NEW ORLEANS — Aqib Talib never desired a leadership role, but from the moment he arrived at the Rams’ facility, it stuck to him, the way he has attached himself to receivers for the past decade.
Gone, it seems, are the days when Talib’s reputation seemed to have some toxicity. He once accidentally shot himself in the leg. He’s been arrested twice, once fought a teammate and, during one stretch of his career, Talib’s name often popped up on NFL discipline lists. He had a reputation, to be certain.Now, as the Rams face New Orleans in Sunday’s NFC championship game, it’s tough to reconcile that Talib with this one, the sage veteran who has been described not only as a team leader but as a hinge for the Rams’ defense. Perhaps no player is more important than Talib to the Rams’ success against the Saints.
“I really don’t, man,” Talib said. “I just be myself, you know. I just be myself, communicate with guys, ask questions in the meeting room and, I don’t know. Y’all do the outside looking in, so I mean, maybe if I was on the outside looking in, I’d see it but I just be myself.”
Talib has been consistent on that. Since the Rams acquired him from Denver in a March trade, Talib repeatedly has said he doesn’t try to be a leader. If it happens, it happens, he said, and it happened.
From the start of the offseason program, players seemed to gravitate toward Talib. There were questions about team chemistry after the Rams added Talib and two other players with reputations for volatile personalities – Ndamukong Suh and Marcus Peters – but there’s been zero drama from Talib’s end.
Talib often is praised for his leadership and communication. He seems to have developed a big-brother relationship with Peters, and that didn’t go unnoticed by Rams coach Sean McVay, whose dealings with Talib go back to 2008, when Talib was a rookie in Tampa Bay and McVay was a first-year assistant coach.
“Just watching his growth and maturation,” McVay said, “you always knew he was going to be a great player, but now you see the talent match up with the preparation. The way that he’s been able to sustain over such a long period of time playing a cornerback spot, with his ability to communicate, the way that he studies, his situational awareness – you could go on and on.
If nothing else, the Rams already are smiling. Talib missed eight regular-season games because of an ankle injury, including the Nov. 4 game at New Orleans in which Saints receiver Michael Thomas had 211 yards.
Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said this week he did a “disservice” to Peters and the team by not giving Peters more help with the Thomas matchup. Now he has Talib, who figures to split the responsibility of covering Thomas. That’s the scenario the Rams envisioned when they traded for both corners.
It’s been a relatively quiet season for Talib, who had only one interception in his eight games, but even though Talib demurred, Phillips said Talib wasn’t shy about displaying leadership this week.
“He’s pretty proactive about everything,” Phillips said. “He’s a big personality so you can’t help but be drawn to him. He always takes the other side. Whatever side you take, well, he’s going to argue the other side and those kind of things. That’s him. He gets going, he gets excitable about a lot of things and he’s a lot of fun to be around. And he made me drippin’ in the Super Bowl, so that was nice.”
Phillips, 71, and Talib share a unique relationship. They were together in Denver for two seasons, including in 2015 when the Broncos won the Super Bowl. During “media day” festivities that year, Phillips wore Talib’s thick gold chain – also known as drippin’ – and no doubt they’d like to repeat the show.
The inclusion of Talib can’t hurt. In eight games without Talib, Rams opponents passed for an average of 7.9 yards per attempt. In eight games with Talib, that average dropped to 6.4. That’s significant, and given the importance of slowing down Drew Brees, the Saints’ future Hall of Fame quarterback, Talib will be a huge factor, even if he prefers to downplay his significance.
“You’ve got two dogs,” Peters said. “At this time, (Phillips) ain’t going to do anything different. He’s going to call his defense and he’s going to expect for his dogs to hold up outside. All those other things, man, there’s going to be ups and downs in the game and we’ve just got to execute when we execute.”
Michael Thomas Shouldn’t Wear His Chain, Unless He Wants It Snatched Off
Now that he’s back healthy, Aqib Talib is expected to cover Michael Thomas this Sunday. Outside of the much more important X’s and O’s, there is one small quirk to Talib’s game that Thomas might want to pay attention to.