Cornerback is a position that is nearly impossible to judge by statistics.
This is true for a variety of reasons, but the biggest issue is lack of information. Basically, you have varying layers of stats for football. You have basic stats that everyone talks about. Tackles, sacks, yards, catches, and whathaveyou. In the case of cornerbacks (or any secondary player, really), those basic stats are tackles, interceptions, forced fumbles and passes defensed.
Then you have "deep stats." There are a billion deeper stats at every position the more you break things down. But in the case of cornerback, those stats are things like targets, catches allowed, QB rating when targeted, completion percentage allowed when targeted, and other such things.
Deep stats are why people pay sites like ProFootballFocus. They allow for a higher understanding of the game, and certainly paint a much more detailed picture than basic stats, which are terribly incomplete. For example, judging a corner by how many tackles or interceptions he has is just really, really, really ridiculous. It's just as bad to judge them based on tackles. Those stats just don't tell us anything real about the player.
Unfortunately, cornerback is one of the positions where even "deep stats" don't paint a very complete picture. Sure, you can have the numbers for when a player was targeted, but that usually only gives you information on 5-10 snaps per game. What about the other dozens of snaps a player was in coverage and WASN'T targeted? How did he do in his zone drops? Was he really the player in coverage on a given play or was he trying to cover up the mistake of someone else?
The only place questions like that can be answered is in reviewing the film, and even that is a flawed process. Without knowing the play call and assignments on defense, any honest person will tell you that they're guessing to an extent. Obviously some situations (say, a CB in press man coverage) are easier to judge than others. But it's still a flawed process that will lead to mistakes.
With that caveat in mind, I couldn't wait to watch Phillip Gaines on All-22 film. At first blush he seemed to have an exceptional first game, which is somewhat astonishing considering he vaguely resembled a light mist in coverage during the preseason. What's more, unlike with Marcus Cooper last season, Gaines was thrown immediately into the fire against a good group of receivers and a quarterback (Philip Rivers) who has been the best in the league so far this season. Good luck, rookie.
Let's get the numbers out of the way first. According to PFF, Gaines was not responsible for allowing a single pass completion despite being targeted five times. I can confirm this to be the case. Not one time did a receiver Gaines was assigned to catch a pass. That's about as phenomenal a game as you can ask for from any corner, let alone a rookie. Gaines was also credited via PFF with a pass defended. I counted two, and we'll get into that later. By allowing 0/5 with no catches and no TDs, Gaines allowed a 39.6 QB rating when thrown at. Excellent statistics.
Of course, as I stated above, statistics that only show results when targeted don't tell the whole story with corners. With that in mind, I'm going to go even deeper into the statistics. I observed 27 snaps of Gaines in pass defense as a corner (I didn't use the two Hail Mary passes at the end, considering the situation screams "outlier!"). For each route that he was in coverage I recorded whether he was in man or zone, as well as whether he was pressing or off the line of scrimmage.
Times in man coverage: 23
Times in zone coverage: 3
Times I have no idea what was supposed to happen: 1 (more on this later)
Further, I recorded whether each coverage was a "success" or a "failure," a methodology I've seen from other writers and enjoyed (and will therefore now steal). Here's the standard for a success in coverage: if the QB and / or WR would have to make an exceptional play in order for the pass to be complete, it's a successful coverage, whether zone or man.
Gauging things this way makes the process more accurate and accounts for what else happens on the play. If a WR completely torches the CB but doesn't get targeted, that will go down as neutral if one is only counting "targeted" plays. But, of course, it's not a neutral play. It's a bad play. Alternatively, at times a corner will have fantastic coverage and a WR / QB combo will just make an incredible throw and catch. By tracking successes vs. failures in coverage we're judging the actual play of the corner, not the result of the play.
Of the plays Gaines was in coverage, there was one play where I'm not exactly sure what happened (again, we'll get to that). On the other 26 the numbers stack up like this:
Gaines Successful Coverages: 23
Gaines Failed Coverages: 3
Those numbers stack up very, very nicely against other cornerbacks. Gaines was consistently in position to prevent receivers from having much of a chance at being targeted. Multiple times against San Diego Gaines was literally right next to the receiver, stride-for-stride down the field. This was particularly true with the deep ball. Here are a couple of examples.
You know what every one of those pictures has in common? A complete, total, utter lack of separation by the wide receiver Gaines is covering. And it's not as though he's out there on nobody players, either. Eddie Royal and Malcolm Floyd are two solid receivers, and about as different as different can be. Didn't matter. Neither could get separation from Gaines.
