So it has come to this: The great NFL running back is all but extinct. Wideouts are harder to differentiate because today's all-you-can-eat passing offenses have created a lot of receivers with a lot of catches. And the personalities of the league's best quarterbacks? Sorry, but there's not a Broadway Joe among them. If you ask Peyton or Eli Manning, Tom Brady or Drew Brees to discuss a game, each speaks as if he's embedded with a computer chip. They become as self-serious and homogenized as a closetful of gray suits.
Thank God, at least, for the swagger still coming from cornerbacks such as Seattle's Richard Sherman and Arizona's Patrick Peterson and Darrelle Revis, who is lying in the weeds now with the New England Patriots, his third team in three seasons, hoping to revive talk of Revis Island. And hey, Aqib Talib, you keep talking, too. Talib recently said he'd have chosen Peyton over Brady as the NFL's top quarterback even if he hadn't just left Brady's Pats to sign with the Broncos. "And he [Brady] knows that," Talib added, saying he had said it to Brady's face.
Cornerbacks are now the NFL's new divas, with their I'm-better Twitter beefs and preening and unapologetic talk about expanding their personal brands. They've roared into the void big-talking receivers such as Terrell Owens and Randy Moss and Chad Johnson used to fill, with Johnson's stunts such as sending a handwritten note and bottles of upset-stomach medicine to all four Cleveland DBs he was about to face. Today's cornerbacks seem unmindful of the paradox their chest-pounding behavior creates: They seem to have the NFL's most impossible job because of the unprecedented ways the league's rules are so slanted against them and passing offenses are conspiring to exploit them. Yet cornerbacks act as if they're in charge -- not the quarterbacks or wide receivers they face.
"No one should be able to cover [me] one-on-one," Atlanta wide receiver Julio Jones said the other day. "Nobody knows where you are going. With the speed and explosion I have, I don't think anybody can cover me unless they grab me because you are in a backpedal. I am coming at you 100 miles per hour. I can go left, right, any way I want to, or run right past you. You can't cover that. Not one-on-one."
"Matchup? This is a mismatch!" Sherman has been caught screaming on TV during games.
This is the logical endpoint of the way the NFL has been trending since the league forced defenses to go looking more than ever for some sort of kryptonite to stop passing offenses. So, if you don't like the preening that diva defensive backs are doing now, don't blame them. Blame the system that created them.
Cornerbacks' profiles are so elevated because they're more valuable to NFL teams than ever. And they know it.
Witness the unheard-of guaranteed money they're pulling down: $40 million to Sherman as part of the $57.4 million deal he signed on May 7; $45 million to Joe Haden, who just got a $68 million extension with Cleveland, the richest deal ever for a defensive back, less than a week later. Haden then celebrated in part by posting an Instagram of the new $200,000 Bentley Continental GT he gave his wife for their first anniversary.
Peterson should top them both of them when his contract negotiations with Arizona are done. But why wait? Already, Peterson calls himself the "Founder and President of #P2Nation!" ("It's a movement!") on his personal website. He started his Twitter beef with Sherman by asserting, "I actually do much more than he is."
Lockdown corners have never been at this kind of premium. Or felt so much license to talk.
"Yes, well, if you look at the league, it's been going to a more down-the-field, big-play offense thing; it's definitely become about quarterbacks and receivers, and defensive backs are just trying to match their fly," newly signed Giants corner Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie said Wednesday as we were standing by his locker, looking at his shoes. Or, more specifically, DRC's custom-made superhero-themed cleats. He has Batman cleats. Superman cleats. Captain America cleats. And red cleats with lightning bolts -- an homage to The Flash.
"I wear those," Rodgers-Cromartie explained, "when I'm feeling fast."
Asked what he'd have done if Victor Cruz ever did his salsa dance against him when he played elsewhere, Cromartie-Rodgers smiled and shot back, "We'd have had to go. I'd have gotten in his face." Why? "Because anytime you go one-on-one with somebody and at the end of the play, if they're celebrating, it kinda, you know... it hurts your feelings a little bit," Rodgers-Cromartie laughed. "I mean, you already caught the ball. If you do a little dance on me, too, you've got my attention. You are not gonna dance on me, too."
All this elevated noise might be irredeemably tiresome if it weren't seen as harmless fun by so many of the players involved. Many have said that all the back-and-forth woofing is just a natural outgrowth of competition.
"I don't hate Richard Sherman," Patrick has been careful to point out.
"Sometimes you get mad and say stuff you don't mean. ... We're all alpha males, and sometimes it happens like that," Seattle safety Earl Thomas said at the Seahawks minicamp this week after Sherman was involved in a practice scuffle with wideout Phil Bates -- then was later seen walking off the field arm in arm with Doug Baldwin, another wideout he mixed it up with in the ensuing scrum.
Of course, that was after Sherman picked off a pass later in practice.
No wonder he was in a good mood.
NFL cornerbacks have, of course, never been a shy bunch. Deion Sanders -- arguably the greatest of them all -- once threw a wink wink, ha-ha tantrum when he suspected a teammate had hidden the boxer shorts with the dollar signs that he used to wear to the stadium on game days. "Where are my lucky drawers? I can't play without my lucky drawers!" Sanders roared in the middle of the locker room as everyone around him laughed.
And yet, when asked during Super Bowl week who he thought was the best cornerback today, Sanders didn't pick Sherman, whom many acknowledge as the best trash-talker. Nor did Sanders follow the money and pick Haden.
He said he'd take Peterson because, "He does more for his team."
Cruz says Sherman is the best cornerback he has faced so far. And, although he stands by his needling that guys have to have a screw loose to play NFL cornerback, Cruz also admits he has to give shutdown corners their props.
"They have to be a little bit delusional -- but they get the job done," Cruz says, breaking into another laugh. "You know, we may get six or seven catches in a game. But one long pick-six changes the entire complexion of the game."
Did he say pick-six?
"Mismatch!" Sherman would scream.