State Your Case: Ty Law

Ty Law played cornerback so physically the NFL eventually changed the law to protect receivers from his grasp.

(Photo courtesy of the New England Patriots)
(Photo courtesy of the New England Patriots)

(Photo courtesy of New England Patriots)

By Ron Borges

If production is the essence of a Hall of Famer, Ty Law belongs in Canton.

Law was a five-time Pro Bowl cornerback, four-time AFC champion, three-time Super Bowl champion and two-time NFL interception leader during a 15-year career, which amounts to one of the best ring collections in NFL history.

Law first became a starting corner in 1995, his rookie season in New England, and remained a starter at arguably pro football’s most challenging position for 14 seasons, which is almost unheard of today.

By the time he retired, he had 53 interceptions, tying him with Deion Sanders for 24th all-time, and added six more in the playoffs. He returned eight of those for touchdowns.

Law was also the personal nemesis of future Hall-of-Famer Peyton Manning, intercepting him nine times, including five times in the post-season.

In fact, Law so physically dominated Manning’s receivers that a plea for an armistice by then-Indianapolis Colts’ general manager Bill Polian led to many of the hands-off-the-receivers policies in effect today. Originally known as "the Mel Blount Rule," the softer way today’s defensive backs have been forced to play is now widely known as “the Ty Law.’’

For all his consistency over a long career, Law seemed to save his biggest plays for his team’s biggest games. Law’s six playoff interceptions rank third all-time among pure corners, and many feel he deserved to be named Super Bowl XXXVI MVP for dominating the St. Louis Rams’ "Greatest Show on Turf" receiving corps led by Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt in man-to-man coverage.

That day the Patriots were 17 ½-point underdogs, but held down the Rams’ offense in a 20-17 victory made possible in large measure by Law’s pick-six interception of Kurt Warner that gave New England a 7-0 lead.

That Law played his entire career at corner limited his interception numbers, costing him what Hall-of-Fame corner/safety Rod Woodson once estimated was probably an additional dozen picks had he made a move to safety. That would have made his road to Canton easier. But even in the late stages of his career, when Law was starting at corner in Kansas City, then-Kansas City personnel director Bill Kuharich acknowledged that such a logical move was not made for the simplest of reasons.

“He was still our best corner,’’ Kuharich said. “Ty Law remained an elite corner longer than nearly anyone I can remember. We knew what his production would have been had we moved him to free safety because he was such an intelligent player but it was easier to find another safety than it was to find a better corner than Ty, even at that stage of his career.’’

Only 12 pure cornerbacks are presently in the Hall of Fame, with a number of others shifting to safety later in their careers, allowing them to inflate their interception numbers. Of those 12, Law has more interceptions than five and trails five others by four or less. In other words, when it comes to Hall-of-Fame cornerbacks, Ty Law’s numbers stand up to the best who ever played the position.

Law played on four Super Bowl teams in New England, winning three times and anchoring a defense in 2003 that was quietly among the greatest ever assembled. Although quarterback Tom Brady is the dominant face of the Patriots, the New England teams that won three times in four years between 2001-2004 and pulled off one of the greatest upsets in Super Bowl history were anchored by a dominating defense.

And no one dominated more than Law.

In 2003, that defense led the NFL in fewest points allowed per game (14.9), lowest opposing quarterback rating (56.2), fewest touchdown passes allowed (11) and most interceptions (29). While it is seldom talked about when great defenses are debated, Law was named to the NFL’s all-decade team of the 2000s and was long considered an elite corner not only for his coverage ability and ball skills but his unbridled enthusiasm in run support.

While Sanders publicly acknowledged he had little interest in tackling, Law relished it, whether manhandling receivers or holding his ground against the run. That physical approach ultimately led to a change in how officials were instructed to view defensive backs following the 2003 AFC championship game where he intercepted Manning three times in snowy conditions and ran roughshod over Marvin Harrison all afternoon.

If they have to rewrite the Law to loosen your stranglehold on the receivers you’re covering, it’s a Hall-of-Fame compliment.

It was no coincidence that after Law left the Patriots following their third Super Bowl win over a money dispute, a decade passed before they would win another Lombardi Trophy. The anchor of their defense was gone.

The first season after his departure, little changed for Law, however. Coming off a torn Achilles tendon, he led the NFL in interceptions in 2005 with 10 while playing with the Jets. He was still laying down the Law.