Almost anyone who has watched a Hall of Famer in their prime can tell you about the moment when they realized just what they are seeing with their own eyes. This is the time when you're casually watching the game and suddenly, said player takes your attention by storm, with a movement or play so graceful it leaves your jaw hanging, your eyes blurred and your roommate wondering what the hell just happened from the sounds you just emitted.
Watching this unfold with previous knowledge of the game itself makes it even more shocking, epiphanous and spectacular, because you realize the improbability and absurdity of the act that just happened, as if all the rules and understanding you knew about the sport weren't broken, but bent to a greater extreme that you've never seen before. These moments are glorious but not exactly rare, with some many amazing players widely spread out between the eras, chances are all of us will see the moment with another particular player in our lifetime, if we haven't already.
Here's one for you. October 7, 2012. It's Week 5 in the NFL. Down by six, the Carolina Panthers are in full two-minute drill, possibly looking to round out the first half with points on the board. On the other side of the field, the Seattle Seahawks are comfortably playing prevent-defense, despite only holding a six-point shutout. Quarterback Cam Newton reads the coverage and spots to his right what appears to be a one-on-one matchup for his star wideout, Steve Smith.
As one of the quickest and most agile athletes that also evolved him into one of the most reliable, Smith was a guy that can beat a above-average cornerback to the outside curl for a 13 yard gain in his sleep, even at the age of 33. This was a reasonable, if not optimal opportunity, and one that Newton already succeeded in in previous trials. He knew where the play was going before he took the snap.
Lined up against Smith was a cornerback by the name of Richard Sherman, and somehow he also knew where the play was going before the snap as well. From the film he has spent analyzing over the past six days, Sherman understood the Panthers enough to make an educated guess as to what the play will be. The formation, to the personnel, to the down and distance and the positioning of the specific player he was up against (Smith) - in his eyes, everything added up. Left alone on an island with man coverage on the weakside, Sherman knows that there is a good chance he will be tested, and makes his move as the ball is snapped.
Instead of playing a traditional press or immediately starting to backpedal, he jabs forward with his first step; his right arm, fully outstretched, pushes Smith back, akin to a fencer lunging against their opponent for a point. Smith recoils slightly but isn't exactly unwavered, and his body, though unbalanced, has already started running towards Sherman's inside shoulder.
All the while, the cornerback casually shifts his gaze from Smith to Newton, anticipating the connection that will be made between wide receiver and cornerback. For the first five steps, not much happens; on the sixth however, Sherman suddenly breaks on his right foot and cuts from his inside shoulder to his outside, at the same time he turns his attention away from Newton to the ball he has just thrown. This slight re-adjustment is enough to throw Smith off his route, as Sherman is now physically angled in his face, and Smith is literally forced to block him out to create the space needed for the catch.
The task itself is successful, but alas, this extra effort, along with the slight recovery forced from the initial shove at the line has delayed Smith from Newton's initial pre-snap read. By the time he was ready to catch, the ball was already on the ground - like Sherman - whose arms are outstretched in a mix of success and appeal to the referees.
Now it's third and ten, and the home crowd's cheers are awkward and random because Smith is just standing there looking around without a first down to signal and on the televised feed Tim Meyers is chuckling to himself wondering why offensive pass interference isn't called at the same time he's doing a drive-by analysis at the slow-mo replay of the events that just transpired, reiterating to the audience with emphasis to "look at the stab move".
There was no markings or yellow circles. Most already knew who Steve Smith was, and more importantly, how good of a football player he is and the exceptional qualities he holds. He was your game changer, your first-down man, your 100+ catches, 1000+ yards, 10+ touchdowns per season play, and amazingly, he just got beat with a punch. I don't remember what other impressions I had made upon my first viewing of the play, but I do remember that my roommate asked me if I was all right a few seconds later.
Anyhow, that was the moment I, like many others around me, realized who Richard Sherman was. And that was in week 5 - when he hadn't really done a whole lot yet.
For the world of sports media, Richard Sherman is the next best thing. Only 25, he's already arguably the best cornerback in the league. On a team full of younger, perhaps more exciting stars and All-Pros, somehow he's the one that draws your focus, the one you write your headlines on (or he'll write them for you himself).
