In football, they say a cornerback is a man on an island, but the metaphor doesn't quite fit. What he is, really, is an actor or dancer on a stage, delivering a performance on every pass that comes his way. Over all those plays, all those receivers he's covering and passes he's defending, he knows that some of his performances will be abject failures, that those failures are inevitable, and that when they happen, everyone will see them and they will be humiliating. A cornerback is not a lineman, his mistakes hidden by other massive men's bodies. He is not a running back who sometimes selects the wrong sliver of space to try to slip through. A receiver will burn a cornerback for a long completion or a big first-down reception or a touchdown, and everyone will see it, and it will be humiliating. A cornerback will forget his lines. He will fall on his face. He has to learn to live with it.
For a long time, Patrick Robinson couldn't. He had been a first-round draft pick, out of Florida State, in 2010 by the New Orleans Saints, just after they had won the Super Bowl. He assumed everything for him in the NFL would be exactly as it had been for him in college. It was not.
"In the past, I definitely would get down about a play they made on me," he said Tuesday, after the Eagles had practiced. "In college, I was that guy who played man-to-man the whole game against the best receiver, no help. That's my side of the field. Whoever's over there, that's my responsibility. But when I came into the league, everybody is good. Everybody has that speed, that explosion, that quickness. When those plays started to get made, I was like, 'Hold up. What's going on?' Back then, I was questioning my skill set. But now I realize that my skill set is still one of the best in the league. It's more mental than anything."
He is 30, in his eighth NFL season and first with the Eagles, and only recently has he begun to replenish the confidence he had when he entered the league. After struggling throughout training camp and the preseason, Robinson has been a marvelous surprise, particularly in the aftermath of Ronald Darby's ankle injury, playing both on the outside and in the slot, providing speed and experience and stability to a secondary that was once thought to be among the NFL's weakest, even making vital plays on special teams. In the Eagles' Week 5 victory over the Cardinals, he broke up three passes, made five tackles, and blocked a field goal. In their victory over the Panthers on Thursday, he defended three passes, intercepted a Cam Newton throw in the third quarter to set up a Zach Ertz touchdown catch, and recovered a muffed punt by Kenjon Barner.
If Howie Roseman, Joe Douglas, and the rest of the Eagles' player-personnel people deserve credit for targeting Alshon Jeffery, Torrey Smith, and Tim Jernigan during their offseason renovation of the roster, they deserve more laurels for signing Robinson to a one-year contract after an injury-riddled season with the Colts. They had quite a bit to look past. From 2012 through 2014, Robinson saw himself regressing with the Saints, playing too conservatively, too timidly, under defensive coordinators Steve Spagnuolo and Rob Ryan.
"It was me trying to not give up the big play more than anything," he said. "When you play like that, you play scared. You're giving up stuff that you normally wouldn't give up."
He had believed his career was on the upswing in 2015, when he was with the Chargers, and he signed a three-year free-agent deal with Indianapolis. But a groin problem not only limited him to seven games last season, it led to the Colts' releasing of him in March. Still, based on the totality of his time in the league, the Eagles believed he could help them.
His rough training camp threatened to send his confidence sinking again, his lamentations over his poor play becoming a daily ritual throughout late July and August. He was hard on himself but maintained perspective.
"It's never as bad as you think it is," he said, "and it's never as good as you think it is."
Of course, he and his coaches would acknowledge it's much better now.
"He never lost his confidence, and we never lost our confidence in him," Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. "He's been through the wringer, so to speak, and he understands, and he has the maturity and the confidence and the experience to be able to deal with those things. He understands the business."
It took him a while. Eight years, actually. Maybe, at this stage of his career, all Patrick Robinson needed was a more forgiving audience. You know, here. In Philadelphia.