Painted Into Capable Corner

Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor may no longer have elite skills but Marty Flaherty explains why Taylor should remain highly competitive at age 34.

Perhaps the most pervasive story of the Steelers' offseason has been the addition of Shaquille Richardson. Specifically, how stupid it was for that to be the most prominent move to address the cornerback position.

I never bought into that line of thinking, mostly because I never liked any of the cornerbacks available in the draft all that much, and the two I liked most didn’t make it to 15. But another important reason is that Ike Taylor probably isn't done.

In late December, one prominent news nugget for Steelers fans was that there had been "a little bit" of talk, in Ike Taylor's words, with the team about Taylor moving to safety. And at the time, it seemed like the overwhelming sentiment (though not mine) was that the Steelers thought Taylor was pretty much done at corner, and that the team was right to think so.

With free agency and the draft behind us, it's clear that the Steelers weren't thinking that. The free agent period, in which the Steelers flirted with corner Alterraun Verner and safety Louis Delmas before signing Mike Mitchell, presents a different interpretation.

The Steelers appear to have intended to find a long-term solution at either corner or free safety in free agency. Having Taylor as a possible option at free safety allowed them to consider signing a corner instead.

Alterraun Verner - who was 25, with 47 starts in four seasons and coming off a second-team All-Pro year - ended up costing Tampa Bay 29 cents on the cap dollar more than Mitchell, who has since turned 27 and had only one good season, with 22 starts.

This makes the most sense if you assume that talk of Taylor transitioning to safety was a realization on his and the team's part that safety was the bigger problem. Because if the sentiment was that Taylor was done at corner, that extra cap space for Verner would've been easy to come by.

Echoes of Denver

Much of the hand-wringing and rending of garments over Taylor's 2013 play stems from a two-game stretch in which Calvin Johnson and Josh Gordon put up 20 catches for 416 yards and 3 TDs.

No doubt Taylor had a pair of bad games. And because he's getting up there in years, it's easy to look at those games as evidence of the end of his career. But Josh Gordon’s 261 yards and two TDs the next week in a close game against Jacksonville put into perspective his 237 yards and one TD against a prevent defense protecting a huge lead. Of that, 78 yards and the TD were amassed when the Steelers had a 27-3 lead with less than 4:30 to play, plus 33 yards against a 27-11 lead with less than three minutes to play. Almost half of his yardage and his only TD was during garbage time.

And it’s not as if Johnson hasn’t had a big game before. He’s averaged 112 yards a game during the past three years.

But we've seen such a performance before from Taylor.

On Jan. 8, 2012, Dick LeBeau called a game plan against the Broncos that put Ike Taylor on an island against a stud receiver. Nobody knew just how good Demaryius Thomas was at that point, since he was acclimating to the NFL while catching passes from sub-par quarterbacks and had 834 career receiving yards in two seasons. Now, two seasons, 186 catches, 2,864 yards and 24 TDs later, everybody knows how tough that matchup really was.

And the Steelers had Ryan Mundy on the field to help out. Or, you know, not.

Casey Hampton's knee injury against the Broncos' league-leading, 2,632-yard rushing offense caused LeBeau to deploy Troy Polamalu even more extensively to buttress the front seven.

And really, that game against the Broncos, more than anything, is what should tell you that perception of Taylor's demise is overblown. That's two seasons before detractors claim Ike hit a wall with his play in 2013. Even before he supposedly lost a step, he demonstrated exactly what it looks like for Ike Taylor to play against a dominant receiver with an undynamic free safety who makes bad guesses and a strong safety who's busy helping out the front seven.

I don't blame the front office for keeping Ryan Clark around in 2013; nobody could possibly have been expected to guess when Clark's decline would occur. After a very good 2012 season, it was reasonable to bet that he had another year left. But the decline was inevitable, and Mundy gave us a pretty good preview of what it would look like.

The takeaway is that Taylor's performance in 2013 on an island against 1,400-yard receivers in Gordon, Johnson, and A.J. Green was pretty much the same as his playoff performance in 2011 against a guy who was destined to be a 1,400-yard receiver the next season. The drop-off in Taylor's play in the interim, while not zero, is way, way overblown.

And some of that setback is from the fractured ankle he suffered in December 2012. I'm not privy to Taylor's medical records, but recovery from even the least severe ankle fracture would've taken a big chunk out of his offseason training regimen prior to last season. The effects of more severe ankle injuries would’ve lingered through the duration of the 2013 season.