Hell, Richard Sherman's life story is as accessible as he is marketable - his background and growing up in the streets of early-90's Compton, his perseverance to avoid gang life and how it paid off when he was accepted to Stanford, making the All-American team for football and track in his freshman year, then switching from wide receiver to defensive back just two years later; how he managed to graduate on time with a Master's degree in between that time, how, even as a child, he'd make brash and bold predictions on his play before the game and somehow live up to it on the stat sheet. His motivation is driven by a complex brew of negativity, hunger and personal desires that makes up who he is now; his prolific comments against opposing players and teams both on and off the field; his unique athleticism and size and knowledge of the game and charitable acts and controversies and overall persona - all these things are just a Google search away...you probably know all of that already.
This piece isn't as much about the play of Sherman (which we've already analyzed many times) as it is about a fan's experience of him and more specifically, the context behind that. The idea is that, if for some reason you've managed to avoid watching him for the past two seasons, be it on the stands of CenturyLink Field or the screen of your television set, then you're about to see what some describe as "a robotic death vulture circling the secondary, waiting to feast upon the still beating hearts of the puss-cake wideouts who dare to dance where angels fear to tread".
And it may be tempting, at first, to brush away this slight exaggeration as being caught in the heat of the moment, as if this was the description people are forced to resort to when they describe their moment against Richard Sherman. But it also turns out to be literally true - even if it only lasts for a millisecond - though it takes multiple viewings and replays to see this truth, brief as it is, come to light.
David Foster Wallace once wrote that "Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty." Perhaps this statement is most fitting in the world of football, where amidst the connotations of war, animalistic passion, toughness, manliness and the difference between wins and losses lies the graceful choreography and beauty of the human body. Of course, most fans would confess that they watch football not for the latter reasons, and when they describe their love of the game chances are they are talking about a classiness and grandeur that I still can't define.
One might attribute this towards wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who, like Sherman, is arguably the best in his position group and who, unlike Sherman, is a future Hall-of-Fame shoo-in with dozens of accolades and records in his name without a speck of controversy. If you are looking for class and a natural fluidness that is everything right with the NFL, look no further than Larry Fitzgerald, the pure epitome of a humble, honest, and inspirational sports figure that many aspire to become and follow. In the eyes of Richard Sherman, he may be all that - and then some; On the field, Fitzgerald marked himself as Sherman's equal and therefore, theoretically became his biggest and most dangerous threat, so much so that had both parties played on bigger marketed teams this hypothetical battle probably wouldn't be relegated to Fox's fifth slot in the broadcast rotation for the past two years.
Week 14's matchup on December 9, however, was the one that Sherman himself is waiting for.
Unlike many other receivers, Fitzgerald has faced - and beaten - Sherman multiple times, the first, of course, in the final game of 2011 when he hauled in nine passes for 143 yards, and again in the first game of 2012 when he had four catches for 63 yards. Both times the Seahawks lost, both times you can excuse their play as rusty, underachieving and forgivable. On the other hand, this game would've been the first Sherman has played with the home crowd, and his team had just cruised to a big overtime win in Chicago last week.
There's also the fact that Fitzgerald and the Cardinals have been free-falling after a 4-0 start. With quarterback problems plaguing the team again, he hasn't touched the 100+ receiving yards benchmark in a game for six weeks. Nevertheless, the hype is still there if one looks carefully. And, if Fitzgerald was comparatively the league's image of a hero, then Sherman might've been his arch-villain; the quiet consistency of a nine year veteran going up against the rapid, loud-mouth surprise of the season, and a matchup that was finally balanced physically and athletically for two players that consistently outmatched everyone else.
Coincidentally, this was the first game that the cornerback will play following the announcement that he, along with his teammate Brandon Browner, has tested positive for PEDs. Though he has not made an official statement to appeal, the bombshell has already made its mark: Browner had already begun serving his suspension, and the usually vocal Sherman was unusually quiet throughout the week. Indeed, if there was anything more to watch for outside of this climactic battle, it would be how this young man, whose name has already headlined the tickers far more times than the team he plays for, would react.
