The path to cornerback notoriety in 2016 includes a megaphone. You must be loud. Brash. Must douse your game in hot sauce, spam your Twitter account with opinions and always – always – be entertaining.
So mention “Josh Norman,” the Carolina Panthers’ flamboyant corner, and Stephon Gilmore speaks with blunt, biting conviction.
“Maybe I should talk a little bit more,” said Gilmore, “but that’s not really my personality to go out there and just rant about stuff. I’m very confident in my ability. If I talked the way I was as confident as I am, then I probably would be like that, you know?”
So, no, the Buffalo Bills cornerback isn’t like other cornerbacks. He won’t seclude himself in a dark room on Saturday, watch “300” and pretend to be “Leonidas” on game day like Norman. He certainly doesn’t have his own “Revis Island”-catchy nickname.
He’s not Richard Sherman, mocking wide receivers on the field. Nor is he Patrick Peterson, sparring with Sherman on Twitter. His personality is more professor than caricature.
“My game speaks for itself,” he says.
He hopes it speaks loud enough. After all, those are the corners with the household names, Pro Bowl bids, multimillion-dollar contracts. The next order of business for the Bills could be to lock up their own lockdown corner – Gilmore is entering the final year of his rookie contract.
So the soft-spoken 2012 10th overall pick speaks up.
Look beyond the noise, he explains, and you’ll see an elite cornerback. Four seasons in, Gilmore has zero doubts himself.
“I know who I am and nobody can tell me I’m not,” Gilmore said. “If you really watch the film, really study the film and not go off hype and people who talk more than what I do, just go off the film and it’ll show you that.
“If anybody says this person’s good and everybody hears it, everybody’s going to say he’s good. You know? If not many people actually look at it – and look at what he’s doing – then they don’t know.
“I don’t need to talk and say I’m the best.”
The two sides haven’t made headway yet on a long-term deal. It doesn't sound like the cap-constrained Bills are in a rush at the moment. Gilmore would love to stay in Western New York “as long as it’s fair.” He loves it here, sees hope for a 2016 surge, yet also adds “it’s a business.” He puts himself in the upper-echelon of cornerbacks, thus will likely seek upper-echelon money. Seven cornerbacks will make at least $12 million this season, the likely floor on a new contract.
Oh, Gilmore gets it. Football wouldn’t exist without the fans and the fans, he says, “know what they want to see.” Corners who talk trash into a receiver’s earhole. Corners who wave goodbye to quarterbacks on a pick-six. Controversy earns the airtime at his position and he’s the cerebral, calm, composed presidential candidate offering substantive policy reform at the end of the debate stage.
You need to crank up the volume on your TV just to hear him.
But to Gilmore, talk clouds reality, muddies the X’s and O’s. He points first to his job description in Rex Ryan’s defense. Josh Norman is asked to do one thing in Carolina. He’s asked to do quite another.
He means no disrespect. Rather, to him, it’s a cold-hard fact.
“They run a lot of zone. A lot of help,” Gilmore said. “When guys go under, you let them go. In our system, you’ve got that guy wherever he goes. You’re on an island. If you mess up one little bit, you’re beat. In his system, he makes plays, he has his eyes on the quarterback, he runs more zone.”
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
“Two different systems, two different players, two great players.”
Playing with your eyes on the quarterback – in off coverage or zone – can lead to more game-changing plays. Norman had four picks, two touchdowns and 19 pass break-ups last season. Charles Woodson revitalized his Canton-bound career in Green Bay this way. As he aged, he played off more often and baited naïve quarterbacks into mistakes – 48 of his 65 career interceptions came after he turned 30 years old.
This isn't a bad way to earn a living. But that’s not Gilmore.
His eyes track the receiver, not the quarterback. He’s a leech. Play in, play out.
“You’ve got your hands on him, you’re running with him, you’re wanting the quarterback to make bad throws and you’re on that hip pocket,” he said. “Sometimes, when you have your eyes on the quarterback, you know where your help is and you can see where the quarterback is going with the ball and react.
“Not saying you can’t make plays in a man-to-man system – you can.”
Because, versus man, the reads are easier for the quarterback. Gilmore knows the ball is coming his way – wants it, craves it, says some of his best games were when the QB never threw his way out of fear. In 11½ games last season, he finished with 18 pass break-ups and three interceptions.
Gilmore holes up in a room at home for hours in front of his nearly 11-foot projector screen, studying past greats such as Rod Woodson or Deion Sanders and, as the ritual goes, every single wide receiver he’ll face the next season. His wife often gives him hell, but this is where he finds his edge. Whereas most players stick to cut-ups on their tablet during the season – of a specific player, a specific game situation – Gilmore rewatches entire games.
