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Why it matters, for better and worse, when Richard Sherman got hurt

Piecing together the public clues and video evidence to create a timeline of the Seahawks star’s “hidden” injury

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Friday I proposed a specific play I suspect caused Richard Sherman’s MCL injury that the Seattle Seahawks didn’t disclose to the NFL until Pete Carroll’s errant remarks last week: a low block by Walt Powell of the Buffalo Bills in week 9 (note: disturbing video). The details of the injury aren’t so important to keep dwelling on, but the timing of the incident could have some bearing on how the league treats the case if it deems the Seahawks’ failure to follow injury reporting protocol was severe enough to garnish a draft pick. Seattle is going to need as many high(ish) selections as it can get to keep a stream of affordable players to replenish the depth around its pricey stars like Sherman in order to return to playing in Super Bowls.

Last year the Indianapolis Colts endured a similar investigation from the league after tales surfaced quarterback Andrew Luck played with “broken” ribs for five weeks without that specific issue appearing on an injury report, and then continued to play for two more weeks until damage to internal organs ended his season. The NFL found the Colts didn’t violate guidelines, but if Sherman’s injury happened when I think it did it is possible the league finds 10 weeks (counting playoffs) of dissimulation a more significant breach of the rules that warrants penalty (and fuel subsequent paranoia of Seahawks fans that the organization gets held to a different standard).

10 weeks does seem like a long time, compared to early suggestions that the injury might have happened in the last month of the season, but it’s also not as long as some of the evidence suggests. And that timing matters to establish whether Seattle left the knee injury off the weekly practice reports specifically to hide it or because, as the club claims, the issue wasn’t severe enough to document.

Several outlets including Chris Mortensen and Larry Stone at the Seattle Times mentioned how part of the organization’s case that Sherman was only lightly banged up is he “never missed a snap” during the season, but that’s not strictly true. According to the official game books, Sherman played 1054 downs on defense for the Seahawks in 2016, out of a possible 1080. Only Bobby Wagner had more, with 1073 (Mark Glowinski was in-ski-dentally the only player credited for 100 percent of snaps with his unit, with 1059 for the offense).

What’s more interesting is Sherman did play every defensive snap in each of Seattle’s first six games, through the overtime stunner against the Arizona Cardinals—meaning all 26 snaps he sat out came after that. That detail lines up with the injury reports: Sherman began appearing regularly on the Seahawks injury reports the Wednesday after that Arizona game, missing one practice each week from weeks 8-14, and then again in week 16 through the playoffs. The missing week (15) was a short preparation for the Thursday night game against the Los Angeles Rams.

(The reason Seattle could get in trouble is because on those reports Sherman’s once-weekly “DNP” designation was given as “non-injury-related” except in week 12 when it said he had an ankle injury.)

The Rams game was also the week Sherman started taking his frustrations public. The initial argument on the sideline prompting a month of discontent is well-documented by now. But remember also how Sherman spoke out against Thursday games specifically citing the danger to players nursing lingering injuries. Talking about how the short week disrupts his schedule of preparation, Sherman wrote in the Players’ Tribune: “Toward the end of the season, you’ll probably add an MRI to your routine to check on the various injuries you’ve been playing through.” It sure seems now like he was talking about his knee problem.

If Sherman’s weekly day off from practice was connected with treatments for his battered knee, perhaps Sherman was worried skipping that extra care in the accelerated week might leave him vulnerable to worse injury. In the article, Sherman talks about how J.J. Watt’s season ended after exacerbating an existing condition during a Thursday game. That Sherman was thinking he might be risking his season or even career by playing that night helps deepen his stance that the offensive playcallers shouldn’t be so reckless with the game, and his implied sacrifice, on the line.

However, this timeline that ties the “non-injury-related” practice reports to Sherman’s actual injury implies the damage occurred during the contest with the Cardinals, or perhaps even earlier (Michael Bennett, for example, hyperextended his own knee one week earlier against the Atlanta Falcons but led the defensive line in snaps versus Arizona before taking surgery and missing the next five weeks).

But if the MCL sprain didn’t in fact occur till later, in the Bills game, then it suggests Sherman’s “non-injury-related” absences may not have had anything to do with his knee at all.

He’s not the only player to get similarly excused; for example, Earl Thomas also missed practices with non-injury designations during week 4 and week 11. And indeed Sherman was hardly the only Seahawk to sit out the Wednesday after the late-night Cardinals tie, a game that lasted 75 minutes with Seattle’s defense on the field for 95 snaps. Nearly one-fifth of the Seahawks 53-man roster missed that practice, with Wagner joining Sherman in sitting out without a specific ailment. It was Russell Wilson’s first “limited” practice designation of his career, after he was full-go even after suffering ligament damage twice earlier in the year.

That game, Sherman reportedly limped in the locker room afterward, but it was attributed to dehydration and soreness from the grueling affair. ESPN’s Ian O’Connor wrote that Sherman “shook and shivered like a man who had just been pulled from arctic waters” and had trouble even putting on his watch. The point is the team could have wanted to give him a break without covering up some specific injury.

There’s also no clear evidence of a knee injury happening against Arizona. Sherman didn’t miss any snaps in that game, and played brilliantly notwithstanding the exhaustion. Remember this hit?

Sherman did later stumble covering J.J. Nelson and gave up what turned into a 40-yard completion that nearly lost the game. At first I wondered if this could be the play that injured him: In addition to the misplaced step, Sherman’s knee bangs on the turf as he falls.

