by Doug Farrar
It's the one thing that every athlete shares -- the day when the inevitable comes calling, and a life that no longer includes playing the sport they love becomes reality. People handle it in different ways. For some, it's the first step in a sad downfall. For others, it's a launching pad to jobs in analysis and broadcasting, and a chance to become even more respected and well-known than in their previous incarnations. Few players have prepared themselves more thoroughly for a future in hardcore football analysis than safety Corey Chavous, who was cut by the Rams in mid-February.
Long known as a film junkie and a respected professional on the field and in the locker room, Corey hasn't been spending the last month in limbo while he waits for another team to call -- far from it. While he believes that he still has a future in football after 11 seasons, Corey also uses his college journalism training and familiarity with video editing equipment to cut and organize his own tapes of draft prospects. Anyone who has seen him talk about the draft on ESPN and the NFL Network won't be surprised that he's diligent when it comes to research, but the extent of his knowledge borders on the scary -- when I interviewed him last week for this article, he was in a cab part of the time, with no research material around him, and he was rolling off the correct heights and weights of second-day players as if it were nothing. Corey's life has been about football, and he'll find ways to make that continue.
Born January 5, 1976 in Aiken, S.C., Corey grew up in nearby Petticoat Junction and went to Silver Bluff High before Vanderbilt came calling. All along the way, he had a guidepost for his football future -- his uncle Barney Chavous, who played on the defensive line of the Denver Broncos' famed Orange Crush defense from 1973 through 1985.
"He's been incredible for me over the years," Corey told me. "I was a ballboy with the Denver Broncos in 1992, catching balls from John Elway, I've been involved in football for a long time, and most of it is thanks to him. I loved everything he did, everything he represented. He's a person who's very strong-willed, and he was a great player. It was easy to want to be like him, because he was so good. He played for so long, and started for so long, there's just a lot to like about what he did."
Barney Chavous still ranks third all-time in sacks (75) and is tied for third in starts (177) in franchise history, and his nephew learned something from that work ethic. "I've always been a very tough football player, and had the ability to play most every Sunday. One of the biggest things for him every week was that he was ready to play." Barney coached high school football for years at TW Josey High in Augusta, Ga., but "he recently stepped down," Corey said. "He won't be doing too much more of that, but he and I will be doing some stuff together. We did a football camp last summer, and that was a big success. We're going to continue to do various projects together."
Corey played his college ball at Vanderbilt, where teams that never posted a winning season during his tenure there led to individual glory, but little long-term satisfaction. "I felt that I was the best cornerback in the SEC, to be honest," he said. "I'm not a real 'braggadocios' guy, but I felt that by the time I graduated from college, I felt that I was not only the best cornerback in the SEC, but arguably the best cornerback in the nation. And that was my college highlight, because there weren't too many other ones. We were a bad football team. We had a great defense -- the best in the SEC in my senior year -- and I might not have been the best cornerback on my team. Fred Vinson was pretty talented on the other side. I thought we represented a great duo, with great players around us.
"I felt good about what I had done individually, especially late in my college career, but overall, it was a disappointing experience. We just really weren't that good in terms of our overall record. But defensively, I think we were always in the top 20 nationally, and we were number four my senior year."
The Vanderbilt scholarship may not have happened had Corey not assembled a highlight reel of himself and mailed it off to several schools. In many ways, this was a portent of things to come. Now that he has been on both sides of the draft process, what does he think is different about the way things are handled today, as opposed to when he was selected in the second round of the 1998 draft by the Cardinals?
"Ten years ago, the coverage wasn't nearly as much as it is now. With the proliferation of all those different networks covering it -- the NFL Network exposing it -- whatever the results are. Back then, some (drill) times were a bit secretive. You might not know what a guy ran, or what his vertical jump was. But the times are so much more exposed now, that inevitably, human nature has that playing a role in what general managers and teams think of a player.
"When they have that great performance (at the Combine), it can carry more weight than a Mike Mamula performance years ago. Even though his performance was well-documented, nobody saw it. Now, when people see Vernon Davis run a 4.38 40 at 250 pounds, or Calvin Johnson running a 4.35 with somebody else's sneakers and he didn't even warm up, it just resonates in people's memories, and I think that's changed the game a lot."
And is there more pressure on teams to get it right because everything is seen?
"I don't think there's as much emphasis on the scouts' opinions. And those are the people you should listen to the most as a GM. You should be getting your scouts together and coming up with a common theme -- you take your scouts' opinions and you form them together with your coaches' opinions, and as the GM, you have to be between both opinions to find out what best fits the team. A lot of times, I think it's just overridden -- the scouts' work is rendered useless when their opinion doesn't play as much of a factor."
