Nixon Gets a Second Chance With 49ers : Cornerback Was Top Pick of Redskins, but He Didn’t Measure Up
Every cornerback knows that remembering can be a curse. It’s likely, though, that no one knows this better than Tory Nixon, who gets burned deep every time he remembers Washington.
Nixon recalled that after the Redskins traded him to the San Francisco 49ers, just six days before the NFL season opener, his wife put the telephone close to the TV set in Washington so Nixon could listen from San Francisco as his good name was dragged through the mud.
“The Redskins were all saying it was my fault. Coach (Joe) Gibbs said, ‘He’s not my kind of kid. He doesn’t want to stick around to work. He doesn’t have a working attitude.’ That disappointed me, because I tried my damnedest,” Nixon said.
“I knew I wasn’t doing as good as they expected, but maybe they expected too much.”
Nixon recalled having been beaten twice for touchdowns in a Redskins preseason game against the Raiders. Rookie receiver Jesse Hester got him for 56 yards. Receiver Dokie Williams got him for 49 yards. Nixon appeared helpless.
But why, Nixon wondered, didn’t anyone seem to notice that penalities nullified both plays, that rookie safety Raphel Cherry wasn’t in position in deep coverage on the second score, that Nixon never had been beaten for a touchdown in college, or that sometimes it takes a rookie time to develop?
It takes time, Nixon said, even if that rookie is the Redskins’ top draft pick, who was taken in the second round and given $200,000 in guaranteed money. And even if he was acquired at the expense of a trade to Atlanta of running back Joe Washington and a No. 1 pick in 1986. (The Redskins also received Atlanta’s No. 2 pick in 1986 in the deal.)
“The Raiders game was only my second week with the Redskins, and all of a sudden, the roof fell in. It was like everybody said, ‘The kid can’t play,’ ” Nixon said.
“I remember telling Bobby Beathard after that game, ‘I hope you guys don’t give up on me, because I think I can do it.’ Bobby said, ‘We won’t. We won’t.’ I said, ‘Okay.’ ”
Yet in the end, instead of becoming Joe Lavender or Vernon Dean, two other San Diego State corners who made it with the Redskins, Tory Nixon became Richard Williams and Carl Powell, high-round selections who went bust with the Redskins.
All the Redskins got in return for Nixon was the 49ers’ sixth-round choice in 1986 and a black eye for the scouting department. If Nixon plays 60% of the time this season, the Redskins will get a fourth-round pick, but that almost certainly won’t happen.
Beathard, the Redskins’ general manager, is as blunt as can be about the selection of Nixon. “You’d have to say we made a mistake,” he said.
Defensive coach Richie Petitbon, who also scouted Nixon, said, “We knew he wasn’t a speed-burner, but we thought he had more makeup speed than he showed here. He didn’t show a whole lot of toughness whereby we could have played him on special teams.
“He wasn’t very strong. He got pushed around a lot. If he makes it in this league, I’d say he’ll make it as a safety, not a corner. It remains to be seen if he’s physically strong enough.
“I would just say he’s one we missed on.”
The view’s different in San Francisco. Coach Bill Walsh of the 49ers said Nixon “looks like a man who will be with the 49ers for a long time.”
Tony Razzano, the 49ers’ director of college scouting, said, “If you remember, the Chicago defensive coach, Buddy Ryan, said he didn’t think The Refrigerator (rookie William Perry) would make it, and now he’s watching him play.
“We’re very high on Tory Nixon. I guess you can just call it a difference of opinion,” Razzano said.
Nixon, a 5-foot-10, 186-pound, 23-year-old who rents his San Francisco townhouse on a monthly basis--he bought a house in Reston, Va., and now has to sell it--seems mystified by it all.
“This has all seemed odd to me from the very start,” he said. “When I got here, Coach Walsh asked me, ‘What happened in Washington?’ I told him, ‘I really don’t know.’
“I think the fans in Washington will look at this in one of two ways,” Nixon said. “Some will say that the Redskins were idiots. Others will hate me for it. They’ll think I’m a spoiled kid, a jerk. I heard they booed Tony Zendejas (a former Redskins kicker now with Houston) every time he walked on the field.
“But what did Zendejas do to the Redskins’ community? He gave it his best, and the Redskins made him leave. The fans will probably do the same thing to me (Dec. 1 at RFK Stadium), and I didn’t do anything to Washington, either. But I’m not going to take it personally. That’s just fans.”
Nixon has appeared in the 49ers’ secondary for only a handful of plays. Two weeks ago, he was beaten for a 34-yard play by Chicago’s Willie Gault when quarterback Jim McMahon audibled his way. But Nixon has seven tackles on special teams, which rates third on the 49ers.
