There are times when playing cornerback in the National Football League is no fun. These are referred to as "game days."
It's a tough job, the task of defending an elite pass catcher who has the advantage of knowing the play ahead of time. In some ways, it doesn't even seem like a fair job. A carpenter does not have to hit his thumb with a hammer in front of 60,000 people and then have carpentry analysts cackle over the slow-motion replay of how it happened.
Of course, carpenters don't usually make a base salary of $3.275 million per year, either, which is the compensation Bradley Fletcher is receiving this season for the pleasure of being a civic scapegoat in Philadelphia.
"I play corner. That's what I do," Fletcher said after practice on Wednesday. "Sometimes, things don't go the way I planned."
Fletcher didn't reveal his exact plan for matching up with Desmond Demond Bryant on Sunday, but it probably didn't include allowing Bryant to catch three touchdown passes on his watch to take over the league lead in receiving TDs. The three plays were all very similar. Bryant beat Fletcher off the line, got a step and pulled in a perfectly thrown pass from Tony Romo. All three were incredibly difficult to defend, and Fletcher was merely one piece of why the plays worked, but he was the one everyone saw hit his thumb with the hammer. Three times.
"They're in a position where, first of all, it's easy for fans and people to put criticism on them because you're the only one out there," center Jason Kelce said of a cornerback's lot. "Whether it's a quarterback or a defensive back or a receiver, anything that's out in the open tends to get more heat, and there can be just as much wrong criticism as there is right."
After the game and during the practice week, defensive coordinator Bill Davis and coach Chip Kelly were asked what could be done at the corner. Davis said that neither Nolan Carroll nor Brandon Boykin, the other two cornerbacks who are usually active, was an option, not because they couldn't handle the outside roles, but because Fletcher has not been trained to play inside in the nickel and dime formations.
Davis was also asked why he didn't simply put right cornerback Cary Williams on whichever receiver is judged to be more dangerous, something he did in the late stages of the Dallas game, but having the outside corners flop between left and right depending on how the opponent breaks the huddle is not something they like to do. Plus, there's just as much chance, had Davis tried that from the start on Sunday, that this column would be about Williams and not Fletcher. Romo and Bryant were that good, and the cornerback's job in that situation is a nasty one.
"You're going to get beat and it happens. As a defensive back, you just have to develop tough skin," safety Nate Allen said. "If we mess up on something, no matter how big or small it is, it usually ends up in a touchdown or a big play. That's part of being a DB. Whatever you do wrong, it gets exposed."
On the second and third touchdowns, both "go" routes down the right sideline after Bryant escaped a bump at the line, Allen failed to get there in time to help with coverage because Romo looked him off. And on both of those touchdowns, the Eagles failed to get pressure on the quarterback despite bringing an extra rusher. The first touchdown of the night might have been a bit more on Fletcher because he looked back a little early on a fade route near the goal line and chose to defend against an inside cut, but then Bryant extended his arms to keep Fletcher at bay before using his reach advantage to pluck the ball from the air.
Any way you look at it, this wasn't a good night to be Bradley Fletcher, but he was hardly the only one at fault. Merely the most obvious.
"It's not fair. The same wrong step in the front seven is the same mistake as a wrong step in the back end," linebacker Connor Barwin said. "Unfortunately, it's obviously a whole lot different in the public's eye. But from our perspective, it's the same mistake."
This week, cornerbacks Vontae Davis and Greg Toler of Indianapolis are watching the film of what Bryant did to the Eagles. They are not making fun of or blaming Fletcher as they do because they understand bad karma. This is the life they chose and it could happen to them, too.
"That's how it goes. Everyone watching can have an opinion," Fletcher said. "It's easy to point fingers."
Easy to smack your thumb in front of everyone, too. After two or three whacks, that can hurt.