It is now roughly two hours before kickoff, and the 12th man is scattered, pocketed between the seats and funneling in and out of the stands. The weather is typical of an Sunday afternoon in Seattle: overcast, grey, and wet. Fitzgerald is easily recognizable as #11 in the Cardinals White and Red, with his free flowing dreads behind him slightly covering his name and two slashes of eye black on his face.
The routes he runs are crisp and clean, and he warms up lightly, quietly with a heavy concentration devoted entirely to the football. On the other side of the field is Sherman, who now dons a black balaclava that partially covers his mouth and head. He moves at a rapid, unwavering pace, alternating between stretches and jumps and jogs and sprints, all the while muttering statements and goals of what he will be doing, as if he was a monk constantly reiterating a prayer over and over again until it's set in his heart. This routine continues on until both teams are called back into the locker rooms for their introductions, and because the networks are not interested in outlining warmups for a 4PM EST game, most of the details still elude us; however, what we know is that when the both of them enter the field again, under the roar of the crowd, they aren't just players anymore.
Where do you start in trying to describe, or evoke, Richard Sherman? To fit him under the label of a tall cornerback, as rare and as innovative as it is, would be a disservice. His timed 40 yard dash was clocked in at a "slow" 4.56 seconds and his strides are lanky, and yet he always catches up to even the best deep throws or the well-coordinated quick darts. His technique involves a series of chops, slashes, punches and flails with his arms akin to an angry cat clawing in defense, and this act is as violent as it is carefully crafted and planned. His anticipation of the throws opposing quarterbacks make and the routes the wide receivers run is a testament to his lasting history within the offense's game.
His vocabulary within the locker room is a stark juxtaposition to the intelligent language he uses in interviews, and considerably more brutish when he's playing. All this is true, and yet you can sum up this man's play purely based on this description. It doesn't explain the genius, the eventus of Richard Sherman, and it falls short of replicating what witnessing such an event means. For a player so complex and layered, it's almost unheard of that people have a love-him or hate-him relationship, so much so that it proves you have to stop short of trying to understand who he is, and instead converse about who he isn't.
The tape alone does not explain this well either. With slow-mo replays, close ups, graphics and knowledgeable announcers by your side, even the most privileged fans miss out on the small details. As broadcasted games are designed to focus on the bigger picture, the audience rarely get the perspective of a player on the field as they would to a coach; half the time Sherman and the secondary aren't even in frame, and because of that, the game moves smoother and easier than what is actually happening. Compare the view on the TV screen to a place at the Seahawks sideline, and difference will explain to you just how hard these pros are hitting, how fast the ball is moving, how little time the players have to get to it, and how quickly they have to move and shift and tackle and recover. And none are faster, or perhaps more deceptively effortless about it, than Richard Sherman.
Still, having the ability to see the full field and to rewind and review certain plays does well to unmask Sherman's display of football IQ. Certainly, we the audience can usually see the type of formation, route and personnel the offense is running (which Sherman guesses at the snap), and at the same reason and understand why he makes the play seem extraordinary and successful. You see the slight manipulations, the vision, the specific paths he takes and you understand them. You understand, from the perception of a televised broadcast designed to cover almost every angle on a given play, the methods and anticipation that Sherman himself probably sees when he's near the sideline face-to-face against the opposition's best receiver coming against him. More importantly, you understand why the tape alone does not - and will not - explain Richard Sherman very well.
Looking back at the best cornerbacks of all time illustrates a common trend for success. Most positions in the NFL rarely break from its archetypes, and with cornerback, it was easy to highlight the two different models of success. Speed is one of them. The pure blindside out-of-nowhere quickness that jumps from the player, shutting down the play by getting to where the ball will be and snag it for an interception. This would be your Darrell Greens, your Deion Sanders(es) and taking into account the zone coverage scheme and the validity of future voters, probably your Ronde Barbers as well. The other was intimidation.