Defensive coach George Seifert, whose secondary includes four all-pros (cornerbacks Eric Wright and Dwight Hicks and safeties Ronnie Lott and Carlton Williamson), said the 49ers wanted to break in Nixon slowly. He noted that Wright was beaten for big plays as a rookie.
Seifert also said, “I really can’t say that we’re grooming Tory to be a starter.”
John McVay, the 49ers’ vice president and general manager, said, “We’d like to play him more, but we need the security blanket of putting him through one training camp first.”
The consensus about Nixon is that he was terrific in college. Doug Scovil, Nixon’s coach at San Diego State, said, “The one thing that always impressed me about Tory is that he’d play hurt. Once, he’d broken some bones in his hand, and he played with a steel plate in his hand.
“Once, he intercepted a pitchout and went 97 yards with it against Air Force. Another time, he intercepted a pass against Utah and went 75 yards with it. He made big plays.”
So what happened in Washington? “He wasn’t the same player we saw in college,” Beathard said.
The Redskins say Nixon made several mistakes that likely hindered his play. They say he came to minicamp in May in poor condition (which Nixon concedes) and, consequently, he pulled a hamstring and practiced just once.
They say that they asked Nixon to remain at Redskin Park after minicamp for informal workouts, but that Nixon, who was still unsigned, left anyway. He went back to San Diego to take exams, went to a friend’s wedding in his hometown in Phoenix, then got married on June 29.
By the time he reached a contract agreement with the Redskins on Aug. 2, Nixon had missed the first two weeks of training camp, when most of the work is devoted to rookies.
“Maybe his priorities were in the wrong place,” Beathard said.
“I probably could have gone (to Redskin Park) before camp, but I would have only been getting treatment for my hamstring, and I could have done that anywhere,” Nixon said. “And my wedding was the best thing for me, because if I had gone to Washington and had what happened to me without (Elizabeth, his wife), it would’ve been twice as bad.”
Nixon remains puzzled by his Redskins experience. “I think it really came down to between me and Wilburn (Barry Wilburn, the eighth-round choice from Mississippi), the way I look at it. The Redskins saw something in me in college, and they weren’t the only team. There were a lot of teams. I was rated high by every team and (Wilburn) wasn’t.
“Then, all of a sudden in camp, (Wilburn) is supposed to be that much better than me that they . . . give up on me and put him in a Monday night game in his first game in his rookie year and expect him to do all of this stuff.”
Nixon said he saw the replay of how Wilburn was beaten for a 55-yard touchdown by Dallas’ Mike Renfro near the end of the first half in that game. He added, “I just don’t see how Petitbon could see so much more in Wilburn than me.”
Petitbon said the final roster decision was not between Nixon and Wilburn. “That was no contest there,” Petitbon said, heavily favoring Wilburn. “The only reason it was close (for Nixon earning a spot) is because of where he was drafted. You like to protect your investment.”
In the final analysis, then, the Redskins either 1) chose not to trust the judgment of their scouting department or 2) decided that what their scouting department once saw no longer was there.
Petitbon said Nixon covered 40 yards in less than 4.6 seconds when he was tested in college. (Scovil said, “We timed him at 4.5 many times.”) Nixon was much slower with the Redskins, Petitbon said, adding, “We kept hoping his speed would come around, but whether it was because he was out of shape or hurt or because he missed camp, it never did.”
Nixon said, “The Redskins decided after a month that I couldn’t do it. They had already invested so much money in me. I just don’t think it was that intelligent for them to (trade him). But then they have to do what they think is right.
“Maybe (owner Jack Kent) Cooke is rich enough where it doesn’t matter.”
Beathard said, “We did see improvement with Tory, but it was too little, too late. We had to go with what we saw here. Cherry and Wilburn were ready to compete, and Tory wasn’t. That’s just the facts. It was a case where the change from 49 (players on rosters) to 45 hurt us. We made the right decision.”
Perhaps Nixon has become one of those football anomalies, a high-round pick who somehow falls into a crack, then is given a chance to resurface by another club that saw the same special talents in the player’s college days.
The 49ers’ starting inside linebacker, Mike Walter, fell into the same crack. Walter was drafted in the second round in 1983 by Dallas, cut after his first training camp and claimed by the 49ers.
The 49ers had wanted to draft Walter, just as they had considered drafting Nixon. Razzano, the college-scouting director, said with seeming certainty, “We feel that Tory does have quickness and speed comparable to many playing in the NFL. We know what we saw in college, and that’s where we are.”