The Making of Charles Tillman
A look back at The Randy Moss Pick, and other highlights from the greatest corner in Bears history
by Jack M Silverstein (@readjack)
Originally published December 16, 2013
This year, I wrote about the 20-year anniversary of the 1993 Bulls, the 10-year anniversary of the 2003 Cubs (here, here, here and here), and Michael Jordan’s 50th birthday (here, here, here, here, here and here).
But the 10-year anniversary of the Peanut Tillman-Randy Moss interception came and went Saturday with nary a peep out of any of us.
I understand. This was one single play in a non-playoff season that ended with the firing of the head coach. Not exactly championship retrospective material.
Additionally, with the Cutler/McCown debate + The Emergence of Alshon Jeffery mixed with The Mastery of Brandon Marshall, it’s easy to see why Tillman’s 2003 INT isn’t being memorialized, especially since it’s possible that he’s already played his last game in the Navy & Orange.
Still, it’s not often that fans can state unequivocally that they are watching the greatest player at a given position in that team’s history, and Charles Tillman, Chicago Bears cornerback qualifies.
The Moss pick was the first of a number of high-impact, game-changing plays Tillman has made throughout his career on both defense and special teams. He scored the second Bears touchdown in the “They are who we thought they were” comeback win over Arizona in 2006; he made the best individual play on the Bears-end of Super Bowl XLI when he stripped Bryan Fletcher, stood him straight up, and then dropped to recover the fumble; and he unleashed the memorable “Peanut Punch” game against Tennessee last year by forcing four fumbles.
This top 10 list from Mark Potash of the Sun-Times does a nice job summing up Tillman’s greatest hits. As I read it, Potash anticipated nearly every Peanut highlight that came to my head, so I’ll add this: Tillman’s special teams impact was more than blocking punts – he was also a talented blocker on returns, and helped lead Devin Hester into the endzone on a few occasions, including these four in 2006: the punt return vs. Green Bay, the lead-changing punt return vs. Arizona, the missed field goal return vs. the Giants, and this punt return against Minnesota.
Part of what makes Tillman the best cornerback in Bears history is the competition. It’s the weakest of any defensive position. Cases can be made on the defensive line for Richard Dent, Dan Hampton, Doug Atkins, or even Julius Peppers. Middle linebacker has Bill George, Dick Butkus, Mike Singletary, and Brian Urlacher; outside linebacker has Otis Wilison and Lance Briggs; safety has Doug Plank, Gary Fencik, and Mike Brown.
Peanut’s closest competitors at corner are probably one-time Pro Bowlers Nathan Vasher (19 interceptions with the Bears, 3 total touchdowns) and Tim Jennings (15 interceptions with the Bears, 3 total touchdowns), and maybe Walt Harris.
Here’s a look at Tillman’s place in the Bears record books:
Gary Fencik, 164 games, 38 interceptions
Richie Petitbon, 136 games, 37 interceptions
CHARLES TILLMAN, 154 games, 36 interceptions
Donnell Woolford, 111 games, 32 interceptions
Bennie McRae, 125 games, 27 interceptions
CHARLES TILLMAN, 154 games, 40 forced fumbles
Richard Dent, 170 games, 34 forced fumbles
Alex Brown, 127 games, 16 forced fumbles
Lance Briggs, 163 games, 15 forced fumbles
Steve McMichael, 191 games, 12 forced fumbles
CHARLES TILLMAN, 154 games, 9 def. TD (8 INT, 1 FUM)
Mike Brown, 100 games, 7 def. TD (4 INT, 3 FUM)
Lance Briggs, 163 games, 6 def. TD (5 INT, 1 FUM)
Bennie McRae, 125 games, 4 def. TD (4 INT)
Rosey Taylor, 118 games, 4 def. TD (3 INT, 1 FUM)
TACKLES (official stat since 2001)
Brian Urlacher, 182 games, 1052 tackles
Lance Briggs, 163 games, 911 tackles
Steve McMichael, 191 games, 814 tackles
CHARLES TILLMAN, 154 games, 737 tackles
Shaun Gayle, 144 games, 671 tackles
Like all great players, though, Tillman’s greatness goes beyond the numbers and is best described as a combination of traits. The confidence he inspires in teammates and fans. The mythic air surrounding his ability to force turnovers. His iconic achievements, like “The Peanut Punch Game” or “The Randy Moss Pick.”
And the late-career success and recognition he’s achieved and received since 2010: 14 interceptions, 5 touchdowns, 21 forced fumbles, 7 recovered fumbles, two Pro Bowls, one All Pro selection.
Those numbers are proof of Tillman’s success at following his mantra: “Always be peaking.”
They are also a mark of part of the magic of sports: watching a great player in his declining years.
In their most recent email exchange, Bill Simmons and Malcolm Gladwell tossed around a rarely discussed yet terrific anti-PED argument. As Gladwell put it, when players use PEDs, they strip fans of “a great pleasure of sports,” which is “watching great athletes apply their genius to physical and psychological constraints.”
In other words, watching star players grapple with their declining skills, and manufacturing success more through will, preparation and intelligence than raw athletic ability.
Watching Brian Urlacher scrape out one final season in 2012 – including a pick-six, two forced fumbles, and two recovered fumbles – was, to me at least, the final piece of the puzzle of his Hall of Fame career. In a weird way, it was just as satisfying to watch him in 2012 as it was in 2001 or 2005. Those seasons were about his talent; this one was about his character.
Seeing Tillman these past few seasons has been just as enjoyable. It’s safe to say that aside from Derrick Rose, the Chicago athlete I’m missing most right now is Charles Tillman.
Ten years have passed since #33 snatched that near-touchdown away from a Hall of Fame wide receiver. It was a play that gave Bears fans an unexpected thrill down the stretch of another dismal season.
Thanks to Tillman, there haven’t been too many dismal seasons since.
ALSO ON CHARLES TILLMAN, from Jack M Silverstein
9 OCT 2005 – A focus on Tillman early in his 3rd season (ReadJack)
27 SEP 2009 – The ReadJack.com All-Bears Post-Ditka Team: CORNERBACK (ReadJack)
11 OCT 2011 – People With Passion: Charles Tillman (Chicago Sun-Times)
7 SEP 2012 – Bearing Down with… Charles Tillman (RedEye)
15 OCT 2012 – On the defensive mastery of Charles Tillman and Lance Briggs (RedEye)