The fall from NFL grace is like that of an apple from a tree; hard, bruising, and suddenly there’s the feeling of no longer being wanted. That’s what’s happened to Nnamdi Asomugha, who came into the league green, then ripened into the league’s best cornerback, and he’s since has been bruised by the league’s best receivers on a weekly basis. That is as long as he was active, which isn’t the case any longer.
Asomugha’s been inactive for the 49ers’ last three games. It’s a troubling sign for his future, one that’s likely to come to a conclusion any day now. He’ll go down in history as one of the better cornerbacks in his prime, though one might also argue one of the most overrated (cough Eagles fans cough). The fall-off in performance was entirely unexpected considering his dominance in Oakland.
With the Raiders, he was the lone bright spot on a bad team. He could be counted on to perform week-in and week-out when no one else could. He covered and shut down the league’s best receivers with ease. Physicality and strength at the line of scrimmage came from his especially long arms, ones that were a dagger in the heart of any pass play that was going to go through that specific receiver he was assigned to. While other cornerbacks were mixing up their coverages and techniques, Asomugha did it the old fashioned way, with isolated, pummeling man coverage. He was never beaten that way. Then he moved to Philadelphia.
He never stopped getting beaten in Philadelphia, where he was playing a mix of coverages, including marking territories zonally. This is when he started an abrupt decline into the deep depths of mediocrity. His technique slipped, his confidence dipped, and he got ripped apart by receivers.
He looked lost. In zone coverage, he looked like he didn’t have a clue where he was on the field or where his landmarks were. When he was summoned to man coverage, his claim to superiority, he also oddly looked lost. He was slow and stiff, and his once long arms suddenly seemed short. He was missing jams at the line and running a step behind.
The Eagles couldn’t take it anymore. They cut ties two seasons into a five-year, $60 million deal. A free agent in an unfamiliar situation — he wasn’t coveted — he found home in San Francisco. Temporarily.
He’s only played three games this season, each of which have seen his snaps decrease — 58, 43, 38. His worst game came during Week 2 against the rival Seattle Seahawks, when he looked pedestrian.
During most of his snaps he was isolated in man coverage on the back-side of formations, and it didn’t go well. On one play in the second quarter, he wasn’t close to a break point of the route and ultimately fell far off the receiver.
That play came in the second quarter at the two-minute mark. It was 3rd-and-8 and the Seahawks had the ball on their own 41-yard line. The call was Trips Left, leaving wide receiver Golden Tate on the back-end of the set with Asomugha, who was assigned man coverage. Tate, a speedy receiver who had underrated agility, was the favorite in this matchup, although he wouldn’t get the ball. Nevertheless, it was worth a set of eyes.
The play began and Tate released inside to create room down the sideline where he would eventually cut outside to an out route. Running just inside the numbers was Tate and outside of him was Asomugha pacing hard, trying to keep up. In fact Asomugha was running so hard that he kept up with Tate as they crossed the 50-yard line. And then Tate made a cut.
Tate stuck his right foot in the ground, torqued his body around and sharply cut after the 45-yard line, flattening his route parallel to the 42 like he’s coached to do. Meanwhile, Asomugha quickly fell behind, overplaying the route by a full yard, then taking four yards to turn around. It was like watching a ferry turn.
Roughly the same time a quarter later, Asomugha was in trouble again against Tate.
It was Trips Right this time, and Asomugha was lined up with Tate, who was considered the No. 1 receiver. It was man coverage again. Tate was lined up outside the numbers, a split that suggested an inside-breaking route or a vertical one. It would be the latter, if he could beat Asomugha’s bump-and-run coverage. Three years ago when the cornerback was in his prime, there would be no chance. Now? Anything was possible.
Before the snap, Asomugha walked up to the line of scrimmage and focused in on Tate. He was square with his knees bent and forearms resting on his thigh pads. The ball snapped and he didn’t move his feet. He just reached out his left arm, extending it in hopes of rerouting Tate. In his prime, he would have jammed with his feet like his coaches taught him. Slide into the receiver and then jam him; not reach over and lunge. That was asking for disaster.
Tate released outside freely and ran a go-route down the sideline. Asomugha worked hard to keep up before extending his right arm to Tate’s left shoulder, preventing him from hauling in the deep ball. The yellow flag was thrown. Pass interference was called. Asomugha was visibly lacking confidence in his eyes.
This wasn’t the Asomugha we knew from his Raiders days. This wasn’t the Asomugha from 2011 who was voted a top 100 player in the league. This wasn’t the Asomugha who forced receivers to break habits before games just so they could hope to get open against him, if they could even get off the line of scrimmage.
No, this was an old, slow, stiff Asomugha who had a window of prime play that’s since been slammed shut. He’s a shell of his former self. A bad player on a good team. A healthy scratch on game day for the last three weeks and likely future ones.
In the NFL, a high level of play only lasts for so long. Asomugha has found that out the hard way, and he’s now found a one-way route out of the league altogether.