As Corey Webster goes, so go the up-and-down Giants

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Corey Webster. (nfl.com)
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Each time the Giants or Jets play a football game, Capital will write about a home-team member who took part in it. This post is about Corey Webster, who played cornerback in the Giants’ 28-16 win on Sept. 19 over the St. Louis Rams.

Back in the fall of 1999, Corey Webster’s senior year at St. James High School in rural Louisiana, the school district replaced the black principal with a white man. This sparked some outrage among the predominantly black student body and their families. That fall, half the student body, including members of the football team, protested the measure by not attending school.

Webster was caught in between. He was by far the best player on the football and basketball team, and had a potentially lucrative future to consider. He decided to keep going to school, but he evidently caught some flak for his decision. In this YouTube clip, Webster addresses a crowd at his alma mater at a celebration after the Giants Super Bowl victory. The issue obviously was still alive in people’s minds nearly a decade later—it was the first topic Webster addressed after taking the podium.

“My personal opinion, and I know it will rub people the wrong way, but I really don’t care because it’s my opinion—my personal opinion was that didn’t matter who was the coach and who was the principal,” Webster says. “I had a dream, and my dream was always to play [sports] on the professional level.”

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“And nobody made me do anything. My daddy granted me the opportunity. He said, ‘What do you want to do about the boycott?’ And I made up my own mind, told him I wanted to go to school. My personal opinion, the only people the boycott hurt is the kids that didn’t go to school. I know some people made it out and caught up and stuff like that, but a lot of players that might’ve had scholarships that year wasn’t able to catch back up. Ended up getting put off the football team, and some of them wound up quitting school.”

Webster’s dream of playing in the NFL nearly went sour early on. By his third year in the league, playing for a disappointing Giants team, he looked like a bust.

But then, in the span of a few short weeks at the end of that 2007 season, Webster went from being a “healthy scratch”—that is, someone the coaching staff felt best helped the team on the sidelines, in street clothes—to an indispensable player.

That quick, unexpected turnaround in Webster’s fortunes was mirrored by the Giants’ concurrent transformation from an underachieving team with a sour relationship with its fan base into plucky, improbable Super Bowl champions.

Webster made several memorable plays during that playoff run, during which he and the Giants showcased, at long last, the best versions of themselves: His overtime interception against Green Bay in the NFC Championship game setting up the Giants’ winning field goal was probably most famous, but his deflection of a last-gasp bomb on the Patriots’ final drive in the Super Bowl was probably the better play.

The next year, both the Giants and Webster proved that the 2007 playoffs were no fluke: the Giants by posting the top record in the conference during the regular season before losing in the playoffs, and Webster—a second round draft pick in 2005—by becoming one of the league’s best cornerbacks.

According to the advanced stats of FootballOutsiders.com (to be taken with a grain of salt of indeterminate size), Webster finished ninth-best among NFL cornerbacks that year with a 62 percent “Success Percentage”—that is, the percentage of passes aimed in his direction that either fell incomplete or were otherwise “unsuccessful,” given the game situation. That’s no small accomplishment, considering there are 64 cornerbacks who start every week in the NFL, and another 32 who play around half the time in nickel formations. The Giants rewarded this scrub-to-star metamorphosis by giving Webster a long-term contract averaging nearly $9 million annually.

But 2008 was the high-water mark, both for the Giants and for Webster. The next season, the team stumbled to a dismal 3-8 finish after starting the season 5-0. Webster finished 39th in the league with a Success Percentage of 52 percent, although surely depleting injuries to the team’s safeties, who help cornerbacks like Webster in coverage, were a factor.

The next year, 2010 represented a modest bounce-back for both. The Giants finished 10-6, which was decent enough except they missed the playoffs. And Webster bumped his Success Rate up to 55 percent, 28th in the league, joining the Giants in the category of good-but-not-great.

After two games for Webster and the Giants, 2011 is a huge question mark.

They got off to an awful start: Webster was one of the faces for the Giants’ ghastly opening-day loss to the Washington Redskins, during which the he and the rest of the secondary were picked apart by journeyman quarterback Rex Grossman and an undistinguished group of receivers.

Webster’s performance last night against the Rams is harder to characterize. Of the six times he was targeted, the Rams completed four passes, though only three of them were for significant gains. On the two occasions when the visiting Rams got inside the Giants’ 10-yard line, Webster provided good coverage when the Giants needed it most, forcing the Rams to settle for two field goals instead of touchdowns: Once on a third-and-goal from the two, when he stayed with a receiver who looked like the primary target, forcing the quarterback to look elsewhere for what became an incomplete pass; and once on second down from the 7 on the Rams’ next series, when he stayed stride-for-stride with receiver Mike Sims-Walker in single coverage on a fade pattern. (The Giants most visible cornerback was Aaron Ross, who was exploited all night and briefly benched in the second half.)

It was not a spectacular performance. But last night’s game, strange and ugly as it was—at one point in the second quarter, the Giants had been outgained in yards by 216 to 68, yet still led by 8 points—can be seen optimistically by Giants fans as a night in which they got some of their key parts working again. Eli Manning rebounded from a 2-for-11 start to complete 16 of his last 18 passes. Justin Tuck came back from injury to play a strong game and notch 1.5 sacks. And Corey Webster? Well, he did OK, just like the Giants. And last night, that was good enough.