PHOENIX -- The Seattle Seahawks' "Legion of Boom" secondary was built with players who have been underrated, undervalued, undersized and miscast in other places, only to come together in rare ways under the direction of head coach Pete Carroll. And in that regard, defensive backs coach Kris Richard is the ideal person to lead the unit.
Richard played cornerback for USC when Carroll took over the program in 2001. He spent just one season under Carroll, but he made an impression on his coach that lasted past Richard's five-year NFL career. Selected in the third round by the Seahawks in 2002, Richard played in 39 NFL games, starting one, and never had an interception. When his career ended in San Francisco, he knew exactly what he wanted to do -- and who he wanted to get him there.
"I don't know exactly what [Carroll] saw, but what I do know is that after I walked off the practice field at USC for the last time, he asked me, 'What do you want to do when it's all said and done?'" Richard recalled. "And I said, 'I want to coach.' And I'll never forget it, he said, 'When that day comes, you come back and look me up.' And that day came."
Richard looked Carroll up again at USC in 2008, hoping that promise would be remembered.
"He knew I was interested, and he knew my NFL career was done," Richard said. "It was that season, and I'd been in contact with him to tell him, 'Hey, I'm done and I'm interested in coaching.' He wanted to know if I meant right now and told me that all the positions were filled -- the graduate assistant position was filled and all that stuff. I told him that I would wait -- I wasn't doing anything at that point. I thought I would take a year and catch up with the family. But he said that he did have an opportunity, and I said, 'Sure.'
"The rest is history from there. I came back, the graduate assistant at the time left, the position was open, and I came in. I hung out for a day, went through some interviews just to catch up, and here we are. He was a man of his word, and I hold him in high regard for that. I can't think of anything better to say, because how often does that happen? You remember a conversation six years later. I said, 'Coach, do you remember that you said you'd pick me up when I was done?' and he said, 'I do.'"
Carroll saw enough in Richard to bring him to Seattle as his defensive backs coach when he took the Seahawks job before the 2010 season. In five seasons, the two men, along with defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, general manager John Schneider and Seattle's scouting staff, have created a historically great defense that starts with the secondary. The Seahawks are the first team since the 1969-71 Minnesota Vikings to lead the league in points allowed three straight years and the first defense since the 1985-86 Chicago Bears to lead the league in yards and points allowed. Especially in this era of expanding offenses and rules changes designed to benefit the other side of the ball, what this defense has done is quite rare. And as great as Seattle's front seven has been, it all starts with the secondary.
When Carroll and Richard came to Seattle, none of the current Legion of Boom pieces were in place. The reformation began with the decision to select Texas safety Earl Thomas with the 14th pick in the 2010 draft. Thomas has never missed a game and has played at an All-Pro level from the start. Later in the 2010 draft, the Seahawks doubled down with Virginia Tech safety Kam Chancellor in the fifth round. Chancellor became the face of the current archetype at the position -- a big, aggressive defensive back who innately understood the style Carroll and Richard required.
"That was a clear vision from coach from Day 1 -- that was a style we wanted to play, and there's a type of defensive back he knew was going to be able to play that style," Richard said. "These guys, they fit the profile. There's a profile that goes along with the style we desire. We knew the types of players we wanted to bring in, and here we are."
Thomas was the first player taken in Carroll's first draft after leaving USC for Seattle. Many assumed that Carroll would go with Trojans safety Taylor Mays, who was also available, but Mays has never been more than a bit player in the NFL, while Thomas has redefined his position. According to Richard, Thomas' Texas tape made the decision very, very easy.
"Talk about a pack of dynamite. His speed and his instincts stood out the most," Richard said. "We were projecting him to be a middle-of-the-field safety at the time, and he was just an explosive, committed football player who ran a 4.3. When you take a guy like that and put him in the middle of the field, you're looking at something special. We knew we were going to have to capture him, and coach him, and get him to play the kind of football we desire. And he's stood true."
As for Chancellor, the Seahawks had him rated more highly than a lot of teams did -- it was thought that he'd be a safety/linebacker hybrid with his size and alleged coverage liabilities, but the Seahawks believed from Day 1 that he would turn into the player he has become, with the ability to both cover into the deep third with consistency and come down in the box to bring the pain against running backs.
