On the Thursday before he became a star, Xavier Rhodes stood in the sun with beads of humidity sliding down his forehead and talked about his plan against Odell Beckham Jr.
“He’s really explosive, he’s a great route runner, he is good at attacking the ball in the air,” Rhodes said quietly, almost as if he was reminding himself.
Before jogging off the Minnesota Vikings’ practice field to the locker room, Rhodes mentioned that he wasn’t interested in trying to get inside Beckham’s head, he just wanted to play his game. Impressive as Beckham may be, the New York Giants’ young superstar has his out-of-control moments, which are usually set off by a physical battle with a corner.
It isn’t a lie if you’re just keeping your plan a secret, right? Rhodes flustered Beckham, causing him to commit a costly 15-yard penalty early in the game. The dynamic receiver never recovered and by the end of the contest, Beckham, who averages 95.9 receiving yards per game had just 23 yards, the lowest mark of his career, and Rhodes was interviewed live with ESPN and NFL Network.
Until that night, only Minnesota football fans knew that Rhodes was capable of shutting down any receiver in the NFL. After slowing Beckham, everybody knew.
Because of Darrelle Revis, the “shutdown corner” has become a superstar position like a quarterback or receiver. It may have been Deion “Primetime” Sanders who made defensive back cool in the late-80s and 90s, but Revis turned people’s attention away from interceptions and onto the “Island” concept of locking a receiver down 1-on-1.
Advanced stats from websites like Football Outsiders and film analysis from Pro Football Focus has also helped bring the spotlight on players like Rhodes. For example: When throwing in Rhodes’ direction in 2016, opposing quarterbacks averaged just 5.9 Yards Per Attempt, threw two touchdowns and five interceptions and managed a 39.2 quarterback rating. These are stats that fans regularly find in articles and on TV graphics. They know his impact.
So by the end of the season, Rhodes became the biggest name on the Vikings’ defense and the guy highlighted by every telecast. During Super Bowl Week, he appeared on syndicated shows. He smiled as the NFL Network crew called him one of the best shutdown corners in the league. Naturally, he agreed.
Terrell Buckley laughs as he remembers a time when Rhodes couldn’t even backpedal, much less stop the league’s elite receivers.
In fact, the wide receivers at Florida State didn’t want to face him in practice because he wasn’t enough of a challenge.
But Buckley, a former NFL corner and assistant coach with Florida State at the time, saw something. He pushed for Rhodes to become a cornerback despite the fact that he was recruited as a wide receiver.
“[Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher] and I ended up fighting over players,” said Buckley, now a defensive back’s coach a Mississippi State. “I said, ‘Do you want a good receiver or a great corner?'”
You can picture some sort of Rocky montage with Buckley taking Rhodes under his wing, spending week after week teaching him how to play cornerback. There aren’t any mountains in Florida to climb and Buckley didn’t say specifically that he had Rhodes chase chickens, but he did push hard from the start.
“There was a lot of head scratching and tearing out my hair,” said Buckley, now bald.
Simple things like lining up properly were difficult for Rhodes, who had only ever played defense in high school when his team’s opponent was going to launch a Hail Mary.
“First of all, he had the willingness to work, and secondly, he would listen, he’s also patient,” Buckley said. “You combine those things – and it’s a long hard process – but you knew with the strides he made…by the end of the year, he was one of the best cornerbacks on the team.”
Buckley would tell NFL scouts, “I’ve got a freshman who you better come and get.”
It’s a nice feeling for the ballcoach to see his pupil make it big, but Buckley doesn’t see Rhodes as having quite made it yet.
He will only tip his cap to Rhodes when his talent has been fully maximized. As a top notch player in his day, Buckley has perspective that most coaches don’t have. He played 209 NFL games, picked off 50 passes and won a Super Bowl in 2001 with the Patriots.
Usually, when a coach was an exceptional player, we wonder: Can he really teach his guys to do the same things he did? It’s not that easy. But in this case, Rhodes is special, too, so he can see the things Buckley saw. He can probably also understand why his old coach believes he can be even better.
But how much more room is there to grow for a guy who just held opposing quarterbacks to the same rating you get for spiking the ball?
Buckley believes Rhodes can improve when it comes to seeing every moving part on the field like a mathematician sees all the components of a formula.
“At my best, I could have faxed them their game plan against me, that’s how well I knew what other teams were going to do,” Buckley said, laughing.
So how is he supposed to get to that point? More experience will help, but Buckley has a pretty unique idea of how to take Rhodes’ play to the Revis-in-his-prime level.
“He’s going to come to where I’m at, Mississippi State, he’s going to get his tail here this year and he’s going to [talk to] my guys,” Buckley said. “That is going to help his own game to go up even another notch because when you start explaining why you play a certain way, you start becoming even a better player because now, when you start explaining to somebody, you say, ‘Let me add this to it, that makes sense.’ It’s one of those weird things, you actually become better and [understand] more in-depth when you’re talking about it.”
His theory is interesting, but how true can it really be? Does teaching others really push a player to the next level?
Only one way to find out.
So I reached out to Ben Glaros, a stupidly-talented professional guitar player in the Twin Cities, who’s been rocking since he was 12, growing up on the Rolling Stones and Neil Young, and has been a full-time musician and guitar teacher for about the last decade.
Glaros has taught everyone from age three to 93 and everything in between. He’s coached along elite players and ones who didn’t know a bar chord from wah wah pedal.
A big Vikings fan whose pre-music aspirations were to be Fran Tarkenton, Glaros said that teaching reminds him of core elements of the guitar that an expert might rarely practice.