Similarly, there was a pure blind side out of-nowhere tenacity, but this was a guy that was going to hit you hard. This was your Mel Blounts, your Ronnie Lotts, your Rod Woodsons, the cornerbacks who excels at man coverage and jarring the daylights out of a thin, unsuspecting receiver. And then there are players that mixes the best out these two traits - Ty Law, Charles Woodson, Champ Bailey to name a few, that would close-line outside pitches and sweeps at the same time they shut down their side of the passing field completely.
With the continued evolution of the league to protect quarterbacks and in turn, the passing game, teams are now consistently looking for better and more effective players in the secondary, so much so that they are willing to put in a 5'9 player to cover a receiver four inches taller because he has the necessary quickness to match up with him. Athleticism has always reigned high among the changes and development of the league, and when Green and Sanders and Barber excelled despite being undersized, teams realize just how important the speed factor is in the modern game. A 6'1 player who runs a 4.52 forty is already considered out of the norm in a world where cornerbacks averaged 5'11 and 4.45 seconds. Sherman, at 6'3, ran a 4.56 and was generally viewed pre-draft as a personification of the game's golden age. How, then, someone of his consummate finesse has come to dominate is a source of wide confusion.
I have two valid explanations for this ascendency. One kind is purely because of his nature, and how his body is built and designed to play cornerback, similar to how Muhammad Ali's arms were meant for boxing and Michael Jordan's legs were meant for basketball. This is the explanation that I feel is more understandable and realistic, because my second, while more poetic, is also less technical and simpler. Richard Sherman may very well be one of those God-created athletes designed to change the game, the one-man army capable of carrying a team in a team-oriented sport, like Jordan or Pelé or Gretzky or Mays. Sherman controls the atmosphere and environment he plays in, so much so that even when he's 'beaten' he still wins. You've seen how even the most prolific game changing players falter with their technical abilities as they age, but it doesn't surprise you that at 48 years old Jordan can still dunk, and at 60 years old the Parkinsons-stricken Ali can keep up against a speed bag; that's the harsh truth about having a natural body advantage; it is instinct and it's something that you can't stop, but can only contain.
This is an example. Going up against Roddy White in the playoffs, Sherman was caught behind in coverage by a post route - and not just slightly, but by a good five seconds - letting White be in perfect position to make the touchdown catch. Matt Ryan, an experienced and accurate quarterback, threw the ball to only where White could've caught it, towards the middle of his chest at an angle only he could be positioned in.
"He had him beat," White's teammate Harry Douglas would say, "but he recovered and knocked the ball away". Recovered in the sense that he was able to lift his left arm - all 32 inches of it - in mid air and slightly lean towards the receiver with his back entirely towards the offense. There's more to the "right place, right time" analogy, especially when you consider the factors that a player of White's caliber brings with him. Physics and football go hand in hand, and the upshot is that the NFL involves intervals of time too brief for deliberate action. Temporally, we're more in the operative range of reflexes, purely physical reactions that bypass conscious thought. And yet an effective return of pass coverage depends on a large set of decisions and physical adjustments that are a whole lot more involved and intentional than blinking, jumping when startled, etc. So who's to say that Sherman didn't ever need to do anything extraordinary except by being there?
Or perhaps it isn't. The other explanation I had was luck - and the idea that Sherman really caught a break, be it that maybe Matt Ryan wasn't 100% with his throw or that White had slightly slowed down because he thought he was home free. Either way, neither explanation again offers much closure.
It is now 17-0 Seahawks, and the Cardinals are backed up against their own four-yard line after a false start. Larry Fitzgerald has had no catches so far, and his team is stifling for a spark. The offense singles him out on the weakside again, calling for a singleback, double TE formation with another WR playing close towards the ball. The quarterback John Skelton motions the second TE into a strong right I-formation. He snaps the ball and only half-heartedly sells the play-action to his running back before he's turned to Fitzgerald entirely, perhaps the only possible target given on the play.
Without hesitation, he throws the ball in the wideout's direction; his target is running a comeback deep near the sidelines. The pass would be caught by Sherman, who, while running stride-for-stride with the Cardinal, was also looking at Skelton the entire time. He was so confident in his abilities that he would break his coverage on Fitzgerald two steps before the actual end of the route, and by the time the wideout realized what had happened, Sherman's body was turned exactly towards the open end zone and, at the time, on par with the highest point of the ball. He would complete this act by running it all the way for the touchdown to the cheers of the 12th man.