Elite or competitive?

It's difficult to be optimistic about players older than 30, and there's no doubt that Taylor isn't a long-term solution.

But it's not unrealistic to expect that he has years left, as long as the expectation is that he be competitive, rather than elite.

It's difficult to gauge individual performance in football, because it's a team sport. And it's difficult to determine the effects of aging, because salary cap concerns can do as much as performance, if not more, to determine at what point the end comes.

Ike Taylor, at 29, was electronically timed at 4.26 in the 40-yard dash. Tom Shaw, who trained Deion Sanders and Chris Johnson, says Taylor's the fastest he's ever trained. So I'd bet money on Taylor beating first-round cornerback option Darqueze Dennard in a footrace right now, and probably for the next five years. Long speed has never been his problem.

Track athletes can remain elite past 30, like Michael Johnson, who was a Olympic gold medalist at 33. Edwin Moses won the bronze, also at 33, in his final race. But that's pretty much the cutoff. Not necessarily because there's a performance cliff after 33; the likelier explanation is that there's a steep dropoff in motivation once you no longer imagine a realistic shot at a medal. Only three places really matter, so only the elite are competitive.

Tennis players, like track athletes, succeed or fail based on their performance alone. And the requisite skills for a tennis player are largely the same as those for a cornerback: breakneck acceleration, hair-trigger instincts, flawless footwork, quick change of direction and movement skills in every direction, among others.

They don't need long speed, but again, that's not Ike's problem.

But every other physical skill you need from a cornerback, you need as a tennis player. So the depreciation of skills for tennis players should give insight into how quickly such skills deteriorate.

On the occasion of Rafael Nadal's 28th birthday, a statistics wonk at broke down the age of men's tennis champions to project a slightly better than one-in-four chance that Nadal surpasses the major 17 titles Roger Federer has won. Combined with a very small likelihood that Federer wins more titles, Nadal is given just a 21.5 percent chance of finishing ahead of Federer.

The upshot is, unsurprisingly, that the going gets very, very rough after 30. Andre Agassi won the Australian Open in 2003 when he was 32. To find someone older than that, you have to go back to when the Steelers had no Lombardi Trophies, in 1972, when Ken Rosewall won the Australian Open at 37 and Andres Gimeno won the French Open at 34.

But the flaw with using major championships as the standard is that it measures elite performance. It's accurate to say that elite performance for a cornerback is rare after age 30 and almost nonexistent after 32.

But plenty of tennis players remained competitive long after they were elite. Rod Laver was still ranked in the top five at age 36. Rosewall made the Wimbledon finals at 39 and was a top-10 player at 41 and a top-20 player at 43.

As tennis moved to more tournaments on hard courts, raw speed and strength became more important and, presumably, the wear and tear on joints became more severe, making tennis even more of a younger man's game. Nonetheless, Jimmy Connors, who won his last major at 31, was still ranked in the top 10 at 36. He made the U.S. Open semifinals at age 39.

The point that becomes clear from the tennis comparison is that, while players such as Darrell Green (who played into his 40s) are rare, the paucity of such players is less about the physical limitations and more about the motivation for a once-elite player to continue at a merely competitive level at an increasing physical cost. Combined, of course, with teams' constant desire to get younger and cheaper rosters.

But football, as a team sport, offers the possibility of a “merely” competitive player contributing to elite results. Diminishing motivation is less of an issue.

And I'm not so much worried about Taylor's physical demise. Think of him as Carl Lewis, who was faster at 30 than he was at 20, and who was still an Olympic champion at 35, albeit not in the 100 meters. Unlike Hines Ward (who was great at 33, good at 34, and done at 35) or Ryan Clark (great at 33, not so much at 34) Taylor had a couple steps he could stand to lose. More steps, in fact, than fellow Shaw devotee James Farrior, who was still a factor past his 36th birthday.

In 2013, Taylor, like an aging Jimmy Connors, could no longer hold his own one-on-one with the best of the best. He's no longer elite. But against receivers who aren't in the top five or 10 in the league? I like his chances.

As long as Cortez Allen remains healthy, Taylor should have enough left to bridge the gap in 2014, and perhaps 2015, until a new starter can be drafted, signed or developed.

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