CB Donnie Abraham gets his hands on the football a lot more than most NFL defensive backs
Heading down the NFL homestretch last fall, as Pro Bowl votes were being tabulated, it was widely agreed that cornerback Donnie Abraham was the best player on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers never selected to the league's all-star game. As we all know by now, that injustice was corrected in 2000 and Abraham was one of nine Bucs to head off to Honolulu in February.
Abraham has also borne the labels 'unsung' and 'underrated' for most of his NFL career, but those tags were also removed by his trip to the Pro Bowl.
Or were they?
Does the NFL fan base as a whole truly appreciate the caliber of Abraham's play or, more directly, the consistency of his high-caliber play? Perhaps not.
At the end of each season, the individual totals on the league's chart of interceptions leaders usually range from five to nine picks. Last year, for instance, Green Bay's Darren Sharper led the league with nine interceptions and the players tied at the bottom of the top-20 list had five. The names change and jockey for position each year, but the range stays pretty much the same.
In his five seasons in the NFL (1996-2000), Donnie Abraham has had five or more interceptions at the end of four of them. How many players in the entire league have had more than four five-interception seasons during that span?
That would be Eric Davis of the Carolina Panthers, who had exactly five interceptions in each season from 1996 through 2000. Davis went to two Pro Bowls in the mid '90s but is currently looking for a new team after his release from the Panthers. Following is a lengthier list of the league's most consistent interceptors in the last five years.
|Eric Davis||CAR||5||'96, '97, '98, '99, '00|
|Donnie Abraham||TB||4||'96, '97, '99, '00|
|Ray Buchanan||ATL||3||'97, '98, '00|
|Terrell Buckley||MIA, DEN||3||'96, '98, '00|
|Tom Knight||NO||5||'97, '98, '00|
|Sam Madison||MIA||3||'98, '99, '00|
|Duane Starks||BAL||5||'98, '99, '00|
|Aeneas Williams||ARI||3||'96, '97, '00|
|Rod Woodson||PIT, BAL||3||'96, '98, '99|
(* Only the teams with which the player had five-interception seasons are listed.)
Before we continue, it would be fair to be note that not every player on that list has yet to play five NFL seasons. Knight and Madison began their NFL careers in 1997, Starks in '96. But judged against the such veteran standard-bearers as Williams and Woodson, and many more that did not make this list, Abraham has been remarkably productive. He is, in fact, the NFL's interception leader over the last two seasons combined, with 14, but that note has received considerably less attention than the fact that Bucs DT Warren Sapp has the most sacks (29) over that same span.
Abraham's quiet field demeanor may be part of his admittedly dissolving lack of recognition. That probably contributed to his previous Pro Bowl snubs, but he could no longer be ignored last fall after his five-season pick total ran to 25.
"It's not about your name or any of the other stuff," said Abraham. "It's what you do on the field that year, and I think I had the performance on the field to be (in the Pro Bowl)."
Abraham's interceptions have piled up so rapidly that he already ranks third on the Buccaneers' career chart with those 25 redirections. If he merely matches his yearly average of five in 2001, he will pass Mike Washington (28) and Cedric Brown (29) and take over the top spot. That certainly appears to be a matter of 'when' and not 'if' – and when it occurs, the issue will no longer be name recognition but the permanence of that name in Buccaneer history.
"It is something that nobody will ever take away from you if you reach those goals," said Abraham. "Those are things you try and accomplish during your career. That would be an amazing accomplishment to be the Buccaneers all-time interception leader.
"It's something Coach Herm (Edwards) always used to tell us. 'Put your name in stone, in the record books. That's the kind of mark you want to leave.'"
It is commonly believed to be difficult to produce consistently high interception totals because opposing teams learn to take their passing game away from your area. In that regard, Abraham was perhaps better off when he was flying below the radar. Of course, the Bucs have several other big-play defensive backs in the secondary in Ronde Barber and John Lynch, which may explain why Abraham is not expecting a lack of opportunities to be a problem.
"Despite the fact that I have been to the Pro Bowl, I don't think anybody will change their philosophy on throwing to my side of the field," said Abraham. "I'm still getting the same amount of opportunities to intercept the ball that I did when I was a rookie. But you definitely have to make the most of your opportunities because you never know when the next one is going to come your way."
With sure hands and a quick break to the ball, Abraham has done just that, even if the Bucs' base 'cover two' defense wasn't necessarily designed to funnel interception chances in his direction. Buccaneer corners, in fact, have to be much more than cover men, as they are asked to do quite a bit of tackling and containment.
"Usually in this system the safeties generally get more interceptions than the cornerbacks," said head coach Tony Dungy. "Because you are playing zone, you are isolated on one side of the field. But Donnie really makes the most of his opportunities to get them. He doesn't drop many balls and he's had a knack for making the plays."
Abraham may be right about quarterbacks continuing to test him, or he may be a bit more humble than is necessary. Though he is now confident in his status as one of the NFL's best cornerbacks, he didn't begin to emerge as a star until college, and that was at the somewhat obscure East Tennessee State. In high school in Orangeburg, South Carolina, Abraham was far from his team's focal point.
"We had a lot of great players in high school and I just gradually increased my skills over a period of time," explained Abraham. "I got extremely lucky. I think that in order to make it to this level, everything has to fall in the right place at the right time and sometimes that doesn't always happen to the best guys. I know there are guys out there today that could whip me that are not in the NFL. It was a long road that turned out good.
"It's such a great experience. When you make it to the top of your profession you begin to think about those humble beginnings. It makes you appreciate it that much more. Coming from such a small town in South Carolina and then going to a small school at East Tennessee State you start to ask yourself, 'How did I get here?' Then you realize that all that hard work paid off."
It paid off with a Pro Bowl berth last season and, one would suspect, a few more in the future if the picks keep coming. A cornerback can make every play flawlessly, but if he doesn't ring up big numbers in the interception column, his chances of an all-star berth go down drastically. Just ask Barber. Abraham's track record and the stable level of his play suggest he will continue to put his name among the league's interception leaders.
"We play with the best athletes in the world," said Abraham. "I think the key to this league is consistency. It is a long season, but if you play at a consistent, competitive level you will make it."