In the cold night air, the young star jogged across the field to seek out his childhood hero. Charles Woodson’s final NFL game had come to an end, and the Chiefs’ Marcus Peters — who grew up watching him as a youth in Oakland — had something he wanted to say.
Peters waited patiently for Woodson to finish speaking to another player, and when the two finally locked eyes, Peters waved his arms forward in a downward motion, palms down, as if to bow down to him on the Arrowhead Stadium field.
It was a remarkable sight, considering Peters’ competitiveness and confidence, and a sign of humility, too. The two embraced, and Peters told the future Hall of Famer what a pleasure it was to share the field with Woodson for his final game.
“I grew up watching that dude,” Peters would later say. “And to be able to play against him twice, including his last time, it was special.”
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Woodson, 39, responded by leaning into Peters’ right ear and sharing some short, simple advice that caused Peters to nod vigorously, but that he later declined to share.
“I’m gonna keep that personal, man,” Peters, 23, said with a grin in the Chiefs’ locker room afterward. “That goes in my own little black box.”
But Woodson isn’t the only person with gravitas who has some advice for Peters as he heads into 2016 as after winning the NFL’s defensive rookie of the year award.
Over the course of Super Bowl week, four NFL Hall of Famers — Deion Sanders, Michael Irvin, Cris Carter and Bill Polian — along with Eric Davis, a two-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro selection, and star Broncos receiver Emmanuel Sanders spoke at length about the season the Chiefs’ young star just had. All six were universal in their praise for Peters, who tied for the league lead in interceptions with eight and led the league in pass deflections with 26.
But some — including former corners Sanders and Davis, in particular — had constructive criticism and advice for Peters that might be wise to listen to heading into year two.
“That’s something that you need, man,” Peters would later say in response. “Because if you’re always getting praised, then how are you getting better?”
First, the good. There seems to be a widely-held understanding that the season Peters had was not normal.
“He’s a bad boy, man, he’s a bad boy,” Broncos receiver Emmanuel Sanders said of Peters, who had two interceptions against Denver this year. “This dude is one of the best corners I faced.”
Since 1980, only two cornerbacks — Everson Walls of the Cowboys and Anthony Henry of the Browns — tallied more interceptions as rookies than Peters’ eight, with Walls hauling in 11 in 1981 and Henry snatching 10 in 2001.
“I love the kid,” said former Cowboys star Irvin, a former receiver. “I love his tenacity, I love how hard he plays, I love his intelligence about the game. He’s going to be a good one for a long time.”
Former Vikings star Carter agreed, noting that Chiefs did a nice job playing to his strengths — he played a lot of off-coverage, which took advantage of his ability to close on the football quickly and make plays on the ball in the air — while also creating a positive locker room environment for him to grow in.
“Kansas City did a great job of getting him to do things that he did well in college,” said Carter, a former receiver. “But also from a maturity standpoint, there were a lot of marks with him coming into the league, and you can see the way he handled the responsibility and also handled the success.”
It’s easy to forget now, but Peters had some character concerns entering the draft. He was dismissed from the University of Washington in 2014 after repeated disagreements with the coaching staff, leading to questions about his coachability. That likely facilitated his slide to the Chiefs, who did their background work on Peters and took him with the 18th overall pick because of his impressive combination of size (6 feet, 197 pounds), ball skills, instincts and passion for the game.
“I know some guys that played there on the team, so they provided some great leadership for him from a defensive standpoint,” Carter said. “Playing alongside Eric Berry, it doesn’t (hurt). As young person, it gave you perspective on what he went through.
“And coach Andy Reid, I think he’s one of the best coaches in the league as far as developing young players, not only as far on the field, but off the field.”
Longtime Bills and Colts general manager Polian agreed, noting that some of Peters’ unusual early success can also be chalked up to the competence of the men in the Chiefs’ organization.
“It helps if you have an Andy Reid and a Bob Sutton and a John Dorsey involved in the process,” Polian said. “You couldn’t have three better people doing the picking, and this is a young man that had a lot going for him. It’s panned out.”
But the men who played Peters’ position — like Sanders and Davis — know the road Peters still has ahead of him in year two is no picnic.
Deion Sanders, the eight-time Pro Bowler, eight-time All-Pro and two-time Super Bowl champion, dominated his position with a playmaking flair that none has been able to replicate. Few have been able to tap into it, even for short spurts, though you can argue Peters is one of the men who have come close.
But Sanders warns that the next step for Peters could be a bumpy road, filled with highs and lows. What will happen to him next year, when people will be expecting him to have another great season after offensive coordinators have had a full year to dissect his tape and scheme up ways to attack his weaknesses?
“When you do something and people don’t expect it, they say you’re nice,” Sanders said. “But see, now you expect something, OK? Now, you expect something, and that’s a whole different case.”
And will there come a point where Peters will do what most of the great ones have done, and start matching up against the elite No. 1 receivers on a week-to-week basis, like Sanders used to do?
“Are you ready for that?” Sanders said. “Because that’s every play — playing against the best. And when you play against the best, that ball is coming at least six to eight times a game, and (that receiver) is good for a reason.”
