THE POSITION creates ghosts. Hordes of them. Talented men, fast men, many who probably wished they had made it as receivers or running backs, positions in which screwups can be subtle sometimes, undetected even.
The mistakes of cornerbacks do not go undetected. Not often. Often, they are spectacular in their clarity, and humiliating in the result. Just a few boo-boos, in too short of a time period, and the confidence of the steeliest men can corrode, spooking them into playing the position as if they're free safeties, playing themselves right onto the waiver wire and out of the NFL.
"I'm not going to say who," Quintin Mikell was saying in the Eagles' locker room yesterday, "but there are guys out there who are no longer out there who should be out there. You're a younger guy and you screw up a few times and then the media gets on you, and the fans . . . you lose all your confidence."
Dimitri Patterson took a bad tack on a long ball Monday night and knew it immediately. You could tell by the desperation in his gait, by the futility of arms that tried to induce extra speed into his legs. You could tell by the way he lurched at the end, as Donovan McNabb's field-length bomb settled into the arms of wide receiver Anthony Armstrong for what would become a 76-yard gain.
"That was a frustrating play for me," Patterson was saying yesterday. "I'm a competitor, so when he caught that ball, after I misjudged the ball, I wanted to come back and make a play. Make more than one play. That's just me being competitive, trying to show that I'm a guy who, if I get beat, I'm coming right back."
This was early in the second quarter, and it led to Washington's second touchdown. It led to perhaps the only uneasiness of the night, a 35-zip lead becoming 35-14 in the span of two throws, with plenty of clock left, with Nate Allen missing, with Ellis Hobbs still hobbled, with the inexperienced and still lightly regarded Patterson clearly a target.
Two weeks before, the Colts had targeted him, too. "A lot," he said. "They were double-moving me, trying to get at me. So I said, 'OK, they're coming. Get ready.' "
Patterson will tell you he was ready already, prepared since the summer, after spending much of 2009 watching, reading, studying. He is 5-10, 200 pounds, a guy who left two colleges earlier than expected, a guy who has been, for much of his career, a professional football player in name only. Signed in January of 2009, he is with his fourth organization.
He is 27.
"Dimitri has always had the skill set," said Eagles defensive coordinator Sean McDermott. "It's just been a matter of getting him on the field on a consistent basis to display his talents. And he just continues to get better and better with each rep."
"For me, this is all about opportunity," Patterson said. "I just needed the opportunity. I've been behind guys like Ty Law, Shawn Springs, Walt Harris. I can only do what I can do when that door opens. If that door never opens, then I'm outside knocking.
"It's one of those things. Did I know when it was going to open? No. I didn't know anything. All I knew was that I can play in the league and I can play at a high level and that I was going to be ready if the opportunity came. And if it didn't ever come? Well, at least I knew that when I was done, I did everything I needed to do. That's it."
He finished with seven tackles in that Indianapolis game. He was a target to the end, and he held up, played superbly at times.
When McNabb got his hands on the ball again Monday night, he took a deep shot immediately. Incomplete. Three plays later, he tried again and Patterson picked him off.
It was the first of his two interceptions. The second he returned 40 yards for a touchdown, the final Redskins indignity in their 59-28 loss. On Comcast SportsNet's "Daily News Live" the other day, Brian Baldinger lauded Patterson's confidence and fortitude to be in position to make those plays, so soon after he was burned. Lots of guys in Patterson's position, he said, would play soft, especially if they were filling the position for an injured starter, the way Patterson was.
Or was. On Monday, with Hobbs still feeling the hip flexor that sidelined him against Indy, head coach Andy Reid declared Patterson was the starter. How long? Who knows? But this is certain: Patterson will not lose the job because of a lack of preparation.
This also is certain. He will not lose the job because of shaky confidence. He will not disappear as if a ghost.
"He's different in that respect," Mikell said. "He's a guy with a lot of confidence without having a whole lot of experience. But he's seen a lot. He's sat back and watched. He saw the good stuff and the bad. And he knows the defense now. He knows when it's a good time to sit and when it's a good time to play off."
"I'm a confident player," said Patterson. "I'm a cerebral player. And I understand what's going on . . . I'm not out there just to be standing out there. Eleven men on the field, they're going to have to throw the ball. I'm not going to be saying, 'Please don't throw it over here.' I want to compete.
"Is there any other way to be? If you're any other way, trust me, you're not going to be out there very long."
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