KANSAS CITY, Mo. — How quickly it all fell apart, the notion that Marcus Cooper is the Chiefs’ immediate answer at cornerback. In three games against Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers, the former Rutgers standout and seventh-round pick went from being a Rookie of the Year candidate to Goat of the Month.
Near the end of the Chiefs’ third straight loss on Sunday, Cooper took a seat on the sideline after giving up a second touchdown to Broncos wide receiver Eric Decker in seven minutes. Manning had exploited Cooper’s zone coverage for a 15-yard strike to Decker with 6:48 to go in the third; on the next drive, he threw Cooper’s way for a pass interference first down, and six plays later he lofted the ball over Cooper’s head for a one-yard touchdown to give the Broncos a 14-point lead at the start of the fourth quarter.
Cooper had been targeted 10 times for seven catches, 165 yards (including gains of 43 and 78 yards) and two touchdowns, and there were still 14 minutes of football left to play in what turned out to be a 35-28 Broncos’ victory at Arrowhead Stadium.
Moments after Cooper plopped onto the bench in solitude following the second touchdown, veteran cornerback Dunta Robinson, 31, was kneeling at the 23-year-old’s feet, helmet off, imparting wisdom.
“It’s OK to learn,” he said. “Don’t beat yourself up over it.”
Robinson looked up at Cooper’s face as he repeated the message, and Cooper just nodded. Like so many other young corners who’d been picked on by Manning during his decade and a half of dominance, Robinson had been there before. Drafted by the struggling Texans in 2004, Robinson was a starter when Manning’s Colts whipped them, 49-14, in Week 10. The second meeting was closer, 23-14, but Manning knew whom to abuse four weeks later.
“I remember for the first time being close enough to win. We were down two touchdowns and that felt like close,” Robinson says. “He went at me. I jumped a few routes, and Peyton Manning being who he is, double-moved me with Reggie Wayne and Reggie Wayne took me deep. I had to learn. It’s kind of what Marcus was going through. I can remember Aaron Glenn, as a nine-year vet, coming over to talk to me and telling me to continue to get better. That’s all Marcus can do. He’s going through growing pains right now.”
It doesn’t seem fair. There are probably five cornerbacks who wouldn’t outright crumble if Manning decided to pick on them. Cooper isn’t one of them, even if he did pick off a wobbler in the first half to help send the Chiefs on their way to a 21-7 lead early in the second quarter. The fundamental difference between the task Robinson faced as a rookie and the role Cooper has been entrusted with is this: These games matter. The Chiefs are now 9-3, one game behind the Broncos (who swept the season series) in the AFC West.
Over the past month Cooper (a 49ers draft pick who was cut before the season began) has played the majority of snaps at left cornerback instead of Brandon Flowers, who moves inside to the slot against ever-present three-receiver looks. In the last three games, which have seen the Chiefs go from undefeated to second place, both Flowers and Cooper have been abused from all angles as the pass rush has limped without linebacker Justin Houston, who is week to week with an elbow injury. In the first matchup against the Broncos in Week 11, Cooper gave up six receptions for 128 yards (including a 70-yarder). A week later, Rivers targeted Cooper for 146 yards (including a 54-yarder) on six completions. (In those two games, Flowers allowed a combined 14 receptions for 186 yards, including a 60-yarder.)
The pressure to snap the losing streak was already mounting by the time the Broncos arrived at Arrowhead, and Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton didn’t exactly pick the right way to turn things around. He opted to take away the underneath routes and give Manning the deep ball, according to safety Kendrick Lewis. “That was the plan,” Lewis says. “The plan was to give them the top and shut down everything underneath.”
That could have worked, given superb cornerback play and blitzes that reached the quarterback. But Kansas City didn’t get that. After safety Eric Berry knocked Manning to the ground on the first drive—the first time Manning had touched the turf in the team’s two meetings—Kansas City managed to hit him only twice more, neither time for a sack. And despite scoring 11 more points than they did in their first meeting with the Broncos, the Chiefs were once again losers. Says veteran linebacker Derrick Johnson: “At a certain point, you’re looking over at the next guy saying, ‘The offense is handling business—what are we doing?’ ”
It’s more than enough to bruise the ego of a defense that hadn’t allowed an opponent to score more than 17 points before the Broncos pulled off a 27-17 victory in Week 11 and the Chargers left Arrowhead with a 41-38 win in Week 12. On Sunday, the Chiefs’ defense was at its worst, giving up season-highs in total yards (535), passing yards (403), first downs (25) and third down conversions (eight).
Grim as these three losses have been, no one in Kansas City’s locker room is mourning or panicking. Says Robinson: “It’s too many good players on this team to look at it and say ‘Wow, what are we going to do now?’ ”
Even Cooper managed a sunny outlook following Sunday’s loss. Like the rest of his teammates, he faced wave after wave of a media contingent that wanted to know what happened to a once-unbeaten team that has seemingly become so … average. The sinewy corner stood in front of his locker and answered each question in the same manner Kansas City has handled losses: confidently.
“I’ll take my lashes,” he says. “It’s what we get paid to do—is what it is. It’s nothing I can’t fix. Fortunately, we’re still in the hunt.”