I’ve had this thought for a couple of weeks. At first, I hesitated to say it out loud because though I knew what I was seeing, it somehow felt wrong. Surely, I couldn’t be right. Then, last week — after Trevon Diggs grabbed a pick-six that all but extinguished any hope the Eagles had of beating the Cowboys — I finally said it, even if with some caution. And now, after another win, I’m more confident: Diggs is the best cornerback the Cowboys have had since Deion Sanders.
As a fan, the most frustrating thing about watching football is when the team you cheer for has a bad or struggling cornerback. It makes you feel helpless. Like the other team’s play calling is designed to a half field’s worth of weakness. And, with that, it seems like every one of the opponent’s passes is either a reception or pass interference. The Cowboys have certainly dealt with their share of that since Sanders left town after the 1999 season, even though they’ve had two cornerbacks who stood out in their own right.
First, Terence Newman. He was better than good, a two-time Pro Bowler during his nine seasons in Dallas. A defensive leader, he was never afraid to make a tackle. Newman was the type of corner you could trust.
Second, Byron Jones. He was versatile and athletic, splitting his time between safety and corner. Jones looked like he was entering his prime when he signed with Miami. He was one of those players I thought the team should have re-signed, if for no other reason than because having Jones at corner meant you didn’t have to worry about that position.
But the thing about Newman and Jones is, as good as they were, they weren’t necessarily the type of corners who could change games in a single play. That’s no indictment. Even at the position that demands the most athletic ability in football — and arguably in all of sports — game-changing cornerbacks are rare. They’re the type who can cause a 14-point swing at any given time, returning an interception from their own end zone to the other. They’re the type of player mythologies grow around.
It’s the football lore — inspired by New York Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis, considered one of the best to ever play corner — saying that, once there, no wide receiver could escape Revis Island.
Tales that, as the all-time classic poster read, water covered two-thirds of the earth, and the rest got covered by Deion Sanders.
It’s a lot to assume Diggs will reach that level of play, given that it’d basically require him to not only make the Hall of Fame but cement himself among the best to ever play the position. But, just four games into Diggs’ second season, we’re now beyond talking about him like a promising young player. He’s already playing like a shutdown cornerback. With five interceptions in four games — including two this past Sunday against the Carolina Panthers and Sam Darnold, who’d only thrown one in the first three games of the season — Diggs seems to have a football magnet implanted in his palms.
That’s something that can’t be taught. Corners can be great and have just a few interceptions; just look at Jones. They’re either ballhawks, or they’re not. It’s almost instinctual. Diggs has that. Even though he slipped to the second round in last year’s draft, that was something scouts noticed. Now, four weeks into the season, Diggs has more or just as many interceptions as 30 of the other 31 teams that aren’t the Cowboys.
If the most frustrating thing about watching football, as a fan, is watching your team’s bad cornerback play, the opposite can also hold true. On defense, there are few better comforts than your team having a great, ball-snatching corner. They can mask a lot of defensive deficiencies. This defense is much improved, and the Cowboys have won three in a row, partly because Diggs — already named the conference’s defensive player of September — is the early favorite to become the NFL’s defensive player of the year.
Perhaps that’s why it’s no coincidence that this past Sunday, right about when Diggs followed up his second interception by sitting out most of the fourth quarter due to back tightness, the game went from a comfortable blowout to the Carolina Panthers coming within a score of tying the game. It was a tidy reminder of how different this defense is when Diggs isn’t on the field.
The Cowboys still won, their last play was still the Tom Landry victory formation, and, presumably, Diggs is fine. Maybe opposing teams will eventually stop throwing to his side of the field. Maybe, especially since he plays with the Cowboys, he’ll get a catchy nickname. Maybe, before his career is over, he’ll be one of the best cornerbacks to ever play. That’s hard to say now since lots of things — injuries, defensive scheme, the unseen world off the field — can change the trajectory of his career.
But for now, with all due respect to Terence Newman and Byron Jones, one thing is clear. Trevon Diggs is the best cornerback the Cowboys have had in more than 20 years. To say more than that, right now, still feels blasphemous. Maybe in a couple of seasons, it won’t.