"He's always been able to cover -- there's really no coverage improvement," Richard said of Chancellor. "I had always heard, 'Oh, he can't cover this; he can't cover that,' but that's never been the case. He's really come in from Day 1 and shown the ability to play right away. He had to wait his turn -- we had Lawyer Milloy here, and Lawyer deserved to play -- and Kam was a rookie. He had to come in and learn the ropes and pay his dues, and we went on from there."
Richard said that there was no trouble figuring out that Chancellor could be a true on-field enforcer.
"He hit like a ton of bricks in college, so we were fortunate that he fell to us. We had him ranked really high, but we had taken Earl in the first round, and that's a great pick, so when Kam fell to us in the fifth round ... that was like getting a first-day guy. We valued him as a top-three-round pick. We knew we needed that kind of safety, someone who could come down in the box, take the hits, take on the blocks and all that good stuff. To bear the brunt of the load. This dude, he's just so rock-solid. He just runs through people. He's a seek-and-destroy hitter."
Chancellor and Thomas were only half the battle. In the 2011 draft, Seattle picked up a receiver/cornerback hybrid out of Stanford by the name of Richard Sherman. Seattle's defense -- and the entire NFL -- has never been the same. Sherman took a little while to find his way, but he came away with eight interceptions each in the 2012 and '13 seasons, and four in '14. He became a household name in 2013, when he led the league in interceptions despite being targeted on a lower percentage of passes than any other qualifying cornerback.
Richard said that when it came time to decide that Sherman could play cornerback for Seattle, one play in particular stood out.
"They were playing at UCLA, and they tried to throw a fade on him ..."
And this is where I inadvertently interrupted and laughed a second, picturing all the fades that have been thrown Sherman's way that have turned into interceptions.
"I know. It's remarkable," Richard said with a little smile. "But I think the beauty of it is when he is consistently in position and gets the football the way that he does. He did it then. So, when you see him do that so naturally, to go for the football, we said, 'That's what we desire.' We don't have a defense without cornerbacks who can stand up and defend that play. It's the No. 1 play we demand must be stopped, and our guys do a great job of that."
That year, the Seahawks also took a shot on a former Denver Broncos camp body and CFL cornerback named Brandon Browner, who added his own size and physical style to the Legion of Boom for two and a half seasons. But halfway through the 2013 campaign, Browner's trail speed started to go, and he was suspended for missing league drug tests. In Browner's absence, the Seahawks turned first to Walter Thurmond (selected in the fourth round of the 2010 draft, and now with the New York Giants) before eventually settling on Byron Maxwell, a sixth-round selection in the 2011 draft. Maxwell was a very different player than Browner, more about technique than size and physicality, but he fit in perfectly, and he's spanned Seattle's two Super Bowl seasons as Sherman's bookend.
"It's his technique, and his attention to detail. It's his competitive nature -- he's a profile guy," Richard said of Maxwell. "He gets up on the line of scrimmage, he challenges people, he consistently gets his hands on guys, and he consistently sticks in coverage. When you're checking off the boxes of what makes a desirable cornerback, he hits all the checkmarks: somebody who can run, who gets his hands on people, somebody who sticks to people in coverage, and somebody who can play the ball in the air. Check, check, check, check, check -- put him out there."
Plus there's the psychological battle of knowing you're going to get targeted all the time on Sherman's opposite side; some cornerbacks find that hard to stand up to on a game-to-game basis. Maxwell was targeted a team-high 78 times in the 2014 season, and he allowed just one touchdown, adding three interceptions for good measure.
"That's true, and maybe he doesn't get enough credit," Richard said. "The way we're coaching, and the way we talk about football in general, is that the ball is always coming to you. You're always going to be targeted. So don't be surprised when it does. You don't go into a football game thinking, 'Whoa -- the ball's gonna come to me because [Sherman's] over there!' No, the ball's always going to come to you. It's the same way Sherm prepares. He doesn't think they're not going to throw the ball to him because he's Richard Sherman. They are going to throw the ball to you ... until they don't."
There's also the fact that, against more and more three-wide base offenses, the Seahawks will play more nickel and dime defense than ever before. That reflects a league trend, and it's why Jeremy Lane (selected in the sixth round of the 2012 draft) has been so important in that sub-package role.
