The Atlanta Falcons were in desperate need of help in the secondary in 2011. The Philadelphia Eagles had a cornerback they no longer needed nor wanted. So the two teams agreed to make a trade. The Falcons would get an aging star, while the Eagles would get a seventh-round draft pick.
One team would get exactly what they expected. The other had a surprise in store for them.
Starter for a Nickel
A seventh-round draft pick is like picking up a nickel on the street. Once in a blue moon, it is a rare collector's piece worth far more than its face value. (Marques Colston comes to mind.) The vast majority of the time, however, a nickel is just a nickel. It might help you make change, but you can not build a portfolio around it.
The Falcons spent their proverbial nickel on Asante Samuel. The investment has paid off.
The Bill of Goods
Samuel had a reputation. The former standout defensive back for the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots was now an afterthought on an underachieving Philadelphia Eagles team. He had lost a step and was afraid to make a tackle. His Pro Bowl days behind him, Samuel could not even crack the starting lineup.
Jeff McLane of the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote that, "Reid thought he was in steep decline and that his style no longer suited the scheme."
Samuel also had a reputation for running his mouth. ESPN reported that Samuel had been a distraction during the Eagles' poorly named "Dream Team" season. Samuel had always been flamboyant on and off the field.
So the Falcons were taking a chance on an old, soft diva that was somehow supposed to fit on one of the quietest teams in the NFL.
It Started With Swagger
Samuel's impact on the Falcons happened before Brent Grimes went down with injury. It happened before the team played their first preseason game.
It happened when Samuel entered the locker room. Or more appropriately, swaggered in.
New defensive coordinator Mike Nolan was installing a far more player-friendly scheme. In prior years, Brian VanGorder had utilized a scheme that required unyielding discipline in its assignments. Nolan would begin to allow players to use their instincts to make plays. Samuel would be instrumental.
An aggressive defense relies heavily on confidence. If a player is unsure of himself or the situation, then his pace is slowed. The Falcons defense needed a dance teacher, and Samuel waltzed into that role.
"Swagger" became a buzzword for the Falcons entering the 2012 season.
Older and Wiser
Maybe the fountain of youth was part of Reid's assessment of Samuel. Samuel has defied the criticisms hurled his way over the past couple of years. In 2012, Samuel had five interceptions and 19 passes defended. His coverage skills are still at a very high level, and he now possesses the football wisdom that can influence the outcome of games.
Ask Eli Manning. Samuel set the tone for the Falcons shutting down the New York Giants in 2012. Intercepting Manning's first pass of the game, Samuel was immediately in the quarterback's head. Samuel did not save this for himself. Samuel had schooled the Falcons on what he knew about one of the league's quarterbacks. And it showed.
Samuel impacted every game he played in. From batting down Josh Freeman's Hail Mary to a key pick-six against the Oakland Raiders, Samuel has proved to be invaluable to the Falcons.
Who Said Soft?
Samuel does not cast an imposing shadow. At 5'10" and 185 pounds, Samuel is smaller than most of the players he has to tackle. But he has tackled with zeal. Of his 36 tackles this season, Samuel has 34 solo. This puts him ahead of starters like John Abraham (32) and Jonathan Babineaux (25).
What kills the perception of being "soft," is Samuel's willingness to play through pain. Samuel has dealt with a shoulder injury for weeks. The pain is often visible. Yet, Samuel willingly puts his body on the line to defend passes.
If Samuel's swagger helps the defense get started, then his sacrifice shows the defense how to finish.
The Eagles used the seventh-round draft pick on running back Bryce Brown. Brown had a decent rookie season, but had as many fumbles as touchdowns (four). It is not a stretch to say that Brown would not have cracked the Falcons starting lineup.
So the Falcons' nickel was just a nickel. But Samuel has become something truly special for the Falcons.
The Falcons got more than they bargained for. And what a bargain it was.