Bowl appearances and two Super Bowl rings – to determine whether theirs is, in fact, the most difficult and demanding position in football.

What are the key attributes an NFL cornerback needs?

Cris Dishman (12 years in the NFL, with the Houston Oilers, Washington, Kansas City Chiefs and Minnesota Vikings): Defensive backs have to be so much more athletic than anybody else on the team. We’ve got to back-pedal, we’ve got to open, we’ve got to plant and drive. A receiver just has to run 10 yards and cut. We have to be great tacklers, too.

Tyrone Poole (13 years in the NFL, with the Carolina Panthers, Indianapolis Colts, Denver Broncos and New England Patriots): A cornerback has to be smart. You’ve got to be able to read routes, you have to be able to read formations, because the higher you go up – from high school to college to professional – the game is so much faster.

You’ve got to be able to catch the ball. The old saying was that a defensive back was a wide receiver who couldn’t catch, but I beg to differ. I’ve seen some defensive backs make some athletic catches.

And you’ve got to have confidence. That’s probably the biggest thing. There will be times when you get picked on. You’re going to get passes caught on you, you’re going to get touchdowns caught on you. The key is: how fast can you get that bad play out of your head? Remember it, but don’t remember it to the point it becomes a distraction.

Antonio Banks (Three years in the NFL with the Minnesota Vikings): You need to be a workaholic. You have to be very patient. You have to love the game, as far as studying it, studying your opponent, getting prepared for the guy you’re going against. And you need to be able to run, you’ve got to have speed. If you have those things, that will give you a chance on a Sunday.

What is the most difficult part of a cornerback’s job?

Dishman: Not knowing what the offense is going to do. As defenders, we’re always guessing. We do our film work. We know if he lines up on this hash, two yards inside the numbers, he should do this, he can’t do that, but we’re always guessing. The [opposing team] can always change up. Sometimes their tendencies change. It’s the fear of the unknown.

Poole: Probably confidence. You can be too confident. Sometimes being too confident will make you do something that you’re not supposed to do.

Banks: You can be having a great game – you can have 10 great plays, good coverage – then it can be the fourth quarter, they’re driving the ball, and for whatever reason you don’t get the job done and they end up scoring. Before you know it, you’re the goat. It only takes that one play to really stick in your craw as a DB. So you’ve got to be relentless until the whistle blows – until there are no more plays to be played, no more snaps to be had – before you can feel like you’ve done a good job.

Green Bay’s Jaire Alexander intercepts a pass intended for Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans
Green Bay’s Jaire Alexander intercepts a pass intended for Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans. Photograph: Jeffrey Phelps/AP

Who was the toughest receiver you had to cover?

Dishman: If I had to put up my top-five list, I would go with: Michael Irvin number one, because he was very physical at the line of scrimmage; Jerry Rice number two, because he ran very precise routes; John Taylor was number three, the other receiver over there [on the San Francisco 49ers] – I always tell people, if he was at any other team he’d be the number one receiver; number four I have to go with Andre Reed at Buffalo; and then [Andre] “Bad Moon” Rison there at Atlanta.

Poole: That’s an easy question. Jerry Rice, hands down. He was number one a hard worker. Every route was full speed. Some receivers, you can tell if the ball isn’t coming to them because they’ll run their routes half speed. Jerry Rice ran every route full speed.

Banks: There were so many. I was blessed to play with some great ones. When I was in Minnesota, we had Cris Carter, Randy Moss and Jake Reed. Having to go against those guys every day was a task in itself. With Randy Moss, it didn’t matter how far back you got, he was going to go past you, he was going to outjump you.

What does a cornerback have to think about that other positions don’t?

Dishman: Playing defense, you’ve always got to think about when the ball is coming your way. As a DB, you can’t want the ball to go the other way. I know I didn’t. I wanted the ball to come my way so I could make the play to help my team win. Thinking of when that play was coming my way, those were my most anxious moments.

Poole: We’re like quarterbacks, because we’ve got to think the game. We’re like wide receivers, because when they throw the ball, we have to be able to catch the ball. Then we turn into running backs. We have to be able to run the ball. Then, on top of that, we have to be like linebackers, we have to be able to tackle. A defensive back is like in the Olympics, we’re decathletes.

Banks: You’ve got to think about not falling, not slipping. You’ve got to think of the three As: alignment, assignment, adjustment – and also have awareness. You’ve got to know all those things real fast, before the ball is snapped. If you go against a top-notch wide receiver, you know the ball is coming. It’s a matter of, can you make a play?

Is cornerback the most difficult position in football?

Dishman: I’d have to say quarterback is number one, because quarterbacks have so much pressure on them. They always have the ball in their hand, and the wrong decision by a quarterback can make you win or lose a football game. The second-hardest position is DB ... If I jump a route and [my opponent] scores a touchdown, if it’s third and 10 with 13 seconds left in the ball game and we lose, everyone knows that I’m the one who jumped the route.

It’s a thinker’s position. It’s a chess match between you and the offense. It’s a game within a game out there on the edges.

Banks: I think it is. You’re out there by yourself. Everybody knows that when the ball is coming your way, was it an incomplete pass or was it a catch? You can be having a great game covering, but there can be that one time where you don’t make the right adjustments and it costs the game. It’s a tough position. Nowadays, you can’t touch the guy. They make it tough on you.

Poole: Definitely, I think it’s the most difficult. The defensive line can mess up and they’ve got the linebackers to back them up. The linebackers can mess up and they’ve got us to back them up. But if we mess up, usually you’ve got that guy with the stripes on pointing to the sky for a touchdown.


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