A Football Sunday With Richard Sherman
MAPLE VALLEY, Wash. — Richard Sherman is calm, quiet and engaged. Barefoot and dressed in sweats, he’s staring at a 70-inch flat-screen TV mounted on a living room wall. His girlfriend, Ashley, and his father, Kevin, are also here, watching the Cowboys-Packers playoff game in the cocoon of Sherman’s 9,435-square-foot mansion outside Seattle. It’s drizzling on the full-length basketball court and the Koi pond out back. A Domino’s pepperoni and sausage pizza is on the way. Suddenly, Sherman leaps to his feet, knocking the remote off a couch armrest and onto the floor.
“That’s 71 Trap! 71 Trap!”
The play isn’t even over yet. The Packers are doing something wacky with their coverage: Cornerback Sam Shields presses the outside wideout on the three-receiver side for about three steps, then peels off and steps into the flat, walling off an open man. The trap is meant for Tony Romo. The quarterback’s head begins to dart. He panics and scrambles to his right before being sandwiched by Packers linemen.
“Got him!” Sherman shouts.
Ashley and dad are still lounging. They're used to this by now. But I’m at a loss. What happened?
Sherman reaches out with both hands.
“Give me the notebook,” he says. “71 Trap. It looks like a simple man coverage, but this corner has whoever stops in the flat, and the safety takes that receiver going up the sideline, and the linebacker or nickel takes the slot guy if he…”
But you can’t see the safety on TV…
“Right,” he says. “With TV, you kind of have to assume certain things are true.”
This is how the best cornerback in football watches NFL games: He diagnoses, he plots, and he guesses. The guesses will be confirmed over and over again during film-study sessions throughout the week to come, but this is a first look at the upcoming NFC Championship Game through Sherman’s eyes.
He hands the notebook back, and then the doorbell rings. The pizza is here. Time to eat.
* * *
To get to Sherman’s house from downtown Seattle, you drive 10 miles down I-5 South, east on 405 past Renton (where the Seahawks’ facility rests on the edge of Lake Washington), and along a stretch of heaven called SE Petrovitsky Rd. It is a coniferous escape route from the hassles of the city that takes you past rushing creeks and small ponds and the occasional mom-and-pop store. Turn into a quiet neighborhood and pass the horse farm and there’s Sherman’s house, which he bought for $2.3 million in June from, of all people, the NBA’s Jamal Crawford.
Several media outlets published links to the address, giving fans easy access that would otherwise take some digging to find online. And fans began showing up at his gate, even entire football teams of 12-year-olds filing off school buses in full uniform, pleading for autographs. Sherman stopped talking to local media for months as a result.
Fans soon got the hint and stopped showing up by the busload. And he started talking again. After Sunday’s divisional-round win over the Panthers—a 31-17 victory in which Sherman snagged his first career playoff interception—he was the last player in the locker room talking to a media scrum. Seahawks PR rarely steps in anymore. Sometimes a straggler will try to sneak in a few private questions after the group disperses, and Sherman almost always obliges. He drops some quote-bombs that make Twitter waves for beat writers and must-hear sound bites for TV stations. Of teammate Kam Chancellor, Sherman said, “He plays in a dark place … He damages people’s souls.”
“If there’s one thing I know about the NFL,” Sherman said after beating the Panthers on Saturday, “if you have a good game, you’re getting tested [for performance enhancers] in the morning.”
This is Sherman in media mode, delivering Randy Savage rhetoric with a Chris Rock cadence and a Denzel smile. This Richard Sherman raises teammates to mythic proportions, turns a postgame interview into an offseason-long sports culture debate, and cashes endorsement checks from Campbell’s Soup and Beats by Dre. But I came to his house to see the other Richard, the guy who writes and speaks intelligently about concussions, race, society and above all, football.
On Sunday morning, that Richard is late. After Saturday’s win, he was told to report to the team’s facility at 10 a.m. for a random, mandatory drug test for performance enhancers. “If there’s one thing I know about the NFL,” he said after the media throng had left, “if you have a good game, you’re getting tested in the morning."
He returns home around 11:20 a.m., just before halftime of the Packers-Cowboys game. He fixes a cup of coffee and sits on the couch. He’s no longer upset about dropping what would have been a second interception the night before, when he jumped a quick slant and had a hard-thrown Cam Newton pass bounce off of his hands. Regardless, he’ll have to pay for it. With an unofficial fine system in place for blown opportunities, Seattle’s über-competitive secondary punishes members for failure. “They’ll have no sympathy for how hard it was thrown,” he says.