Those pictures represent what the majority of Gaines's coverage snaps looked like on Sunday. He was glued to wide receivers any time they attempted to run deep routes. Heck, he was even doing it to OTHER players' receivers. On this play (the confusing one I referenced a few times above), it appears as though Gaines completely abandons his own receiver in man coverage to run with Sean Smith's guy down the field.
When the ball was snapped, Gaines played as though he were in press man coverage against Eddie Royal, the Chargers player circled in blue here. As Royal stepped back and the other WR went on his route, Gaines decides (for some reason) to abandon Royal and go with the other player.
Now, it COULD be that Gaines and Sean Smith were supposed to switch off players in coverage. However, I'm guessing that's not the case. Look at Sean Smith's body language. It's practically screaming, "Uh... whatcha doin', Phil?" I don't know if I've ever seen a player WALKING during live action before. I love Sean Smith.
Anyway, that play represents a potential concern when it comes to awareness on the part of Gaines. I'd be more concerned about it if he hadn't done just fine the few times he was placed in zone coverage (small sample size of three, though). This looks like your basic rookie "whoops" moment, which Rivers fortunately missed.
Gaines has real speed to go along with quickness. The times he found himself out of position after a WR cut, he was usually able to recover very quickly and get back into position. Here, Gaines gets shaken with a hook route (he was giving WAY too much cushion on the play. The first shot is as Rivers is releasing the ball (to another receiver, the one on the sideline). The second shot is when the ball is roughly halfway to its intended target.
Note that had Rivers actually thrown the ball to Gaines's receiver, it wouldn't have arrived yet by the time of that second screen shot. Very little time has elapsed between those two shots. Gaines is just able to plant his foot and accelerate VERY quickly toward the receiver, erasing the gap the receiver had created in large part due to Gaines giving a 15-yard cushion.
The ability to close like that will absolutely create opportunities for Gaines to bait quarterbacks into throws that will either be knocked down or intercepted (considering his college stats, I'm guessing "knocked down" is a lot more likely). You can't coach speed and quickness. A player either has it or he doesn't. And Gaines has it.
Another play where Gaines was able to erase separation by the receiver was his pass breakup down the left sideline. Gaines got beat on a route with multiple moves and ended up with his hips flipped the wrong way. As a result, the receiver gained separation and Rivers made a throw down the sideline, trying to drop it in between where Ron Parker was closing in and Gaines was catching up.
Except Gaines was able to cover the ground too quickly to allow it to happen. Additionally, Gaines happens to have arms that appear to reach down to his knees. So instead of a huge completion in a close game, we get this.
Although Gaines started the play out rough, his natural gifts allowed him to recover in a way that other corners just can't. Sean Smith is a better cornerback than Gaines, but when receivers get separation from him they keep it due to his lack of closing speed. Again, speed is something you have or you don't.
It's not all roses with Gaines, of course. I have no idea why (as he wasn't beaten deep once throughout the game), but Gaines was giving a ton of room to receivers when he wasn't playing press man coverage. He was routinely 15-20 yards off the line of scrimmage. This led to his only failures in coverage that I saw, when receivers would sprint as though going on a deep route then run a hook inside. Here's an example very early in the game.
Now, we've gone over Gaines's ability to make up for separation already, so I can't say for CERTAIN that this amount of separation would be fatal with the play timed as it is above (with Rivers releasing the ball as the screenshot is taken). However, any offensive coordinator worth anything (along with his quarterback) is going to look at plays like this and just time the throw to come sooner.
In the ideal world for a QB, he'd already have the ball halfway to the receiver by the time this shot is taken. In that scenario (a well-timed and well-executed play designed to take advantage of said cushion), no amount of speed and quickness is going to allow Gaines to make a play when he's allowed a wide receiver this kind of space.
Of the three routes I notched Gaines up with a "failure" in coverage, two of them consisted of this type of play (they were practically identical. On the third, Keenan Allen just flat-out beat him with a shorter, quicker route. Frankly, Allen does that to a lot of players.
There are two things Gaines needs to work on (based on this incredibly small sample size).
1) Gaines needs to improve his footwork against short, quick routes. He's getting his hips turned the wrong way at times. On longer routes this isn't a problem, as his natural speed allows him to recover quickly. But on shorter routes he's not going to get any time to compensate. My impression from his college tape was that he was SO much faster and quicker than the receivers he was defending that he didn't need to develop his footwork. At the pro level, that's not going to fly.
