In the Cards: Nnamdi Asomugha

By sharing some of the football cards from my collection, my goal is to put a spotlight on defensive backs who may have become underrated or have been forgotten by history.

Nnamdi Asomugha, CB, Philadelphia Eagles (Topps 2012)

Nnamdi Asomugha’s NFL legacy is complicated.

At one point in his career, the Cal-Berkeley alum was widely considered the best cornerback in football, even though he played for teams that were not good.

When Asomugha finally did land on a team that was supposed to be good — with a massive contract in tow — he didn’t perform up to expectations and the team became worse during his time with them.

And then, it was like his career suddenly ended sooner than it should have.

Possessing Hall of Fame talent and a borderline Hall of Fame resume, Asomugha could find himself immortalized in Canton, Ohio, as an NFL legend … or we could look up in 20 years and realize he’s been forgotten in the shadows of other elite DBs from his era. Either scenario seems just as likely.

Asomugha was a four-time All-Pro and three-time Pro Bowler in his 11 NFL seasons. He was also named to the 2000s All-Decade Team by USA Today and FOX Sports.

Asomugha spent the majority of that decade with the Oakland Raiders, who took him in the first round of the 2003 Draft. Lockdown man-to-man coverage was his calling card. Quarterbacks rarely tested him, and when they did, they paid for it. During the 2006 season, Asomugha tallied eight interceptions; usually he was good for only one or zero in a season because he simply didn’t get many opportunities.

The Raiders never made the playoffs during Asomugha’s tenure, however. They never even had a winning record. Oakland’s 8-8 record in 2010 was the only time they didn’t have a losing record.

In 2009, Asomugha signed a three-year contract with the Raiders that made him the highest-paid defensive back in NFL history. It included a third-year team option, and Oakland declined to exercise it — because it would have meant they had to pay Asomugha a salary on-par with an elite quarterback — which made Asomugha a free agent in 2011. Asomugha was still playing like the best corner in the league, but it’s understandable why a bad team wouldn’t want to pay QB money to a DB when it’s not getting them any closer to the Super Bowl.

Asomugha then signed a five-year, $60 million deal with the Philadelphia Eagles. Unlike the Raiders who were stuck going nowhere, the Eagles were coming off three straight playoff appearances and an NFC East division title, aiming to get to the next level of serious championship contention.

However, Asomugha never reached that same All-Pro level in Philly that he had in Oakland.

There are a few theories.

Some say that he simply ran into Father Time. Asomugha turned 30 years old in 2011, and a lot of skill position players have rapidly slowed down once they hit that age.

Some say he wasn’t as motivated, whether it was due to the big contract (lack of hunger to prove himself) or because he had been dabbling in acting and his mind wasn’t fully dedicated to football.

There could be some truth there. But the most logical explanation is a simple one of style and system.

In Oakland, Asomugha played in a scheme where he was primarily asked to be a press-coverage corner, where his skill set shined. He excelled at being physical at the line of scrimmage and shadowing a receiver downfield.

In Philadelphia, Asomugha was put in a system where he played more zone coverage. Backing off the line and giving receivers a running start didn’t fit his strengths, and Asomugha didn’t make as big of an impact as he did with the Raiders.

Asomugha played two seasons with the Eagles, and the team missed the playoffs both years. He was voted a Pro Bowl alternate and had three interceptions in 2011, but overall he failed to live up to the expectations that came with his reputation and with that big contract.

The Eagles released Asomugha after the 2012 season after being unable to agree on a restructured contract, and he signed with the San Francisco 49ers. Before the 2013 season was over, when he’d played just three games for the team, the Niners waived Asomugha. Later that year, he signed a one-day deal with the Raiders and retired with that franchise.

Since his playing days ended, Asomugha has made a name for himself in Hollywood. He has acted in movies and TV, and he’s worked on the other side of the camera as a producer and writer.

During and after his football career, he has also been recognized for his commitment to serving the community and working with youth.

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