Few players who don’t routinely carry the football — i.e. quarterbacks, running backs and pass catchers — become bona fide superstars. Scoring touchdowns and racking up numerous easily measurable statistics is a main part of that discrimination, discrimination only amplified by millions of fantasy football players across the country.
So it’s quite remarkable cornerback Darrelle Revis, who has officially carried the football only 41 times over a 10-year career, became a household name. Anyone who even casually followed the NFL during that time knew exactly where to find Revis Island on a football field: in a small patch of green surrounding the man wearing a No. 24 jersey.
Revis Island was targeted and successfully fired upon repeatedly last year. And with his impending release from the New York Jets — complicated further by newfound legal troubles stemming from a February street brawl in Pittsburgh — the island may permanently sink into retirement like Waponi Woo did in the Tom Hanks film Joe Versus the Volcano.
Even if Revis never plays another snap in the NFL — although it’s not out of the question he signs with another club — he is a worthy candidate for eventual enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Revis’ personal statistics are terribly misleading and a great example of how ineffective and limited defensive statistics are compared to offensive numbers. He never led the NFL in interceptions, only once nabbed more than five in a single season, and only has 3 touchdowns to his name. There are a handful of linebackers in NFL history with those types of numbers.
Despite not gobbling up interceptions and frequently putting together dazzling returns like Ed Reed, the four time first-team All Pro, seven-time Pro Bowler was arguably the most feared (at least by opposing quarterbacks) defensive back since Deion Sanders in the mid-1990s. In a league that plays far more zone coverage than it once did, Revis reminded us that even in today’s pass-happy NFL true shut down corners aren’t extinct.
But Revis’ place among the truly great corners in NFL history is complicated by three factors: a sharp and unexpected decline, a comparatively short stretch of true greatness and his impatience with contracts.
Perhaps it was overblown, given his, some would say, starring role on a bad team covered daily by the New York media, but Revis was under siege throughout the 2016 season. He was torched several times for huge gains and scores by players as illustrious as A.J. Green, as unheralded as Marquise Goodwin and as raw as rookie Malcolm Mitchell.
Given how respected and prestigious Revis has been since entering the league, any erosion of skills and success is going to be easily noticed. And one bad year — featuring a handful of poor plays — doesn’t necessarily generate flashbacks to Willie Mays falling down in center field in the 1973 World Series or Joe Namath in a Los Angeles Rams jersey throwing 4 interceptions against the Bears in 1977. But to fall from a Pro Bowl selection in 2015 to a truly terrible showing a year later is a shocking collapse.
Of course almost all great players lose their skills late in their career: Jim Brown, Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson are anomalies. But what’s most striking about Revis’ 2016 season — should the 31-year-old opt to retire rather than play for the league minimum to earn a bigger deal later — is how comparatively short his run at the top lasted.
The lifespan of a cornerback is far greater than most. In the modern era alone, Darrell Green, Charles Woodson, Champ Bailey, Sanders, Ty Law, Aeneas Williams, even Rod Woodson before he switched to safety, all enjoyed a minimum of 10 years of excellence. Given he missed virtually all of the 2012 season with a knee injury, Revis has only been an elite corner for at most nine seasons.
And if Revis does retire after his 10th NFL season, his mercenary-like attitude regarding his contracts might make more sense. Revis didn’t invent holding out or demanding a raise — countless players in the NFL and other sports had done so far before his arrival — but he certainly made an art form out of it.
In his third season, Revis became a superstar, playing a major role in the Jets’ AFC Championship game appearance and finishing second in the NFL Defensive Player of the Year race, something that more than irked his head coach.
“This, in my opinion, was the best year a corner has ever had, the most impact a corner has ever had in the National Football League,” Rex Ryan said. “That’s my opinion. Apparently, that wasn’t how everybody felt.”
Given his head coach’s praise, it’s no wonder that when Revis skipped training camp the following summer, in order to get a raise, his demands were ultimately met. Two years after successfully forcing a renegotiation, he again complained to the press about his contract, and suggested he might skip training camp. The next offseason, he essentially forced a trade to Tampa Bay, where he signed a six-year, $96-million contract, that lasted roughly 11 months. He engineered his release from the Bucs, then signed a one-year, $12-million deal with the Patriots. For whatever reason — either his unhappiness in New England or the $8 million raise he was due in 2015 — Revis did not return to the Patriots but did return to the Jets, after a three year sabbatical.
Revis’ frequent demands for more money doesn’t hurt his legacy as one of the great corners in NFL history. After all, Sanders left teams for a higher bidder several times in his career. And a me-first player who seemingly cares more about dollars than team or loyalty is commonplace. But the Revis offseason contract watch drama overshadowed at least a portion of all his on-the-field excellence.
When NFL historians select their 100th anniversary team three years from now, Revis might be on the short list of cornerbacks considered. But no one should expect to see his name on the press release of first, or even second-team starting lineups.
He didn’t have the longevity of Darrell Green or Charles Woodson, the physicality of Richard Sherman or the versatility of Ronnie Lott and Rod Woodson. But in his prime, during the 21st century, no corner could single-handedly turn an opposing team’s star receiver invisible for 60 minutes quite like Darrelle Revis.