2) Gaines needs to learn to tell when receivers are going to break off from a deep route into a hook, comeback, or other such shorter route. Right now he's not recognizing it every time and receivers are managing to get moments of separation they shouldn't have.
But both of those issues are coachable. The second one in particular shouldn't even be a real issue. With the speed Gaines has showcased I'm not sure why he'd EVER give a receiver more than a 10 yard cushion. He's got the speed to run with them down the field even when in press man coverage. There's no reason a guy who can do that should be lined up 15-20 yards off the line of scrimmage. Like, ever.
Last year many Chiefs fans (myself included) got excited as Marcus Cooper showcased speed, quickness, and ball skills throughout the first half of the season. His success unraveled toward the end of the year in a series of games against superior quarterbacks. While Cooper rebounded well in the playoff game against the Colts (he was one of the few players not getting torched), he's started off abysmally this season.
With Gaines, the situation is slightly different. Rather than starting off against the likes of Ryan Fitzpatrick, Gaines was immediately forced to line up against a quarterback who had been destroying all comers in the young season. And he not only played significantly above expectations (again, the preseason was ROUGH), but was a huge contributor to the win. Gaines didn't just hold his own out there, but made a few plays that went above and beyond expectations.
The first such play was early in the game (the Chargers second drive). It's not a play that shows up in the stats sheet, but is the type of play that separates winning from losing. On 1st and 10, the Chargers looked to set up a screen to the left side of the field to Royal. It was, for the most part, set up well. With one problem. That problem has an arrow above him.
Gaines sniffs out the screen early and uses his speed to get up the field before San Diego's offensive linemen could reach him. In the screenshot, Rivers is hesitating after seeing the screen is well-covered (he apparently doesn't want to pull a Cassel and chuck it to the opposing player). Rivers ends up hesitating for a full second while many large men close in around him. He ends up throwing the ball away to the right.
Look at the rest of the play outside of Gaines. The Chargers did a masterful job of clearing out that side of the field. Had Gaines not recognized the play and broke toward Royal extremely quickly, that's a gigantic gain and MAYBE a touchdown depending on how Ron Parker plays it.
Again, you won't see "prevents screen pass that would have been a huge gain from being completed" as a statistic. But that's exactly why statistics are incomplete. This is a HUGE play, and the majority of fans (outside of you, informed readers) will never even realized it should be credited to the rookie cornerback.
Gaines had two more plays that were huge for the win. The first (knocking down the deep pass to Royal) is covered above. The second is one you're very familiar with.
The Chargers, down 20-14, have the ball in the fourth quarter and have marched to Chiefs 6-yard-line. It's 3rd and 6, arguably the most important snap of the game at this point. If the Chargers score, they go up one. If the Chiefs hold, they retain the lead and remain ahead by at least three points.
Everyone saw what happened. The Chargers got the matchup they wanted; their best receiver (Keenan Allen) against Gaines. Except it didn't quite work out how they wanted it. Rivers tries to rifle the ball to Allen in the end zone, but LOOK at this coverage.
There is absolutely no possible way Gaines could be in better position than he's in, outside of shanking Allen and throwing him into the stands (which would almost certainly be a penalty unless you're a Seahawks defensive back). Rivers has nowhere to go with the ball. Frankly, I can't believe he even tried.
The one complaint that could be made about this particular plays is Gaines should have gone for the interception rather than simply reaching out and knocking the ball down. And that's true. He definitely had position to go for the pick, and it should've been a pretty easy one. That said, one can't deny the casual way he just batted the ball down was really, really cool. I award extra points for making good plays look effortless, and that play scored about a 9.8 on the "I'm barely even trying, man" scale.
It's rare for a rookie corner to not get picked on by a good quarterback. It's more rare for a rookie corner to not get picked on by a good quarterback in his very first NFL game. It's even more rare for a rookie corner to play at a solid level throughout the entire game while not getting picked on by a very good quarterback in his very first NFL game. And it's VERY rare for a rookie corner to do all that (it got too long to repeat it again liked I'd planned) while coming up with multiple big plays. Gaines did all of the above.
Word is that Chris Owens will likely be unavailable against the Rams on Sunday, so we'll get a chance to see if Gaines' performance was a fluke. Odds are he won't play as well as he did against the Chargers. But we can hope.