Honolulu Blue Kool Aid is the greatly addled thoughts from a weekend of Lions football and other football. Reader discretion is advised for strong language, ignorance and flippancy.
Jeff Okudah has played in just ten NFL games.
Read that sentence as you will. Perhaps it is evidence of how quickly his failure has piled up; in that scant time fans have decided they’ve seen enough. Perhaps it is a cry of patience with regard to how little we have seen of development. I don’t intend either. It’s simply a fact. Unfortunately, that answer may be aborted no matter what retort you expect.
This all seems particularly unfair, considering that we are learning each day what a strange and unholy aberration sport in 2020 has been. Any trend from that year should be regarded with suspect given how trends have fallen. But on Okudah, on Okudah himself it has not set him up well for a fine entry into professional football. He spent last year thrown to the fire by an alien defensive system run by an asshole, with a fanbase on high expectations for a rookie cornerback; he suffered a hamstring injury early in the season, he was placed on injured reserve with respect to his groin and was forced to undergo surgery after the season to repair lingering damage to core muscles that had plagued him since college.
Okudah cannot help where he was drafted by the Detroit Lions. To claim that he must play as a third-overall pick seems disingenuous because I don’t know what a third-overall pick is supposed to look like. It is less a goal-post and more a fluid set of dreams, vivid and lucid and snarling. It’s a fun little puzzle box of pain where you can set whatever goals you want, whatever development time table, and if a criteria isn’t met the draft cost is invoked.
Okudah left the 49ers game on a cart, and he’s being evaluated for a possible Achilles injury. Any significant injury to his Achilles would be a significant blow to his campaign this year, not to mention his career moving forward.
To be quite honest, it all sucks! The cornerback position lives and dies with fans on the highlights and lowlights of those who play. If a corner gives up a big pass, they had a bad game; contrary, a game full of bad coverage can be wiped out with one or two key picks. It is hard to judge the full corpus of a corner’s work in a given game, especially without access to his assignments and particulars.
For all of recent history, the cornerback position has flown high on this big play energy. Interceptions became the king of the highlight. Richard Sherman went on national television and screamed fire and we loved him dearly for it. Revis Island, Aqib Talib, press conferences where the best corners in the 2010s were asked how they ranked themselves against their peers. Fucking wrestling promos cut every day. Your best NFL cornerbacks sold themselves on swagger and venom, standing athwart the league’s preeminence on offense and trying to claim a measure of respect.
There are three big plays where Okudah falls. The first comes against Mohamed Sanu, in a play that set up for Trey Lance’s short touchdown throw. Nothing in this play is egregious from Okudah; while he plays off Sanu enough to let him make the catch, doing so also means that he prevents him from scoring from where he is. Mixed bag.
The second comes against Elijah Mitchell in the second quarter. Okudah failed to catch Mitchell as he came up the gap, then is swiftly taken out by friendly fire from Will Harris while trying to give pursuit. He finds the turf and Mitchell scores the go-ahead touchdown for San Francisco.
But the one that will live on for Okudah’s image in this game is his failed coverage of Deebo Samuel, who happened to bully the entire Lions secondary all day long to the tune of 189 yards. On this play Okudah was responsible for 79 of those yards and a touchdown as he didn’t turn to see the pass screaming his way.
Again, these are highlights/lowlights. They are the biggest mistakes, the prominent ones that stick out and overshadow dozens of good things. The rest of the defense was no better in coverage, but Okudah has become the scapegoat all the same. He had an excellent pass breakup not long after the Elijah Mitchell blunder. He played well on his other assignments for most of the day. Generally, he gave few opportunities for 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to challenge his side of the field.
But that’s not how we view cornerbacks.
Defensive back is in many ways a job of last defense. I’ve had those sort of jobs in my life plenty of times. The good you accomplish in those jobs is rarely to never recognized. You are a part of a machine, you are the safety valve, nobody gives a damn about the safety valve until it stops working and then you are a bad safety valve. Your mistakes are amplified. They affect everyone. It is frustrating, so very frustrating, to know that you have stood on the wall and swatted down 99 gremlins, and the one bugbear that slinks past you shall define you, it shall define your entire day, week, whatever. The worst part is that there’s always someone there who is letting you know just how badly you’ve messed up when you know it already quite well yourself.
You can also take whatever you want out of the exchange between Okudah and defensive backs coach Aubrey Pleasant. Caught by the FOX cameras, the heated incident is already being interpreted in whatever way the viewer sees fit, a cipher to the state of coaching or the status of Okudah and proverbial doghouses.
I am squeamish about the video. Soft, weak, whatever word comes to mind I suppose. I am not one for which “tough love,” as the FOX broadcast described the exchange, works on. If someone spoke to me the way that Pleasant spoke to Okudah, it would result in the very least as the end of any relationship, if not a fight. For myself, a man who suffers enough past trauma, there is no dignity in enduring such nonsense, no matter its intention or intended purpose.
But I am not Okudah, nor is Pleasant yelling at me. I am aware that this is how Pleasant acts, and that his players have seemingly chipped in on this notion of “tough love.” If that is how the relationship works, then I trust that it works for both parties. Pleasant being a former NFL defensive back must factor into this as well, as football athletes charge each other up with constant streams of adrenaline.
Americans pick apart relationships of others with too much intrigue on their mind. Indeed, there were many who highlighted the exchange between Okudah and Pleasant with alarm: what was this man in a position of power doing, is this alright, doesn’t this seem abusive, what about the children? I can’t lie and say I didn’t share a few of those concerns on the first blush, but I also believe that their relationship is not something I have the full picture on.
This will be dissected this week. This will be played back and people will wring hands over it. I feel it in my sun-soaked bones and I dread it, like I dread all discourse. Chittering, nattering, whataboutism. If it keeps itself to a minimum I’ll only be so lucky.
But at the same time, those fans who have come to bury Okudah found plenty of ammunition in this clip. To them, Pleasant was righteously crushing Okudah for bad play, for harming the team and for failing to be a good football player. Such a reading would be just as perverse and misread. This is no fantasy, and your lard ass isn’t sliding into Pleasant’s shoes to reveal to Okudah what a terrible job he’s doing.
For one, people know their mistakes when they make it. On the football field, you cannot hide those mistakes. We’ve got dozens of cameras on you. You’re stuck in the panopticon. Okudah knows this, he’s lived his whole life playing football. He’s not escaping blame here.
The fan-borne rage fantasy also ignores what happened later. On a much bigger blunder, on the Samuel touchdown, Pleasant took a far different tact with Okudah. Once more, I don’t know what this reads about their relationship, and I don’t believe I am equipped to say as much.
Things pile up. The world makes sure of that. For Okudah, it’s all piled up far too quickly. This was an opening day nightmare, to give up a monstrous Samuel touchdown and to be caught on camera with your position coach screaming down your gullet; the potential Achilles injury is a crate of hell thrown atop the pile. No matter the actual corpus of his play, this is where he is and will probably remain for the immediate future. No hard love from the fans will salvage this one.
Jeff Okudah has only played in ten NFL games.