That way, he can track splits. Body language. Tendencies. Everything.
Gilmore re-creates a movie in his mind, so he can uncover the plot, climax and outcome a split-second before everyone else. Cornerback Mario Butler said Gilmore even compiled a long list of notes for teammates on Dallas and New York the final two weeks while stuck on injured reserve.
Said Butler, “He picks up on everything.”
Was he perfect? No. Jacksonville’s Allen Robinson finished with 98 yards and a touchdown against Buffalo in London, to which Gilmore scoffed that Robinson was an “average” receiver.
But he also shut down Odell Beckham Jr., T.Y. Hilton, A.J. Green, Brandon Marshall and was Nostradamus in Buffalo’s 14-13 win at Tennessee. That game, Gilmore knew every single route his man would run before the snap. All week, Gilmore realized the Titans hardly called any fade routes … so he cheated on all inside routes. The result? Four pass break-ups and an interception.
Former Dallas Cowboys great Darren Woodson says he even sees some Deion in Gilmore's game.
“A lot of guys can’t just line up on the island and play man to man and hold their own,” Gilmore said. “I think I do that at a high level and that’s what separates me from other guys.”
“I’m very confident out there. I don’t care who I’m going against. I don’t really care about big names. A lot of guys have big names but it doesn’t matter to me. You still have to go out there and prove to me that you can do what you do against me.”
So no wonder Gilmore called out Beckham, an untouchable star to that point. He didn’t care for the receiver’s sucker punches, temper tantrums and nagging whining while holding him to five catches for 38 yards on 12 targets. Gilmore called Beckham a “prima donna” and a “golden boy” to The News, adding, “He feels like he’s on top of the world and nobody’s supposed to do anything to him.”
The backlash was strong in New York. Fans and some media members seemed outraged. Gilmore didn’t care.
Ask him a direct question and he supplies a direct, honest answer. Thus, Butler has the perfect nickname for his teammate.
“The quiet assassin,” Butler said. “He’s confident in his own abilities. He knows he’s going to make plays. He knows he’s going to match up with the top receiver. He’s a confident person but he’s not boastful about it. He’s not a rah-rah guy. It’s all about production to him.”
Added Gilmore, “I’m more laid back off the field. But when I’m on the field, I totally transform into a dog. Staying with that edge. Dog the receiver.”
This “dog” isn’t forced, isn't manufactured. Look back to his South Carolina days. On game day, former Gamecocks defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward played Gilmore exclusively on an island. When offenses went hurry-up, he rolled coverage elsewhere.
And at practice, Gilmore refused to let any other cornerback face Alshon Jeffery. Drills. Scrimmages. It didn’t matter. Nobody else could get a piece of Jeffery. The two clutched, grabbed, shoved each other through legendary jousting.
When Steve Spurrier called for 11-on-11 action to not be “live,” Gilmore often ignored his head coach and took shots at receivers.
“They knew if they went against Stephon,” Ward said, “there was a chance they’d get beat up.”
Maybe the roots of the “quiet assassin” are in the backyard, where Dad had Gilmore backpedaling at 10 years old. He’s not shouting it into a mic but, make no mistake, Gilmore seeks sweet vindication. He wants reality to trump perception. OK, so Norman is one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. But Gilmore also believes that if he was in that scheme himself, “it wouldn’t be as hard.” He doesn’t like the “he-said, she-said,” the groupthink at his position. Cornerbacks today gain popularity by “word of mouth,” he says, not the film.
“Somebody says one thing and it travels, you know?” he said. “Everybody believes it. And then you’re the best because of that.”
So there’s Norman with his 123K followers on Twitter, more than double Gilmore’s 59.3K. There’s Patrick Peterson with 240K. There’s Sherman with 1.56M.
They’re the social-media celebrities. The ones on SportsCenter. The jerseys that sell. No, it doesn’t all necessarily bother Gilmore.
“It just makes me play that much harder,” he said, “to actually do more to prove myself.”
So he cannot wait for 2016.
For the first time in the pros, Gilmore will run the same scheme in back-to-back years. Another legendary film junkie – Ed Reed – is now on the coaching staff. He’s a Rex Ryan Believer. And soon, the Bills must decide if Gilmore is worth premier cornerback money. If the team lets him play into a contract year, as it’ll likely do with Tyrod Taylor, it’s on Gilmore.
Fine by him.
Because as the cornerback repeats once more, the film “doesn’t lie.”
“And I believe,” Gilmore said, “you get what you work hard for.”