Not exactly "the moment" you saw against Carolina, and after all, this play was less on Sherman's ability as it is more on Skelton's recklessness. However, you must realize that the play was already baited from a series the Seahawks had carefully analyzed (when they were only up by three), when Skelton ran similar play-action and Fitzgerald had run the same route. Perhaps under the coverage of, say, Walter Thurmond, the play would've worked, but under Sherman? Everything after that play has been designed to pressure and pressure Skelton into making the same mistake and test the target again, and to lure the quarterback to make the apparent open throw when in reality he was double covered.
The Seahawks clobbered their division rivals by a score of 58-0, the largest shutout in franchise history. Fitzgerald would finish the game with a two yard reception, his worst statistical outing since he was shutout as a rookie in 2004. Sherman would end the game with a tackle, two interceptions, and a touchdown, and, surrounded by a crowd of reporters, would calmly reiterate that he plans to appeal the league's verdict on the PED suspension. Three weeks later, he would win that too.
Trash talking is a criminally underrated aspect of the game, and few master the art of beating your opponent psychologically long before you face them physically. Of course, everybody trash talks once in awhile, and when you're caught up in the heat of the moment, the passion of competition, how could you resist the desire to taunt? Which is precisely why it is also useless - those are simply words that bounce off, that people expect to hear so much so that there is absolutely no effect to it all. And then there are some who are brave enough - ridiculous enough - to do so off the field, whether it is calling out a fellow player, teammate or coach, or boldly foreseeing the future loud enough for the press to hear. That too doesn't do anything, because it's generic and not personal and for the simple fact that history has never followed through. Tell the world you want the ball and you want to score can just as easily come to bite you back - especially if you throw the game winning interception just a few minutes later.
No, the true art of trash talking takes just the same amount of preparation and effort as you would need to gameplan for a team. The words should flow freely and at the same time, sting; it isn't as much about trying to insult or brag as it is to intimidate, and knowing who to specifically intimidate is half the battle in itself. The choice of words in itself requires delicate selection - do you want to craft with the jargon of an eight year old on the playground, or build around the sophistication of a English scholar? Whatever the situation requires, the message itself must be clear, applicable, personal and beyond your opponent's control.
Sherman grew up in California watching the last remnants of success the Raiders had, and when he was thirteen he saw the infamous tuck game live. He'd held a personal grudge against Tom Brady ever since, and eleven years later when they would finally meet on the field, he took the opportunity to speak his mind. When Pierre Garcon inadvertently called out Sherman the night before he went up against in Washington, the cornerback took careful note. Though he would erupt against everybody - the referees, the Redskins, even his own Seahawks - he'd saved the most important callbacks on Garcon. "You wanted this noise," he'd tell him as he politely pushes him down in coverage. "You wanted this noise" as Garcon is busy trying to coax the ref into bringing an offensive pass interference. "You wanted this noise."
Photo credit: Al Bello
Cheater, Superstar, Icon, Diva, Villain, Hero. These might be the qualities you see in Richard Sherman, and every one of them is true. And for the first time in a long time, in Seahawks history, fans are cheering for something more. He has, figuratively and literally, re-embodied the position of cornerback in the modern game, and now for once, the league's perception is a bit more unpredictable. Will he continue to soar to higher, never-seen-before heights, or will his brash persona catch up to him and finish him in a blaze of glory?
Whatever the future holds, you can't ignore Sherman anymore, whether it is in the secondary behind the navy-stained turf, or the quotes popping up along your Twitter feed. From the incompletions he causes at the last possible second to the gambits planned five days before that he enforces - all as well as all the talk that goes in between. Sure, in the end, the future will somehow put out a better cornerback, perhaps a player a bit taller, or a bit smarter, or a bit faster, and the numbers or records that Sherman holds or will hold will be topped again and rendered obsolete. His success is replicable. His inspiration, though, will forever be unique, and everlasting, like the best told legends passed down from generation to generation.
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