But he’s up and chasing Nelson within half a second of missing the tackle—he definitely lopes slowly after the receiver but again this probably has more to do with fatigue and the fact he’s trailing way behind the play than a knee injury. It’s certainly not the extended reaction we saw in the replay after the hit by Powell. And unlike that play, Sherman never came out of the game.

Just to be sure, I rewatched every defensive snap from week 4 (before the bye week) until week 11 both to try to locate the play when Sherman got hurt and to see if I could notice the injury affecting his play. MCLs are weird and they can stretch or tear even on non-contact plays that wouldn’t be as noticeable on film. They also come with a wide variety of severity. Kam Chancellor reportedly busted his MCL on a walk-through before Super Bowl XLIX, and then played two days later.

Wilson played through his damaged MCL for 14 games in 2016, and Carroll compared Sherman’s struggle to stay fit to Wilson’s more widely-known effort this year. And yet, unlike the quarterback, Sherman never wore any knee brace and didn’t appear hobbled at any time. Part of that may be because the ball doesn’t have to flow through Sherman on every down the way it does for Wilson. On the contrary, Sherman’s reputation dictates he sees fewer “action” plays than even most defenders.

Hypothetically, so long as Sherman could run on his injured knee and conceal signs of pain, he could hide the vulnerability in plain sight more easily than Wilson by playing the geometric game that is already his strength and limiting his exposure to critical plays. But that’s also the reason the NFL would take the accuracy of the injury report so seriously. Seattle’s schemes are partly designed to take advantage of how Sherman shuts down half or a third of the field without being tested. Opponents could try different gameplans if they knew Sherman was compromised, so the honest athletic advantage becomes an unfair imbalance if the Seahawks have hidden information.

Perhaps strangely, even after Sherman showed visible torment and checked out for a play in the Buffalo game, the Bills neglected to challenge him. They snapped five more times on the drive, mostly runs, then punted. Even on the final series, it took a sequence of plays that lost yards to generate 3rd and 21 before Tyrod Taylor finally went toward Sherman (though not by design) and it nearly proved costly for Seattle.

From his own 40 with 1:30 left and no timeouts, under pressure, Taylor rolls to his right and finds Robert Woods coming back toward the ball. For the first time having to really cover since he went down earlier in the quarter, Sherman managed to stay with Woods downfield but after six full seconds wasn’t able to match the change of direction as Woods cut back toward the scrambling Taylor. Even had Sherman broken up the play, Bobby Wagner’s roughing the passer would have kept Buffalo’s drive alive but the gain plus the penalty set the Bills up for their red zone showdown in the final minute.

However, Sherman’s knee held up on the next play as he trailed his man even while Taylor again scrambled to the boundary looking for an opening. Sherman memorably knocked down Powell on the final defensive play after Taylor left the pocket to the opposite side of the field, raising more vitriol for the supposed “cheap shot” artist (after the first half field goal fiasco). But with the hindsight of Powell’s low block, and the pain surely still fresh in Sherman’s knee, Sherman must have had more on his mind than simply defending the fourth down.

Anyway it’s not clear that Sherman’s play was affected that much by the injury. Even the long conversion by Woods doesn’t look a whole lot different from a similar comeback when Julio Jones got wide open against a presumably-healthy Sherman in week 6.

Sherman also looked basically like himself in the following weeks against the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles.

He didn’t shy away from initiating tackles …

…and he held up splendidly in coverage.

Sherman also made one of the biggest plays of the Patriots game, looking perfectly swift with his reaction and confident scooping up this ball to run with it, both dodging tacklers and into contact.

So it seems reasonable to assume the injury was never actually as serious as Russell Wilson’s, whatever Carroll said later, and to believe that the Seahawks believed it was minor enough to not publicize—rather than a deliberate conspiracy to hide a weakness. The fact Sherman missed more snaps in the second half of the season also seems to be a red herring, since those plays were all clustered in a few games (23 of the 26 in just four games) and didn’t seem to result from Sherman favoring his leg (most happened in goal line situations when heavy offensive packages dictated a different matchup). For example, the first four downs he missed on the year came against the New Orleans Saints in week 8 during a goal line stand extended by a penalty—and before the injury against Buffalo.

I can’t either prove that the injury definitively happened on that play and not another. As mentioned before, he could have got hurt in a less-noticeable fashion or even during practice like Chancellor. It might also have been the product of multiple hits in multiple games, without a singular event, like many chronic football ailments. But in all the plays I watched, numerous other scary falls and stumbles and tweaks and strange blocks never prompted the same extreme reaction Sherman displayed after the hit by Powell. And I don’t know that the league will reach the same conclusions as me, but it sure seems like Sherman’s “non-injury” injury report status was both an unrelated phenomenon predating the knee pain and that Sherman also never afterward exhibited the performance of a player limited by serious structural damage.

It’s a small sample but Seattle’s pass defense in the three weeks between the Monday-nighter against the Bills and when Thomas went out against the Carolina Panthers was virtually indistinguishable from its statistics in the first eight games, so if that’s when Sherman’s injury took place it didn’t appear to affect the team at all. The interception rate was even better (certainly not the dropoff losing Thomas caused).

Remember also that Carroll had Sherman back returning punts during points in both weeks 16 and 17, when any player could have stood there and called fair catch. That doesn’t sound like someone taking extra precaution to protect a secret injury. Goodell willing, the league agrees.