Back when Corey got drafted, the Cardinals were busy extricating the franchise from a long history of predominantly dismal football, and it worked for a short time. "Well, I was on the team that won the first Cardinals playoff game in 51 years, and we won 10 games in my rookie year. We beat the Cowboys in the playoffs with [Troy] Aikman and [Michael] Irvin and Emmitt Smith, so it started out good. We were doing things that no Cardinals team had ever done in the Valley before. And we were the last Cardinals team to win a playoff game until this last one. That was a great experience for me, because I was able to start in the playoffs at corner and play against Randy Moss and Cris Carter, and I had a really good rookie year. I felt like things were going to change from the losing ways in college, but things just reverted back to the old way, though we were competitive.
"Injuries played a part, but there were some guys who didn't live up to expectations. We lost some free agents -- Jamir Miller, Lomas Brown -- that were instrumental in that playoff run. We had most of the same parts, just not all of them."
His first foray into free agency in 2002 landed him in Minnesota. "When I got through in Arizona -- I had a pretty good year in my fourth season -- I had two down years after I tore my MCL, and my reputation suffered because of it," he said. "I was playing hurt, which a lot of players do. But I was able to recover and have a really solid season. Still, the Cardinals wanted me to test the market before they put an offer out there. Which was typical of the Cardinals organization at the time -- they would make you go out and see what you were worth before you came back to them. So I went out on the market, and I had a lot of interest, though nothing serious because other teams were ... who's going to offer me a big contract when my own team's like, 'Go see what you can get on the open market?'
"I went to Minnesota, and they wanted to know if I could run. What kind of speed did I have? I wound up having an individual workout in Minnesota. I made five free agent visits that year -- Buffalo, Atlanta, Tampa Bay, I was all over the place. I was supposed to go to Oakland the day after I arrived in Minnesota, but I worked out for the Vikings -- I hadn't run a 40 since the Combine -- ran a good time, and they signed me."
Surprisingly, it's not his 2003 season, when he picked off eight passes and made the Pro Bowl for the only time in his career, that Corey believes is his best. "I would actually say that my best year was 2001," he said. "The two years after that were good. I went from 2001 through 2003 with really good seasons. I thought 2004 was average. I thought I had good seasons in 2005 and 2006. Out of my 11 years, I think I've had five good seasons, and six average or below-average."
So, why was 2001 the best year? "I played against all the top receivers, and I held my own. I only gave up 20 catches that year, and the longest catch I gave up was 40 yards. I was the number-one corner on the team that year, and everybody knew it. In addition, I was running down on special teams in addition to playing corner, and that's not easy. I got turf toe early that season and battled through it, which made it all the more gratifying. It was a great tackling year for me -- I missed very few tackles. I was an impact player most weeks -- I think I had a presence about myself that year that I didn't have any other season."
Corey enjoyed his time in Minnesota, but after only three winning seasons in his eight years in the league, he was ready to take a shot with the St. Louis Rams, a team that had inched perilously close to dynasty status a few years before. "I just felt that I hadn't been anywhere with Hall of Fame-type personnel, except for maybe Randy Moss, Daunte Culpepper, Matt Birk, Darren Sharper -- those guys might be in that category," he said about his decision to sign with the Rams in 2005. "But at that time, I felt that the Rams offense was as good as any, and I wanted to go out there and see what they had left. I felt that there was still a run in that team. We went 8-8 in my first year, and that easily could have been 11-5 -- we lost three games in the final four seconds -- and things just crumbled the next year due to injuries."
The die was cast: He wasn't going to a Super Bowl in his career. He'd have to settle for the little victories, like earning the respect of teammates and opponents. Asking how that's done is one way to really get Corey Chavous to open up. With the Rams, he was known as the elder statesman, the guy who would help younger players like Tye Hill and O.J. Atogwe with their own growth processes. He manages to be both humble and proud when it comes to his influence on other players.
"Very little," he said, when asked how much he had to do with Atogwe getting to the point where he was so valuable, the Rams felt the need to place the franchise tag on him. "I don't really believe in that. I think guys will emulate the things you do well, and won't emulate the things you don't do well. I'm sure there are things he didn't take from me. He always had a great work ethic. We would work out together in the summer, things people didn't really know about, but it really wasn't anything more than what any veteran did for me. Eric Davis, Aeneas Williams. I would go and find guys to train with in the offseason that I respected. In my fourth or fifth year in the league, I would hook up with Eric Davis and follow him around while he trained, stay in a hotel in the same city.
"Those are the types of things I wanted to pass along to these guys. In terms of what they're doing, Tye Hill is ready for a breakout season. Ron Bartell has had back-to-back good seasons, as has O.J. But I just preached to them, 'Just stay consistent and maximize your own individual abilities.' They really have a desire to be great, and I think those guys have the chance to have a special secondary next year. From a peer pressure perspective, I just made sure that we worked our behinds off. Regardless of the record, regardless of anything else that was going on, this group was going to work. That's what I was about."