"Very important," Richard said. "He's another bookend guy. He's another guy who comes in that we absolutely count on to go out there and do things correctly. He's shown himself, time and time again, and even he as a rookie had to come in and replace Brandon Browner. He's started for this team. He has starting capabilities. He can play outside, can play inside, he's a heck of a special teams player. He's tenacious out there, and it's just awesome to watch. His character ... he just exudes ... you see it, and it's just awesome."
The Seahawks also have Tharold Simon, selected in the fifth round of the 2013 draft. Simon missed his first NFL season due to injury but came back for 2014 in a way that compelled Sherman to tell me in the preseason that Simon had the potential to be as good as Sherman is. Simon, however, did not look the part in Seattle's divisional round win over the Panthers -- he allowed 10 catches on 10 targets for 114 yards and two touchdowns. Rookie receiver Kelvin Benjamin ate his lunch, and it was an opportune time for Simon's position coach to provide a key coaching moment.
"Everyone has had a game like that," Richard said. "And if you haven't had a game like that, you haven't played cornerback in the NFL. Everything that happened to him on that day was fixable. That's the good part, and it all came down to technique. So, we sit him down and we show him -- these are the plays that happened to you, and this is the technique, and this is the reason why. You're not playing our technique here and there. He looks at it, and he can accept it, and he can move on from there. Now, he's better. So, pressing forward, Sherm is absolutely correct. This guy can be every bit as good. You're talking about another guy with phenomenal ball skills, and I see them similarly. The range and the length -- he'll have a couple of 'Ooh!' plays like that. Go get the ball, and poof -- it's gone."
That's what Richard has to say about his players. What do his colleagues and players say about him?
"Kris, we go way back to his playing days at USC, as well as here," Carroll told me on Sunday. "Kris has done an extraordinary job. He’s an excellent secondary coach. Everything you can look at to evaluate that jumps out at you, the way these guys have achieved, the camaraderie that they have, the high level of play that they’ve maintained for a long time, the stats and all that kind of stuff. Kris does a fantastic job. He’s a real product of our system. He’s obviously a guy that we raised up in the system, and we’re proud of the job that he does. He has gone beyond maybe what normal expectations for such a young career for him. We rely on him heavily. He’s done a fantastic job for us."
Sherman, as is his way, was even more definitive on the subject.
"It’s his attention to detail," he recently said, when asked what makes Richard a great coach. "And he does a great job managing, I guess, our personalities. We have a few different personalities, obviously, in that DB room and we have over the years. Kris does a great job understanding who everyone is and not coaching everyone the same, understanding how people react to different things differently. But his attention to detail and the preparation of game planning is meticulous. He goes over basically every scenario you can be put in in a game and he prepares us for that. You’re rarely ever surprised going into a ballgame by a formation or a play that they’re going to run.”
"Kris taught me a lot," Chancellor added. "That’s a guy who’s definitely a student of the game. He definitely strengthened my faith a lot. He’s always been in our favor, always been for us. He just has our best interest and put us in situations where we can capitalize on our strengths."
With Quinn most likely headed off to become the Falcons' new head coach no matter what happens in Super Bowl XLIX, Richard may have an opportunity to rise in the organization's ranks. If not this offseason, it will surely happen soon -- the NFL is a copycat league. Former Seattle defensive coordinator Gus Bradley already parlayed his success in the Emerald City into a head coaching position with the Jaguars, and Richard will become a hot name sooner than later. When you help to design what may be the best secondary of the modern era through creativity and shrewd personnel changes, that's what happens.
And as Richard moves up, he'll take the lessons from Carroll with him -- as a player, and as a coach. What's the most important thing he's learned from his football mentor?
"The necessary energy you have to bring each and every day," Richard said. "That's been the biggest lesson. That was something we saw and noticed, going back to USC. The first day you come out all fired up, and of course you are. Second day, 'Coach is all fired up.' But the third, fourth, fifth days -- [Carroll] is always fired up. So, it's that type of energy that's necessary for each and every day, and it's just the genuine nature of it all. It's genuine, and it's just that -- being real and being true.
"Telling the truth, and giving these guys the best of yourself."
It's the way Kris Richard has always done his job.
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