If I had to pick a play that best summed up what Darrelle Revis could do as the best cornerback of this pass-heavy era of the NFL, it would be one in which he actually gave up a catch.
Revis hated doing that, of course. His 11-year pro career, which ended with Wednesday’s retirement announcement, was filled with stories about what a personal affront it was whenever a receiver caught a pass on him, even in practice. But just indulge me by looking at this:
Well, okay, Peyton Manning audibling into a different play happened all the time. Now watch what occurred just before and after the snap:
That’s Revis again stepping away from the line of scrimmage, thus baiting Manning into throwing a wide receiver screen to Reggie Wayne, who was forced to step around safety Dwight Lowery, right to where Revis could make the tackle. It was a catch on a third-and-8, but it resulted in a harmless 1-yard gain. This was the game in which the Jets upset the Colts during the 2010 playoffs, and it was Revis’s masterpiece: Wayne had caught an AFC-best 111 passes during the regular season, yet that play was the only time he was targeted all night, which is what I love about it. It’s the only actual highlight there is to show. On every other passing play from that game, Manning barely looked in Wayne’s direction. This is what Revis did when he was at his best. He cast an impenetrable fog over an entire half of the field, disappearing both himself and the receiver he was tasked with covering. The rest of the game just went on without them—as if the world had forgotten they were even there.
Revis was no longer on an NFL roster by the time he announced his retirement; his skills had deteriorated rapidly in recent years, so he was basically retired without having made it official. Still, it was refreshing to see most of the look-backs on his career this week zero in on why he mattered, both for his play on the field, and for how he turned the NFL’s team-friendly salary system against itself, as Mina Kimes so expertly detailed in a 2015 cover story for ESPN The Magazine.
But there aren’t many larger lessons to be drawn from Revis’s story. His ability to erase half the field—and to neuter (if not eliminate) many of the game’s best wideouts in the process—was so singular, it may no longer be possible. There are now rules that emphasize a prohibition on contact after five yards, and offenses have evolved into multi-pronged attacks that pressure defenses horizontally as much as vertically, with multiple receivers, backs, and tight ends lined up all over the formation. Cornerbacks are still extremely valuable, but they largely need to have help these days. That’s why Revis’s 2009 season still doesn’t seem real:
The other Revis highlight that stays with me is from Week 2 of that ’09 season, from the second game of Rex Ryan’s swashbuckling brand of “Organized Chaos,” of which Revis was a cornerstone. Randy Moss spent much of his career stretching defenses and abusing defenders downfield, but there was Revis—even with safety help up top—outrunning Moss to pick off Tom Brady:
Message sent. Rex’s Jets beat the Pats that day, and they also proved they could be a worthwhile adversary. Even if the Jets never reached the Super Bowl with Revis, and even if they never could oust the Pats from atop the AFC East, they did win a playoff game in Foxboro the following season, one week after that upset of the Colts. It remains the franchise’s proudest moment since Joe Namath jogged off the field wagging his finger into the South Florida twilight. Namath will always be more consequential to the Jets (and to pro football), but Revis was the Jets’ best player.
Revis likewise distinguished himself with his ability to wrangle every penny he could from teams typically accustomed to doing the same to their players. He had the kind of leverage most players don’t have, and he not only used it, but used it wisely—first by getting more than what was slotted with his rookie deal, then by holding out for a frontloaded second contract that allowed his pay to keep up with his burgeoning ability, then by forcing a trade, then by forgoing guarantees in lieu of max value, then by staking a giant bet on himself while also winning a ring with (of all teams) the Patriots, then by parlaying that into a much-hyped return to the Jets that included a sizable guarantee just as he was about to turn 30. Both on and off the field, Revis Island was an outlier.
One of Revis’s ex-Jets teammates, the wideout Brandon Marshall, once said that what made Revis special was his ability to read a receiver, to pick up on the little tells that might indicate when a wideout might break a certain way on his route, or when that wideout might try to go deep—a drop of the shoulder at the top of the route here, a flick of the elbow as he takes off there. These were the sorts of things Revis gleaned from hours of maniacal film study. His preparation revealed to him things that we, as casual football watchers, could never see for ourselves. It’s hard to think of a more fitting way to explain his greatness.