On Sharper, the Saints and scheme

In his first season in New Orleans, Darren Sharper intercepted nine passes, returning three for TDs. John David Mercer/US Presswire

MIAMI -- How many football lives does Darren Sharper have?

We’ve counted him out at least twice before. There was his departure from Green Bay after the 2004 season, one spurred because the Packers thought he was in marked decline. The next season, Sharper was an All-Pro in Minnesota.

After last season, the Vikings thought he couldn’t help them anymore, and like the Packers, they let him depart via free agency. After two months on the market, New Orleans signed him to a one-year deal worth about $1.5 million.

In 2009, he was an All-Pro once again.

Sharper’s career renaissance with the Saints has been a testament to conditioning, motivation and smart instincts. More than anything, however, it provided a template for how to use, waste and misjudge the specific skills of a player.

In 2004, the Packers blamed a lack of speed -- rather than a knee injury -- on Sharper’s decline in play. From 2006-08, the Vikings squeezed him into a Cover 2 scheme that minimized his playmaking abilities.

In his All-Pro years of 2005 and 2009, however, Sharper played in less rigid schemes that emphasized player flexibility. In those two years alone, he intercepted 18 passes and returned five for touchdowns. During the three years in between? Nine interceptions and one touchdown.

Many followers of the NFC North seem astounded by Sharper’s production this season in New Orleans, where he is one of the primary reasons the Saints will appear in Super Bowl XLIV. To me, it’s pretty simple. He could have been doing this all along -- in the right scheme.

“Playing in the style I played in Minnesota, I was kind of a protector,” Sharper said. “I was the guy that kept everything in front of us and tired to prevent the big play. In [the Saints] defense, I’m allowed to be a playmaker and trust my instincts and attack the football. It’s two different worlds, from where I was last year and where I am this year. That’s the biggest difference.”

I know it’s easy to blame the scheme, but I don’t think there’s much to argue here. After recovering from his knee injury before the 2005 season, Sharper used his veteran knowledge to intercept nine passes. Most of them were based on a combination of film study and eye-reading, which allowed him to jump routes by making educated guesses on where the quarterback would throw.

To me, that strategy was rendered moot early in 2006 season, after the Vikings switched to a “Tampa 2” style under new coordinator Mike Tomlin. In the sixth game of the season, Sharper believed Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck was going to throw a slant route to a tight end and began sprinting toward the expected spot.

Hasselbeck noticed it and redirected his throw toward slot receiver Darrell Jackson, who took a short pass 72 yards straight down the middle of the field for a touchdown. That’s the risk and reward of taking chances on jumping routes. The Vikings won the game 31-13, but the Vikings made clear they expected Sharper to play within the defense from that point forward.

I asked Sharper this week if ever he lobbied the Vikings to loosen the restrictions on his position.

“Always,” Sharper said.

And what did they say?

According to Sharper: “They just kept doing what they were doing.”

Just so we’re clear, there’s nothing wrong with employing a “Tampa 2” style defense. In fact, given the Vikings’ personnel mix -- especially their dominant defensive line -- it makes a lot of sense. But I like the way Hall of Fame safety Rod Woodson put it when we talked about Sharper this week.

“If you want to be a Cover 2 team,” Woodson said, “you don’t need Darren Sharper as your safety.”

What’s amazing, however, is that Sharper picked up in 2009 where he left off in 2005. If there has been any kind of physical decline at age 34, it’s noticeable only by the receding hairline and that fact that two of his college teammates -- Tomlin and Sean McDermott -- are now coaching in the NFL.

Otherwise, Sharper appears to be at the top of his game and provides the Saints with their best chance to slow down Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning. It’s been lost on few people that Sharper has had some of the best games of his career against Manning’s brother, New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning, intercepting him four times in three games.

But can Sharper out-think Peyton? That dynamic should be one of the biggest questions and matchups of Super Bowl XLIV.

“I don’t know if you want to read Peyton’s eyes too much,” Sharper said. “He kind of has those cat eyes that’ll trick you if you watch them too much. The thing with Eli is that I got a lot more opportunities against him. We’ll see if Peyton is going to give me some opportunities because of our defense. … Peyton is a little bit older, so I think he has seen a lot of things that defenses can throw at you. So it might be a little bit of a tougher challenge to get him than it was compared to his brother.”

Trust me when I tell you Sharper will be highly motivated. He went to the Super Bowl as a rookie with Green Bay in 1997, and it wasn’t until 12 years later that he so much as played in another NFC Championship Game. He said this week that “I have done everything I can possibly do to get myself and my team in position to win this game” and is urging his teammates to do the same.

“As a rookie, I thought I’d be back many times,” he said. “So I’ve let everyone know that, so hopefully we can appreciate this and make the most of it. I know one thing: I’m going to appreciate every moment of this and do everything I can to win it.”