To be fair, Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton has not shown a proclivity toward allowing his corners to shadow a specific receiver, so it remains to be seen if this is an option in year two.
But if Peters does want to get to that level eventually, Sanders said it will require playing with more discipline, something Emmanuel Sanders reinforced when he noted that Peters’ aggressiveness sometimes works against him.
“He’s subject to getting beat on double moves because he’s so aggressive,” Emmanuel Sanders said. “But that aggressiveness is the reason why he’s the player he is, because he’s going to sit on your routes. He’s not going to get out of there; you can take him deep for sure.
“But he’s playing the game the right way, because if a quarterback is throwing the ball down the field, that’s a low-percentage throw. So he’s just playing the odds, playing the numbers. He’s like a Floyd Mayweather; he’s a calculator, and it’s working for him. He doesn’t play scared.”
Deion Sanders, however, thinks Peters’ position coaches — Pro Football Hall of Famer Emmitt Thomas and two-time Pro Bowler Al Harris — are positioned to help him become a more well-rounded, provided he listens to them.
“He still has a long way to go, but he played great,” Deion Sanders said. “You’ve got to understand who those two persons are that’s coaching him. If he just continues to listen to those two gentlemen that the Kansas City Chiefs have placed in his path, he will have a bright future.”
Midway through the last sentence, Sanders pounded his hand on the table twice, knocking on wood, to drive the point home. He loves Peters’ innate confidence — it’s the most important trait he looks for in a corner — but says he must still accept coaching.
“I think he has tremendous confidence,” Deion Sanders said. “But there’s a maturation process as well that he has to make. You’ve got to understand, Al Harris is a good friend of mine. We talk often. Enough said.”
During the lead up to the Super Bowl in San Francisco, NFL Network analyst Davis — who works with Sanders — crossed paths with Peters and started busting his chops a bit.
“Talented kid, talented little knucklehead — he’s getting better, he’s growing,” Davis said, when asked to assess Peters’ play this season. “He doesn’t realize how good he can be once he actually learns. Right now, he’s playing on raw talent, and you see what he was able to do. Once he actually learns the game, once he actually learns how to see the matrix, there’s no telling what he’s capable of doing.
“But he’s just a little knucklehead — I told him that yesterday, too.”
Specifically, Davis’ issues with Peters stem from the rookie’s constant desire to look at the quarterback mid-play and try to read his eyes in hopes of making a play, which is basically what Emmanuel Sanders alluded to.
“I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve told him — stop looking at the quarterback,” Davis said with a hearty laugh. “He wants to look at the quarterback. I keep telling him, he ain’t throwing to you — why do you keep looking at him?”
Davis said the habit, which led to many of Peters’ big plays this season, eventually presents problems for corners.
“Well, it’s a really simple thing,” Davis said. “If the quarterback is looking at you looking at him while he’s looking at you, guess what — he’s not throwing to you. You saw what (Tom) Brady did to him in the (playoff) game? Brady looked right at him, moved his shoulders in that playoff game and he bit, hook all in his mouth. I was like, ‘What are you doing?’
“We talked about that, like what are you doing? He said, ‘Oh, he was looking right at me.’ Do you really think Brady’s that dumb? OK. So once he learns the game, he’ll be fine.”
To be fair, Peters’ coaches and teammates have consistently praised his football IQ and his coachability, too. And when told of Sanders’ and Davis’ comments, Peters said they served as a much-needed reminder of the work he still must put in to be a truly great cornerback.
“I’ve still got a whole lot to prove, man — it’s only year one, it’s only year one,” Peters said.
“(I’m going to do) the same thing that got me there, which is continue to work hard and believe in the preparation … I’m trying to provide for my family for multiple generations and for me to do that, I’ve got to sacrifice the time right now.”
But Peters’ confidence level remains high. When Davis quizzed him about his habit of looking into the backfield, Peters fired right back.
“Yeah, and I told him — I said they can try me if they want to, man,” Peters said. “That’s it. Just try me. If you don’t believe it, just try me. And then we can see who really had fun that day.”
It’s a boast he can make now, after a full season in which quarterbacks did try him, and Peters won more often than not. Any Hall of Fame skill player knows that kind of resiliency bodes well for Peters’ future.
Which brings this story back to Woodson. After their postgame meeting on the field on Jan. 3, the two crossed paths again on Feb. 6, the eve of Super Bowl 50. Both were at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco to receive awards; Woodson for the Art Rooney Sportsmanship Award, and Peters for rookie of the year.
Afterward, Woodson revealed exactly what he told Peters after the game, which coincidentally isn’t far off from the opinions of the other men that Woodson will eventually join in Canton one day who were interviewed for this story.
“I told him that he’s going to be a great player, man,” Woodson said. “Just keep working.”
Most single-season interceptions by a rookie since 1980
CB Everson Walls
FS Mark Carrier
CB Anthony Henry
FS Jairus Byrd
FS Orlando Thomas
FS Tom Flynn
CB Marcus Peters
CB Lionel Washington
CB Erik McMillan
| Terez A. Paylor, firstname.lastname@example.org