To understand the Charles Tillman story, we need to talk about the Peanut Punch. A move with a moniker that continues to grow the legend of Tillman’s play well beyond his playing career. A name that perfectly pairs the creator (Peanut) with the action (punch) in an alliterative flair that is both memorable and fun to say.
Tillman’s first professional game action came against the San Francisco 49ers on opening weekend in 2003. An objectively ugly game for the Bears, a 49-7 loss, kicking off a season that proved to be Dick Jauron’s last. However, if you look closely enough, you can see a spark that would eventually fuel a fire that burnished a legend.
Charles Tillman – Forced Fumble (1).
When Tillman played his last game for the Chicago Bears, coincidentally against those same 49ers, opening a new stadium in Santa Clara, he would have 42 forced fumbles under his belt spread over a dozen seasons. He’d add two more in Carolina during his final, comeback season to retire with 44, tied for 6th all-time with Hall of Famer Chris Doleman.
Those 44 punch-outs are more than Hall of Famers Bruce Smith (43), Derrick Thomas (41), and fellow Bears legend Richard Dent (37). That’s not nearly the most impressive thing about that list either.
The entire top 10 list outside of Tillman is only pass rushers. The way to stack forced fumble numbers is through strip-sacks, not open-field tackles. The first defensive back on the list after Tillman is Hall of Famer Brian Dawkins, a hard-hitting safety tied for 13th with 37. Hall of Famer Charles Woodson, the 18-year NFL veteran, is the next defensive back on the list, tied for 19th with 33.
“A lot of people ask me how I came up with it, how I developed it,” Tillman explained at his retirement press conference. “And, I was a guy who — I’m not Brian Urlacher, I’m not Lance Briggs, I’m not Thomas Davis or Luke Kuechly — I don’t hit that hard. I don’t hit like those four guys. I like to think of myself as a little guy, so I’m just going to separate the man from the ball the best way I know how and that’s not with my shoulder pads, that’s with my fist. And, you know, I did it a few times, I did it a couple times in college, it kind of carried over into the league and 44 forced fumbles later, it was a patented move. I don’t know who coined the name Peanut Punch. I wish I had gotten into some of that stock so I could have reserved the right to use that for myself.”
Tillman earned long-overdue recognition with his first career Pro Bowl trip in 2011, finally establishing himself as a top corner in the league in the eyes of the public. Pro Bowls may not be the best measure of the best players in the league, but they do indicate a certain level of awareness to the average NFL fan. However, the Peanut Punch didn’t enter the popular lexicon until Tillman’s iconic 2012 season.
On an early November day in Nashville, Charles Tillman set fire to the Tennessee Titans with four forced fumbles in a 51-20 drubbing. Four. In one game. Four forced fumbles is a good season.
Think about it this way: Tillman hits you with a Peanut Punch and pops the ball out of your hands. You head to the sidelines where you get an earful from your position coach, coordinator, and maybe the Head Coach. “WHAT ARE YOU THINKING?! WE TALKED ABOUT THIS ALL WEEK!” You and your teammates are not making that mistake again.
Except the Titans let it happen again. And again. And yet again. Four forced fumbles for one player. It’s like a cheat code in a video game. Kenny Britt, Chris Johnson, Craig Stevens, and Jared Cook all fell victim to the Peanut Punch that day. Highlight shows replay it over and over as one of the most incredible individual performances in NFL history. Tillman would add six more forced fumbles that season en route to a share of the NFL record for single-season forced fumbles (10), a 1st Team All-Pro honor, and a sticky name for the signature move.
Looking back at the forced fumbles in Tillman’s career reads like a who’s who of great football players. He got Randy Moss in 2004, Clinton Portis and Brett Favre in 2005, Maurice Jones-Drew in 2008, and Frank Gore in 2009. He victimized James Jones twice in a 2007 game against the Packers to preserve a 27-20 win. How about the game against the Eagles in 2009 where he got DeSean Jackson twice and another on LeSean McCoy? Or how about the 2012 game against the Lions when he forced two fumbles on the same series against the same player, Brandon Pettigrew? Late career Tillman added Mark Ingram, Marshawn Lynch, and Adrian Peterson to his list of victims.
You might think that the four fumbles against the Titans would top the list of teams he victimized the most but he got the most punches in against the Bears biggest rival. Eight forced fumbles against the Packers. In addition to the Brett Favre strip-sack and the two against Jones, he added forced fumbles against James Starks (2), Jermichael Finley, Ryan Grant, and Eddie Lacy.
In the years since his retirement, Tillman still makes his presence known on unsuspecting ball carriers every Sunday all across the league. Inspiring coaches and players to attack the football in the same way, the technique is taught and practiced by the next generation of defenders. The Peanut Punch democratized, spread across the league to liberate the ball from the offense. Each time it happens, the announcers identify the name of the move, breathing life back into his great career.
Professional football has been around for over a century and very few moves are associated with a single person so strongly. Deacon Jones’s head slap, long banished from the game, and Reggie White’s “hump” move come to mind. The beauty of the Peanut Punch is that it’s easily recognizable, deployed frequently enough to build a “brand awareness” around it, and leads to a big moment in the game.
The Peanut Punch is here to stay.
Is the Peanut Punch the best name for a move or technique in football? Hit up the comments below or find me on Twitter @gridironborn.