Even though he didn't enter the NFL until three years after the league implemented the so-called "Isaac Curtis Rule" in 1974, a dramatic alteration to the game which limited the physical contact a defensive back could have with a receiver, Lester Hayes fondly recalls a time when playing cornerback was equal parts skill, skullduggery, and thuggery.
A wide receiver tried to get inside you on a post pattern, remembered the great Oakland Raiders cornerback, and a well-placed forearm shiver dissuaded him from making a hard cut. An elbow in the back usually knocked a receiver off his hook route. And if you got your legs unintentionally (wink) tangled with a would-be pass catcher as he exploded up the boundary on an out-and-up, well, no compound fracture, no flag.
It was a time, for receivers, when running unimpeded through a defensive backfield was much tougher than walking through a dark alley at night and emerging at the other end with your watch still on your wrist and your billfold in your pocket. On the flip side, playing in the secondary automatically made you a primary suspect every time some guy wandered into a police station claiming to have been mugged.
According to Hayes, who many people feel should be in the Hall of Fame, first you beat up on a wide receiver, then you beat on his ear drums, sweet-talkin' him about how hard it was to cover him. It was, for sure, assault and flattery, elevated to an art form.
But that was then and this is now. And now is a season, exactly three decades after the introduction of the "Isaac Curtis Rule," which made contact with a receiver illegal after five yards, when Lester Hayes would not want to try playing cornerback in the league, even if he located the Fountain of Youth and was 25 years old again.
"You know the old TV show The Fugitive, where they're looking for that one-armed man?" said Hayes, one of the game's most accomplished bump-and-run defenders while in his prime. "Wouldn't last more than a week nowdays. All you've got to do is go out to an NFL game this year, and you'll find a bunch of one-armed guys, trying to play cornerback. And, really, it might be worse than that. It might be like watching Venus (de Milo) out there trying to 'check' the wide receivers."
One of the NFL's greatest and most colorful orators, Hayes was always susceptible, of course, to a dose of overstatement. So when Hayes begins a monologue, one must always apply to it a certain hyperbole quotient. But in addressing the plight of cornerbacks for this season, when the NFL has revisited the "chuck' rule and made it a point of emphasis for game officials, his views might not be too far overboard.
In an effort to grow the passing game -- and coming off a 2003 in which average passing yards per game slumped to 200.4, the lowest level since 1992, when the mean was 187.6 passing yards -- the league has returned to the roots of the "Isaac Curtis Rule." Officials will call illegal contact more stridently in 2004, certainly at the outset of the season, in a rather thinly veiled effort to produce more plays.
It is, in economic and political terms, laissez-faire football. Essentially, the laissez-faire doctrine, popularized in the mid-18th century, postulated a system works best when there is a hands-off approach. The hope of the NFL seems to be that, with cornerbacks forced into a hands-off mode, big plays in the passing game and, thus, scoring, will increase.
Among defensive backs, the heightened emphasis on the rule is just the latest example of a leaguewide bias toward offensive play. Even among knowledgeable fans, the rule has been more scrutinized this summer than the women's beach volleyball competition at the Olympic games. The upshot: No position will be more under the microscope this season than the cornerback spot.
"Basically, you're out there on an island anyway, under the best of circumstances," said Philadelphia cornerback Lito Sheppard, a third-year veteran going into his first season as an Eagles full-time starter. "That's bad enough. But now, with this move, it's like they've just tossed us into the ocean with no life jacket, no paddles, no life preserver, nothing. It's like, 'OK, sink or swim, guys. And, oh, yeah, by the way, you can't use your arms to try to tread water.' They've taken a lot of stuff out of the game."
More accurately, what the NFL has done is return to the game a rule that was already in existence, but which had been loosely called for many years. And in that sense, football - just as is the case in hockey, where tripping in the first 58 minutes of a match isn't the same as it is in the final two minutes - has erred. Had the rule been called consistently over the years, there would not be the hue and cry that has emanated from cornerbacks, or at least not the degree of consternation now being voiced.
During the '03 season, illegal contact was flagged 79 times, or roughly once every three games. The last time the NFL forced the spotlight onto the rule, essentially making it a point of emphasis in 1994, illegal contact fouls leaguewide increased threefold over the previous season.
In their training camps visits with coaches and players, sessions in which the officials go over rules changes and alterations, the zebras have emphasized that defensive backs will certainly undergo an adjustment period. Players will have to adapt to the closer calls and to hone pure coverage skills. What the players fear most, however, is a season marred by incessant illegal contact calls, a flag daze of sorts.
"Is it equitable?" asked Buffalo Bills cornerback Troy Vincent. "No, of course not, but this is the way it always is when they want more scoring. I mean, what's the last rule they put in to help the defense, really? But, hey, it is what it is, and we all have to adapt to it."
And by "all," Vincent means players, coaches, even scouts.
Over the past decade, the emphasis in scouting departments has been on identifying and acquiring bigger, more physical cornerbacks. Even with that dictate, projected starting wide receivers for 2004 are still, on average, nearly 1˝ inches taller and roughly seven pounds heavier than their cornerback counterparts. So even before enforcement of the "chuck" rule was implemented by the influential Competition Committee this spring, the cornerbacks were at a physical disadvantage. Now the gap as widened.
Said one AFC personnel director: "I know, for our team, we had to take it into account in our draft planning. Instead of focusing on the bigger corners, the guys we felt matched up well with bigger receivers, we had to look at guys who had maybe purer coverage skills. I mean, bigger is always going to be better, all things being equal. But if what we're seeing in preseason is going to be the standard, as far as calling the illegal contact, then what we will see around the league is the premium shifting back to smaller guys who are quicker, can run, and can cover without using their hands as much."
The change will place more emphasis on technique and mechanics, as well, and that was evident in many of the training camps ESPN.com visited this summer. In two camps, the cornerbacks actually worked a drill in which they backpedaled with their hands behind their backs, an awkward exercise to be sure, and then just worked hard to get back to the ball with quickness and footwork.
Watching those drills, the words of Lester Hayes and his allusion to having the Venus de Milo aligned at cornerback didn't seem quite as preposterous. League officials are fond of insisting they do not attempt to legislate playing styles, trends in the game, or scoring. But the sense of cornerbacks around the NFL is that the average passing yards per game will rise exponentially in 2004, perhaps to more than the 215.5-yard level of 1995, the highest norm in the past 20 years.
The perception is that illegal contact fouls will mushroom, that wide receivers will frolic unchecked through secondaries, that, for sure, cornerbacks will be targeted as scapegoats on a more frequent basis. Fortunately, the game is such a cyclical entity that, in time, it will adapt and compensate. But that won't happen quickly enough for most cornerbacks who figure to enter the 2004 season with what Ricky Manning of the Carolina Panthers termed a "marked man syndrome."
"The referees are watching us closer, the coaches are watching us closer because we can't just be giving up first downs on five-yard 'contact' penalties, and probably the fans will be watching us, too," Manning said. "We've definitely had the heat turned up on us."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer at ESPN.com.