The Packers emerge from the locker room trailing 14-10, and Sherman explains his philosophy on watching football broadcasts. “First I look at the offensive formation, and I try to guess if it’s run or pass, based on that and the down and distance,” he says. “I’m looking at the route combinations if it’s a pass, and then the coverage from what I can see.”
There’s a name for everything.
What some teams call a 288 special—two identical post routes on one side of the formation and a crossing route from the other side—the Seahawks call “Dino.” The Cowboys run a route combination featuring a streaking tight end, a hitch from the slot receiver and a deep in from the outside receiver. The Seahawks call it “Ram,” a nod to Dick Vermeil and Mike Martz, who developed and perfected it with Kurt Warner in the late 1990s. Seattle uses this language to anticipate and identify what teams will run before they run it.
“If it’s third down,” Sherman says, “a lot of times you can look at the formation and know the play, especially if it’s a team you’ve played this season.”
How is that possible?
In short, NFL play-callers are boring. Sherman estimates about 26 teams run the same handful of plays on third down. Of the teams he’s played over the last two years, he can think of three that don’t: New England, Denver and New Orleans.
“New Orleans runs a bunch of stuff out of a bunch of different formations,” he says. “And then they have a few plays that look like they’re drawn in the dirt. It just looks dumb, but if you’re not prepared for it, it’s going for six.”
From having played the Packers in Week 1, Sherman recognizes some of Green Bay’s third-down favorites. He does so even though Aaron Rodgers never targeted him and even though the Packers left a single receiver on Sherman’s side for much of the game, a 36-16 Seattle victory. (He figures they’ll do something similar on Sunday).
What helps make the Packers so unique, Sherman says, is Rodgers’ ability to extend plays and take off running. That wasn’t a factor against the Cowboys, of course, given the quarterback’s left calf injury. And yet, he was still whipping the ball around Lambeau Field with the same ferocity as always.
“He’s literally just slinging that thing,” Sherman says. “In my mind he’s the MVP. People want to talk about J.J. Watt getting it, but he’s sitting at home. No knock on what he was doing, but it wasn’t enough to put them in the playoffs. In the NBA, you’d never see the MVP go to a guy who isn’t in the playoffs.”
With 11 minutes left in the third quarter, a diving Julius Peppers tears the ball from Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray. Sherman springs to his feet: “Ball out! Ball out!”
The last time I saw him this excited, he was admonishing 49ers wideout Michael Crabtree via Erin Andrews moments after last season’s NFC Championship Game.
“See?” he says of Murray. “He’s been carrying it like that since Week 8! The football gods always get you!”
* * *
The gods have been kind to Sherman so far. At 26, he has no lingering injuries, a minimal concussion history, a Super Bowl ring, a league-leading 25 interceptions since 2011, and a four-year, $56 million contract, with $40 million guaranteed. He grew up in Compton in the middle of a decades-long drug war. Now he lives down the street from a barn.
He bought the house two months after reaching the deal for an extension, and he didn’t have to make many upgrades. The place came with an indoor pool and a hot tub; with a theater-quality projection screen and a small theater; a monster garage for a handful of luxury cars; the basketball court; and an all-marble kitchen.
He has a Legion of Boom room, in which his jersey and those of Brandon Browner (now a Patriot), Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor are framed in a square. Other Seattle jerseys line the walls, including Doug Baldwin’s, Golden Tate’s and Russell Wilson’s. The basketball court features a custom-painted Seahawks logo at midcourt, with the words “Legion of Boom” near the sideline. Linebacker Bobby Wagner beat Sherman here in a game of one-on-one and won’t shut up about it.
“All he did was post up on me,” Sherman says, “and then when I had the ball he knew I couldn’t go left.”
The foyer stairs lead to a bookshelf, which Sherman pushes back to reveal another staircase that leads to a hidden room featuring more jerseys: Andre Johnson’s, Larry Fitzgerald’s and Tony Gonzalez’s. He’s got about a dozen more still in need of framing, including LeSean McCoy’s, DeSean Jackson’s and Patrick Peterson’s.
“I ask to trade jerseys with a guy if I really respect his game,” he says.
Most of the time it’s just Ashley and Richard here, but during the season his mom and aunt often travel and stay over for games. His dad has been to four games this season, including Saturday’s win. He’d come to more, but he’s still working as a garbage truck driver in Los Angeles. With 26 years on the job, he’s about 18 months from a pension and possibly retiring.
“It’s something to keep busy, and it’s easy now,” Kevin says. “If I take a day off, I don’t need to worry about where my money is coming from. I want to get that pension and the medical benefits just so it’s one more thing my son doesn’t have to worry about. I’m always going to be making money. I want to fix it so that even when I’m not working, I’m getting paid.”
