IF YOU HAD trouble spotting Lito Sheppard on the field Sunday during the Eagles' 20-14 win over the Giants, there's nothing wrong with your eyesight. Except for a few special-teams appearances, he didn't play. Wasn't on the field for any of his team's 51 defensive snaps.
No doubt, there are more than a few conspiracy theorists out there who believe Sheppard's benching was orchestrated by a vindictive front office intent on showing Mr. Sheppard and his over-moussed agent, Drew Rosenhaus, what happens to players who have the audacity to squawk about the number of zeroes in their paycheck.
This, of course, ignores the fact that defensive coordinator Jim Johnson has complete autonomy over who plays and doesn't play. And all of Johnson's personnel decisions are, and always have been, based strictly on who can best help keep the other team out of the end zone, not on who is in Joe Banner's dog pound. The day Banner or owner Jeff Lurie or even head coach Andy Reid tells Johnson who to play is the day he puts Philadelphia in his rearview mirror.
The reason Sheppard, a one-time Pro Bowler, spent Sunday as his team's unused No. 4 corner is because right now the Eagles are a much better defense with Joselio Hanson on the field as their nickel corner than they are with Sheppard.
Sheppard may be the most talented cornerback on the team. But he can't play hurt, which is too often the case, and, as he has proved this season, he also can't play unhappy.
Hanson, meanwhile, has become a key contributor to a defense that heads into Sunday's game against the Browns ranked sixth in the league against the pass (187.4 yards allowed per game), second in opponent completion percentage (.550) and ninth in opponent passer rating (77.6).
"The last couple of years, when I've been in there playing the nickel, it seems like good things happen to the team," said Hanson, who was signed by the Eagles out of now-defunct NFL Europe in the spring of 2006.
Hanson started four games last season and spent most of the year as the third corner in Johnson's nickel package. He hoped to be in the same role this season, but when the Eagles signed Asante Samuel in March and didn't trade Sheppard, Hanson opened the season as the team's No. 4 corner.
"I was a little upset,'' he said. "I mean, I felt like I was getting better and better each year. You want to continue to move up. You don't want to stay in the same spot or go backwards. But it seems like every year I start out as the fourth [corner] and work my way up. I told myself I was just going to go to camp and do what I've always done - work my butt off."
Samuel signed a $56 million contract. Sheppard and Sheldon Brown both were high picks with long-term deals. What's a guy from NFL Europe to do except keep his mouth shut and try to prove to the coaches that he belongs on the field?
"Everybody that plays this game wants to be a starter," Hanson said. "But some things don't work out that way. There's a lot of politics in this game. They have more money invested in certain guys and things like that. There are obvious reasons [why people play]. Everybody knows that. I couldn't get down on myself. I did everything I could. Eventually, I got a chance to play again and got better and proved I belong out there."
Hanson's chance came in the second half of the Eagles' 40-26, Week 6 win over the 49ers. Sheppard - surprise, surprise - strained his hamstring in the third quarter and Hanson replaced him. He's been the nickel corner ever since.
Initially, Johnson took Brown out of the nickel and had him play in his base and dime (six defensive backs) packages to make room for Hanson and Sheppard. Two weeks ago, when Samuel couldn't play against the Cardinals because of a neck stinger, Hanson started in his place rather than Sheppard. Then, last week, when Samuel returned, Sheppard became the odd man out.
"Joselio just has a good feel for the game," Johnson said. "You tell him something once and he'll do it and you don't have to say anything about it again. You can see he's around the ball. He's got a real nose for the football and a feel for the defense. And he's physical. He plays hard and he plays tough."
Hanson's impact on the pass defense this season is evident in the numbers. In the first six games, opposing quarterbacks averaged 6.88 yards per attempt and had a .571 completion percentage. In the seven games since Hanson moved into his nickel role, they've allowed just 5.99 yards per attempt and a .533 completion percentage.
Johnson can use Hanson anywhere. While he primarily lines up in the slot, he also can play outside on either the left side or right. When Johnson used a nickel alignment last week against the Giants that included three safeties and two cornerbacks to better defend against the run on passing downs, he kept Hanson in with Brown and took out Samuel, whose tackling skills aren't much better than Sheppard's.
"It just proves I'm a good corner, man," Hanson said. "I'm more valuable than people think because I can play so many positions. I can play inside or outside. I could even play safety if I had to. I couldn't hit like Dawk [Brian Dawkins] or Quintin [Mikell], but I could get the job done."
Hanson has come a long way since being released by the 49ers after the '04 season. When no other NFL teams called, he went over to NFL Europe and played well enough to get free-agent offers from three teams,
including the Eagles.
Nobody gave him much of a chance of making the Eagles that year, but Johnson liked the 5-9, 185-pounder's smarts and toughness.
"There were just 2 weeks of OTA [organized training activities] left when I got here," Hanson said. "I took a lot of notes. I didn't even practice because I didn't know what I was doing here. But I took notes the whole time. When I went on vacation before training camp, I studied my notes real good and came back to training camp and took it from there."
Hanson isn't a star, probably never will be. But he's OK with that. It just makes him work harder.
"When you're a free agent,
you're coming in at the bottom," he said. "You gotta work your way up. It never ends. Proving yourself never ends. I'm on a mission, man. My contract is up after this year, so I'm on another mission.
"I'm not just playing for me. I'm playing for my mom, my family, everybody. I'm playing for my future. You're going to play even harder when you're playing for your future. I don't want to regret after the season that I didn't prepare enough for a game or didn't play hard enough. I don't want to look back and say, 'Damn, I should've been more ready.' " *
Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org