PHOENIX -- It was less than a year ago, and Darrelle Revis was weighing his options. He had been released after one season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and in the frenzied first days of free agency, teams were scrambling in pursuit of one of the league's few true shutdown cornerbacks.
Since being picked by the New York Jets in the first round of the 2007 NFL Draft, Revis had carved out an island, not only as perhaps the best cover corner in the NFL, but also as one who would chase every dollar. He had assumed the role of a mercenary, albeit a highly skilled one. Revis became known almost as much for his holdouts and restructuring demands -- of which there were so many that Jets owner Woody Johnson tired of him and ordered he be traded -- as for his ability to virtually eliminate the opponent's best receivers from the game plan every week.
In his first season with the Patriots, Darrelle Revis allowed just 37 receptions and two touchdowns on 77 targets.
Advising Revis last year were his uncle, former defensive tackle Sean Gilbert (who wants to be the next head of the players' union, and who famously missed the entire 1997 season in a contract dispute), and his friend and mentor, Ty Law (the former Patriots cornerback who also hails from the small, tough neighborhoods of Aliquippa, Pennsylvania). Law had known Revis since the latter was a boy of 5 or 6. Revis had fallen in love with football watching the Dallas Cowboys of Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith, but Law and Gilbert have acted as his football confidantes. And Gilbert, in particular, has long been credited with -- or faulted for, depending on who's doing the analyzing -- shaping Revis' cold-blooded financial strategy.
For this decision, Law and Gilbert were in agreement, even though they came at it from opposite experiences. Gilbert was the third overall pick in the 1992 NFL Draft, but in the 11 seasons he played for four different teams, he never made it to the postseason. Law was the Patriots' first-round pick in 1995, and he won three championships with them before deciding to pursue big-ticket contracts in his career's final years.
The Patriots were offering Revis $12 million for 2014 -- a figure so reasonable that Johnson recently said he would have gone after the star cornerback again, had he known he could have gotten him for that -- and a whopping $20 million option for 2015 that nobody expected New England to pay, making it essentially a one-year deal. There were other, longer-term offers. But the choice was clear.
"The only reason Darrelle signed with the Patriots was because he was chasing a championship," Law said this week. "He has all the accolades and all the money he's ever going to need. The deal he signed was to get a championship, and he felt the Patriots were the best route to go."
"Yes, he has been a hired gun. This is a business. He did the right thing as a businessman. Sean was a big help, along with myself, to make him realize that. No matter how much money you have, you'll always feel like something is missing. That was my message to him when he was making his decision. I compare Darrelle's career right now to that of Champ Bailey. Everybody knows how great Champ was, but the one thing he didn't get to do was display his talent (when he was still in his prime) on the big stage."
On Sunday, in his eighth season, Revis finally will enjoy the opportunity that escaped Bailey -- and there is little question that the cornerback's decision bolstered the Patriots' Super Bowl credentials as much as the Patriots bolstered him.
Bill Belichick has never had a corner of Revis' equal. Pairing him with Brandon Browner, who was also signed during the spring, and having Devin McCourty at free safety -- Revis said he is the best one in the league -- has contributed to the defense's rankings in scoring (eighth) and yards allowed (13th), the latter figure marking the team's best effort since 2009.
Revis, who was voted first-team All-Pro for the fourth time in 2014, was targeted 77 times and allowed 37 receptions, giving up just two touchdowns all season. Opponents had a passer rating of 65.3 when throwing at Revis. His career opponent passer rating of 61 in the regular season is 20th-lowest among all defenders since the statistic was first kept in 1995 -- and it ranks third among active defenders.
I've never been against a better corner in bump coverage at the line of scrimmage. He's amazing.
-- Brandon Marshall
Still, it has been a long slog -- through holdouts, knee surgery, a trade, a release and three teams -- for Revis to finally reach this point. There is a sense that a strong performance in a winning effort at Super Bowl XLIX would, as Law put it, "make the legend real." At Media Day, Revis admitted that during his eight seasons, he had doubts about whether he would ever get to a Super Bowl to validate his decision-making. This week, he said it is still surreal to him that he is here.
"That was the No. 1 goal for me, just winning a Super Bowl," Revis said. "Every year, that's what we play for. You know, I had a bump in the road, having an ACL injury. That kind of twisted my mind up a little bit, because it was more so me focusing on my health. Once I focused on my health to make sure I could get back where I need to be and playing at a high level, I was confident and determined. Just focus and get with the right team, and that's what I did."
To those who first saw Revis in his formative years, his dominance is not a surprise. He grew up in Aliquippa, a faded town just outside of Pittsburgh that devolved when the area steel industry collapsed. But it does have a hallowed football tradition. On Media Day, Revis spoke reverentially of The Pit, the home stadium for Aliquippa High School, which he attended, as did Law, Gilbert and Mike Ditka. Tony Dorsett grew up in Aliquippa, too, but attended a different high school.