Kevin Sherman has a deep voice like his son, and a careful way of speaking. He lost his right eye in a go-kart explosion when he was 14. He watches the Cowboys-Packers game casually, taking smoke breaks outside or conversing with Ashley in the kitchen. He’s not watching when Murray fumbles, or when the conversation turns from running backs who don’t fumble to Adrian Peterson, and, finally, to Peterson’s arrest and league suspension for beating his 4-year-old son with a switch. Most NFL players, Sherman says, think the player’s punishment has been excessive.
Sherman took issue with Roger Goodell’s public letter to Peterson, in which he wrote, “You must commit yourself to your counseling and rehabilitative effort, properly care for your children, and have no further violations of law or league policy.”
“You shouldn’t have to deal with the commissioner patronizing you and telling you how to be a better father,” Sherman says. “Most of the scars on my face are from belts and switches. My parents told me they whooped me so the police wouldn’t do it, so that when you encounter authority in the real world, you don’t get yourself hurt or killed. I did wrong, I got beat, and I didn’t do that again.”
If Sherman’s father could be called a disciplinarian, another father figure in Sherman’s life is anything but. When the All-Pro corner went berserk after last season’s NFC title game, Carroll sat him down and reasoned with him.
What were you trying to convey? Do you think there’s a better way to express that?
“Pete has a weird way of doing things, and it works,” Sherman says. “He’s not a guy who gets angry easily. He makes you think you’re supposed to win, and then when you do win, it doesn’t even feel like a big deal.”
The love affair between Carroll and his players reached a crescendo before the Super Bowl when the coach nonchalantly told the team during a meeting that he’d fine anyone who wasn’t still awake at 6 a.m. on Monday morning, sitting poolside in a bathrobe with a drink in hand.
It spoke to one of the qualities Sherman respects most in people. He reveres the audacity of Carroll’s coaching technique; the inherent obstinacy of Marshawn Lynch refusing to speak with media; the bravado of Aaron Rodgers limping downfield behind his offense. Each, like his father, defies conventional wisdom about what men ought to be, do, or be able to do.
Bad football snaps Sherman out of his reflection. Packers rookie Davante Adams catches a dart from Rodgers and takes it 46 yards to the house, cutting Dallas’s lead to one. Cowboys corner Sterling Moore dogged it in pursuit, while J.J. Wilcox flailed on a tackle attempt.
“That’s terrible,” Sherman says. “42 [strong safety Barry Church] is the only one who played through the whole play.”
It would be, to put it lightly, heresy for a Seattle defensive back to give up in pursuit or to hesitate and whiff on a tackle.
“You get here, and you kind of figure out in training camp that all the corners are striking people or at least making every tackle possible,” Sherman says, “and you either figure out how to do it and not get hurt, or you’re not here very long. I don’t really blow guys up, but I do the job.”
* * *
There are things that happen in every NFL game that are impossible to see on television. Some of it helps explain the implausible, such as Kam Chancellor leaping over Carolina’s offensive line (twice) in hopes of blocking a field goal.
“The special teams guys look for hints,” Sherman says. “They saw that the long snapper had a tell, which showed that he was about to snap the ball. And all Kam had to do was run up and jump.”
What the television broadcast lacks in conveying nuance, it makes up for by accentuating the remarkable and settling the controversial. Watching Dez Bryant’s leaping non-catch over Sam Shields makes Sherman go silent. After watching replays, he says, “If that’s the rule, that’s not a catch. And that’s an incredible play by Sam Shields. If he doesn’t stick a hand in there, that’s a catch and probably a touchdown.” Earlier, when Rodgers whipped the go-ahead TD to Richard Rodgers in the end zone—despite the quarterback’s gimpy calf and pocket pressure from the Cowboys—Sherman just shook his head in awe.
Kevin Sherman, silent for the better part of an hour, chuckles at the audacity of Rodgers and his trademark celebration.
“Championship belt,” Kevin mutters.
“In my mind,” he adds, “the way Seattle is playing, we’re going to the Super Bowl. It’s inevitable.”
Richard is confident, but he knows inevitable is a dangerous word. He thinks the fight between Seattle’s defensive line and Green Bay’s improved pass blocking will be key, and he likes his team’s chances to win off the edge. But there’s that X-factor wearing No. 12.
“He’s everything to that team,” Sherman says. “You look at that throw. There are only a few people who can make that throw, and there’s no one besides Aaron Rodgers who has the balls to even try it.”