“Every time explaining something or practicing with someone else, I’m doing it for myself, too,” he said. “Sometimes having to explain something that maybe you don’t think about all that much, that’s been a big aspect of it for me too. Stuff that I don’t really think about or that comes automatically, when I have to explain it can help solidify techniques.”
Every student is different, Glaros said, so studying other players’ strengths and weaknesses helps him learn and more sharply critique his own.
“I also realized that I was constantly telling my students to do things that I wasn’t necessarily doing myself,” Glaros said. “I’ve gotten into this thing where I ask myself, ‘If you were the student right now, what would you say to yourself?’ A lot of times it’s simple stuff, but I wouldn’t do it if i didn’t put myself in my student’s shoes.”
There is more to it than just a reminder of the basics or a different perspective on the same material. For Glaros, there is a certain validation and confidence that comes along with passing along guidance and seeing it succeed in practice.
“Whether you take it as a spiritual thing or however you want to frame it, there is something about taking something that was passed onto you and passing it onto someone else,” he said. “I feel like that’s really worth a lot…it’s given me a lot of confidence and makes it all meaningful on another level.”
Rhodes hasn’t quite had this experience yet, though he has talked to younger players and kids about his route to the NFL. He understands that value of telling them about his dedication and love for the game, but hasn’t yet been in a position to feel the full effect of what Buckley is talking about.
“The biggest question I get when I talk to kids, like even in elementary or something, is who bombed you or you did you get Moss’d by, things like that,” Rhodes said, chuckling.
He’s always been on the student side, especially with teammate Terence Newman, who by all human standards shouldn’t still be able to play football, but is coming off a terrific age-38 season.
“T-Newman is a blessing to the team, man” Rhodes said. “I tell everyone, he’s a coach within the lines. Once you go between those lines, a coach can’t go on the field with you but with him it’s like he’s a coach out there. He’s always making sure I’m in the right alignment, doing the right thing, asking me questions once we get off the field like, ‘Hey, what did you do on that route?’ He’s always asking questions, coaching me up, and that’s a great thing to have with you.”
Rhodes doesn’t realize that Newman probably gets as much out of those conversations as his younger teammates do.
But just to be sure the teaching effect really applies to sports, I called up a goalie pal in the German Hockey League.
David Leggio, a netminder for Munich ECH, spends his offseasons teaching students the art of goaltending.
There are plenty of players who are teachers within the game, but few actually have actual students Like Leggio. He’s also a guy who understands having to maximize every ounce of skill he has.
After walking on at Clarkson, he turned a long shot into a long pro career, playing in the ECHL, AHL, Finland and Germany, winning a championship last year overseas.
Leggio said that part of being a teacher is staying connected to other goalies and understanding many different styles.
“If you watch across the NHL, there’s not just one way to do it…so when I’m teaching I realize that not everything [I do] is going to work for certain kids. You have to be conscious of the student, how they learn, what their temperament is and gage where they’re at.”
In high school, Leggio found that he got a kick out of teaching, volunteering to help at clinics, then in college he would earn a few bucks in the summer by holding clinics. After going pro, he continued teaching for no other reason than that he enjoyed it.
“The students challenge you to think about what you’re doing and what you’re teaching because they’re asking questions and it’s something that’s new to them and it gets you to break it down step by step,” Leggio said. “It’s really beneficial in that way too, questioning how and why you’re doing things.”
For Leggio, it’s become part of the process of immersing himself in the craft. No matter how long he’s been between the pipes, he feels there’s always something new to discover.
Teaching is also kind of a zen experience for Leggio. It’s time with his work that doesn’t involve screaming coaches or contracts or pressure.
“The best part of working with kids in the summer is that there’s no scoreboard, we can just take our time,” Leggio said.
When I explained Buckley’s theory of getting Rhodes to see the game beyond his own position, Leggio connected immediately. Maybe it’s just the maturation of the person as well as the player, but there seems to come a time, around the mid-20s, where everything clicks – that’s if you work at it.
“I can’t speak for the elite goaltenders in the National Hockey League, but when you see them playing, you see that they understand the game, they understand what’s going on, not just the movements they’re doing,” Leggio said. “They know how to read the players, read the plays, they know every situation, which comes from just knowing the game. That’s a thing that can be taught kind of, but it’s more learned on your own through playing, teaching, observing. You learn to process all this information at once.”
Buckley often had to find ways to get Rhodes to calm down during those trying days of learning how to play cornerback at Florida State.
“He had a lot of patience with me at that moment,” Rhodes said.
Newman remarked earlier this year that Rhodes still plays with so much competitive fire that sometimes it can hurt him. Against Beckham, defensive backs coach Jerry Grey had to yank him aside during a heated back-and-forth with the Giants’ receiver. Rhodes was pulled from the game for a sequence.
He might not see that flaw in himself yet, though Newman pointed it out to him. When he spends some time with other young fiery corners, he probably will.
“When we get together, he’ll still tell me I need to calm down and not be so aggressive,” Rhodes laughs.
Before you can take the next step, you have to know that there’s another step to be taken, and Rhodes does. Buckley makes the point that his former understudy has something important – something that Ben Glaros and David Leggio have – that can help drive him to the next level: A never-ending inquisitiveness about his sport.
“Especially this last year, I’d be going into the game asking, ‘How are these guys going to attack me?” Rhodes said. “Thinking back on the film from the previous games like, what routes I was beaten on, what down and distance they beat me on, how I played in two-minute [situations]. I look at each and every situation and critique myself and my technique.”
Rhodes’ voice gets louder over the phone as he’s going through these situations. He’s months from playing another game, but sounds ready now.
The offseason isn’t an offseason, to him. It’s about work, it’s about the process, it’s about learning. And if he listens to his mentor, as he has for so long, his offseason will include getting better through teaching, too.