"Growing up in Aliquippa is very tough, a tough town," Revis said. "There's not a lot of jobs after the steel mills went down. A lot of the population moved out and scattered to other spaces. The only thing we really had was sports. You fall victim to the streets or try to find a way out. It all goes back to us being young as kids, trying to find something, other than the streets, to focus on."
The differing styles of two of the NFL's best cornerbacks -- Revis and Richard Sherman -- will take center stage in Super Bowl XLIX.
Former Cowboys vice president of player personnel Gil Brandt recalls hearing, when initially scouting Revis at Aliquippa, a story about the superb athlete playing in a state championship football game on a Friday and then scoring more than 20 points in a basketball game against the school's biggest rival the following Tuesday. Brandt compares Revis' ball skills to those of Everson Walls, the longtime Cowboys cornerback who finished his career with 57 interceptions.
When the Jets considered Revis before drafting him in 2007, they were impressed not only with his man-to-man skills, but with his ability to play the deep part of the field, as well as his willingness to tackle. He was aggressive with receivers at the line of scrimmage and even played run support well.
"It sounds simplistic, but you'd be surprised how many cornerbacks are deficient in one of those areas," one former Jets official said.
Revis started all 16 games as a rookie and usually was given the task of matching up with the opponent's top receiving threat. Revis and Richard Sherman are often compared, but they play notably different games. Sherman almost always plays on the left side of the Seattle Seahawks' defense. Revis moves around, lining up on both sides of the field and in the slot. Sometimes he will remain on one player. But in other games, he will switch, as he did in the AFC Championship Game, when he covered five different Colts receivers in the first half.
While Revis' physical skills and strength are critical, his knowledge of receivers and his preparation are what have set him apart. During the offseason, Revis works out in Arizona with a number of players, including former Seahawks fullback Michael Robinson, now an NFL Network analyst. Revis will start warming up at 8 a.m., and then the group will work out at 9. They finish at 11:30 a.m. -- at which point Revis gets together with a personal defensive backs coach. According to Robinson, Revis will spend a week breaking down tape of just one receiver before moving on to another.
"When the season comes around, he's just referring back to those notes," Robinson said. "He's already been through the process. There's not much you can do on the field. He knows everything about you."
Chicago Bears receiver Brandon Marshall, who has been shadowed by Revis multiple times throughout his career, considers him the best cornerback in the NFL. Marshall said Revis' technique is impeccable because he always remains on the receiver's upfield shoulder.
"I've never been against a better corner in bump coverage, at the line of scrimmage," Marshall said. "He's amazing. Myself, Randy Moss, A.J. Green, Dez Bryant, it's the same thing. Guys struggle to get off the line. He disrupts your route. If you have glitches in your game, he knows them. If you run certain routes with your outside foot up, he knows it. He's never out of position."
Damien Woody, the now-retired offensive lineman, was Revis' teammate with the Jets. He said Revis always felt that practice should be harder than the game, so that he could relax and have fun in the game. That led, though, to extreme intensity in practice.
The only thing we really had was sports. You fall victim to the streets or try to find a way out.
-- Darrelle Revis
Part of the lore about Revis: While with the Jets, he got into a fight with practice squad receiver Patrick Turner, because Revis did not believe Turner was giving him the right look at that week's opposing wideout to properly prepare him.
"Mark Sanchez, Brett Favre, it wasn't pretty going against Darrelle in practice," Woody said. "He hates losing. He hates having someone catching a ball on him in practice. You could be playing around, just tossing the ball around, and he'll knock it down. He's that competitive. Going against him in practice was absolutely hell. One half of (the) field was cut off from you. Our quarterbacks couldn't complete balls over there. I can only imagine how other quarterbacks felt. It wears on your psyche."
But there are those who wonder if Revis could've been even better than he has turned out, if he might have logged more interceptions than his 23, had he not jumped from team to team. Those people, who have watched Revis since he came into the NFL, understand his pursuit of the richest contracts, but they question whether it has taken a toll on his development. Those questions might be at least partly answered if Revis and the Patriots win a Super Bowl.
Then both will have to make a decision.
He has all the accolades and all the money he's ever going to need. The deal he signed was to get a championship. ...
-- Ty Law
The Patriots are likely to want to iron out a long-term extension for Revis. Picking up the $20 million option would seem like a long shot. Even Johnson volunteered that he would love to have Revis back with the Jets, spurring a tampering charge from the Patriots. Whatever happens, Revis said this week he will make the best decision for him and his family -- although the decision he made for himself in March certainly benefited the Patriots, too.
"This year has been great," he said. "It's been enjoyable, too, winning so much. The off-the-field situation will take care of itself. That's how I've always approached it."
Revis Island might have finally settled in the right spot.
Judy Battista is a columnist for NFL Media. Follow her on Twitter @JudyBattista.