After a 2-14 season in 2008 (which followed a 3-13 season in 2007), wholesale changes were in store for the Rams. VP of Player Personnel Billy DeVaney was promoted to General Manager, and former Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo was hired as the new head coach. To promote a youth movement and clear up cap space, several veteran stalwarts -- including future Hall of Fame offensive tackle Orlando Pace and longtime elite receiver Torry Holt -- were cut loose. Corey said that his release, coming as it did after he lost his starting job to Todd Johnson late in the season, was no surprise.
"Oh, not at all. I talked to Billy DeVaney and Steve Spagnuolo, and they were great. I have a lot of respect for those guys," he said. "They handled my situation very professionally, and I liked that. I think that's how you need to go about your business. I wasn't concerned about getting released so that someone else could pick me up -- there might not be interest anyway -- but I didn't want to sit there, waiting, and not knowing what was going on. At least now, I can move on. And if nobody else is interested in signing me, it's an easy decision and I can just move on and retire. If someone does want to sign me, I certainly want to keep playing, but you can't control that."
Have other teams come calling yet? "I haven't talked to anyone. Most teams probably won't talk to me until after the draft, maybe into late July or August. I'm not looking for any big payday, and a lot of teams may not know that."
In the interest of helping those teams out, I asked Corey for the scouting report on himself.
"A versatile guy. A guy who doesn't give up a lot of big plays. Probably doesn't make a lot of big plays, but that was in part because of the role in which I was used. I was used as a linebacker in St. Louis -- a 100-tackle-per-year guy the last three years. I pretty much had to play Sam linebacker the last three seasons. I had to hold the edge, force quite a bit. I had to do things that you wouldn't believe. Most scouts would have seen me as a free safety, even when I went to the Rams, but in that first year with the Rams, I was playing nickel, dime, safety -- six different positions in one season. Versatility has always been my claim to fame. I'm not really great at any one thing, but I'm a chameleon who could do a lot, and I still can do a lot. There were games in 2008 where I covered the third or fourth receiver. Whenever there was a coverage situation for a safety with the Rams when I was there, it was me doing the covering. People say I've lost coverage skills, and maybe that's true, but I'm still covering. I was still covering the top tight ends, and when you look at the stats, they didn't have big games.
"I would say that I gave up three or four touchdowns in my time with the Rams. Probably missed more tackles than usual, but I was playing through a torn pectoral muscle my second year I would say that even this year, I probably defended the run as well as I had in any year since 2005. Overall, the pounding of playing Sam 'backer for three straight years ... I think that getting benched and not playing in those three (final) games probably helped my body recover a bit."
And then, the million-dollar question: If this is the end for you, are you OK with that?
"I mean, you don't have any choice," he said. "I always look at it year-to-year anyway, and to be honest, that's the way it has to be. You can't go with expectations, and I always told young guys that. The only expectation you can have is the next game. And for me, right now, it's the next team. I can't look at, 'Oh, I didn't win a Super Bowl, I didn't do this or that,' because a lot of guys weren't as blessed as I was to play as long as I did. I look at the whole thing as a blessing, and I'm very appreciative of the time I've gotten in so far. I think I'm still a good football player, and I can be used in a lot of different ways. I'm not saying that the way I was used before was bad -- the coaches in St. Louis were forced to do that, because we couldn't stop the run. So I had to be one of the key cogs in stopping the run, and I understood that.
"The bottom line is ... you know all my stats, so let me give you one. Since 1999, there have been, what, seven or eight (safeties) with eight picks in a season? I was one, Ed Reed was one, but (most of the) other guys who have done it played with me. Kwame Lassiter (had nine) in 2001, Brian Russell had nine in 2003, Darren Sharper had nine playing opposite me in 2005, and O.J. Atogwe had eight in 2007. It's no coincidence that players playing with me make a lot of those plays, because I do the dirty work. I cover, go down in the box, things that the other safety isn't asked to do. So, if this is the end for me, I know what I've done for the guys who played with me, and I know they appreciated playing with me. The biggest award I could have received was that in each of the last seven years, my teammates voted me captain."
Amazingly, this was just one half of my interview with Corey -- the part that deals with his on-field career up to now. I collected a great deal of information about his thoughts on the draft and current players, and as soon as he returns from a humanitarian trip to Africa (I received an e-mail from him there on Sunday morning), we'll flesh that out for what I believe will be an impressively comprehensive draft feature. Because if there's one thing I learned about Corey Chavous in a first conversation that lasted almost two hours, it's that he doesn't do anything halfway.