SAN FRANCISCO — Perhaps Aqib Talib is so good at covering wide receivers because deep down he wants to be one.
When Talib intercepts the ball, the Denver Broncos cornerback channels his inner offensive player. His mind-set is to win . . . and score. The former Patriot is a master of the art of the pick-6. He returned two of his team-high three interceptions for touchdowns this season, and his eight career interception returns for touchdowns are the most since he entered the league in 2008.
Those prop bet guys should have Talib as the odds-on favorite to score a non-offensive touchdown in Super Bowl 50 on Sunday. Talib is not an accidental TD tourist.
"I used to play offense. I loved to play offense. I played offense in high school and college," said Talib. "I don't get to play it in the league, so when I get the ball I've got to score my touchdowns like I'm on offense. I just feel like offense guys, they don't really practice tackling like that, so it would be wrong to let them guys tackle me when I get the ball. That's kind of how I go about it."
Being adept at taking things the opposite way is a good metaphor for Talib's career, which was rehabilitated during his 23-game stint with the Patriots.
The football cocoon of Fort Foxborough transformed Talib from an incorrigible cornerback who exhausted the patience of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a Pro Bowl playmaker and the unlikely leader of the secondary of the Broncos.
The combustible Talib always had the talent, but his Patriots Way reformation instilled the professionalism he needed to maximize it.
"You really learn how to be a professional over there. One way or another you'll learn it," said Talib. "That's how they carry their building. I think it definitely helped a lot with my career. It was all football in that building, man. No time for none of the nonsense. It was just all straight football. I think that's what keeps them successful."
For all the talk about Carolina Panthers cornerback Josh Norman leading up to Super Bowl 50, Talib will be the most accomplished cornerback on the field at Levi's Stadium.
He has made three straight Pro Bowls and no one has topped Talib's total of 30 interceptions since he entered the league.
Getting certified FOB (Friend of Belichick) Greg Schiano to send Talib to the cornerback-starved Patriots during the 2012 season for a fourth-round pick remains one of the great heists of the Hoodie's career.
Talib was sensational in a Patriots uniform. In his first game in 2012, Talib intercepted Andrew Luck and returned it 59 yards for a touchdown.
It's likely the Patriots would have advanced to at least one more Super Bowl if Talib hadn't been forced to bow out of both the 2012 and 2013 AFC Championship games with injuries.
Belichick-onomics dictated that the Patriots let Talib leave for Denver after the 2013 season, signing a six-year, $57 million deal with the Broncos, as part of a John Elway defensive spending spree that also landed end DeMarcus Ware and safety T.J. Ward.
Talib has been worth every penny, as one of the linchpins of a Broncos defense that led the NFL in fewest passing yards allowed per game and fewest total yards allowed per game.
Talib's high-pitched twang became famous in New England. It oozes belief in his abilities on any side of the ball.
Talib said playing on offense almost happened in Tampa Bay, under coach Raheem Morris.
"I came to work late on a Monday. Raheem Morris brought me into his office and said, 'I had a 15-play script for you on offense. Rip it up,' because I was late, man," recalled Talib. "That's my dawg, Raheem Morris, he was going to give me an opportunity."
To hear him tell it, Talib also could have been the reverse version of Patriots wide receiver Troy Brown, who was conscripted into cornerback duties by Belichick.
When Talib joined the Patriots in 2012, Bill Belichick kept him after practice and had Tom Brady throw passes to him for 20 minutes.
"Tom threw me like 10 routes, stop routes, fades, a couple of slants, the first day I got there," said Talib. "I guess I didn't look good enough because he didn't do it again. I feel like I caught all my passes, though. I was working hard out there, though. I still want to know what happened with that, Bill, man."
The guy who once lost his offensive package in Tampa for showing up late is now preaching the importance of punctuality and professionalism with the Broncos with daily texts.
The texts are a reminder of when to arrive to work and of how far Talib has come from his bad boy days in Tampa Bay, where he wildly swung his helmet at a teammate, punched out a taxi driver, and was charged with aggravated assault in his home state of Texas for allegedly firing a gun at his sister's boyfriend.
The Broncos are reaping the benefits of Belichick's remaking of Talib from wayward football soul to football junkie.
"He is definitely a smart football player," said Broncos defensive backs coach Joe Woods. "One of the things that is shocking for me as a coach is that you'll come in there Wednesday, the first day of preparation for our game, we'll turn on tape, and you'll be watching the tape, and Aqib will say something about a certain play. I'm like, 'Man, this dude watched this [already]. I better be on top of my stuff.' "
The man who has always been able to make returns turned his career around in New England.
Now, Talib just wants one more happy return — taking the Lombardi Trophy back to Denver.