"A lion doesn't concern himself with the opinions of a sheep." - Richard Sherman
RENTON, Wash. -- I am not here to praise or to bury Richard Sherman, but to hopefully explain him. And in explaining him, to perhaps explain a Seattle Seahawks team I've covered since Pete Carroll was hired as the team's head coach in February 2010.
When I first met Sherman, he was a backup cornerback trying to find his way onto a rebuilt defense as a fifth-round draft pick in 2011. He was not particularly talkative, but what was obvious was that Sherman wanted this very, very badly. In his first minicamps, Sherman stuck to his receivers like glue and made several impact hits -- he was not expected to make much of a fuss, but he did so early on, and he became the NFL's best cover cornerback in a fairly short time. In 2013, according to Pro Football Focus' game-charting metrics, Sherman was targeted 58 times on 549 defensive snaps, a league-low, among qualifying cornerbacks, 10.56 percent. And he still led the NFL with eight interceptions.
Sherman made the deciding play in Seattle's 23-17 win over the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC championship, when he tipped a Colin Kaepernick pass intended for Michael Crabtree in the end zone with 30 seconds left in the game. Linebacker Malcolm Smith came down with the tip-drill pick, but Sherman had set it up. It was a triumph for the NFL's best defense, and a moment of joy for a roster so young -- not one player on Seattle's roster has any Super Bowl experience.
And then, all sorts of hell broke loose. In a postgame interview with FOX Sports' Erin Andrews, Sherman went off on Crabtree, insisting that "I'M THE BEST CORNER IN THE GAME! WHEN YOU TRY ME WITH A SORRY RECEIVER LIKE CRABTREE, THAT'S WHAT YOU'RE GONNA GET! DON'T YOU EVER TALK ABOUT ME! DON'T YOU OPEN YOUR MOUTH ABOUT THE BEST! OR I'M GONNA SHUT IT FOR YOU REAL QUICK!!! LOB!!!"
(That's "Legion of Boom," the nickname for Seattle's secondary, for the uninitiated.)
Reaction was swift, of course, Sherman's postgame meltdown became a referendum on everything from sportsmanship to race relations in America to "Eww, icky! Those football thugs are disgusting!" At his postgame press conference, Sherman referred to Crabtree more than once as "mediocre," even slowing the pronunciation down in case any of us in the room didn't catch it.
Later, in a one-on-one with Steve Wyche of the NFL Network, Sherman was more composed and introspective as the next step of his season washed over him.
"It's such a blessing," Sherman said after all the furor died down. "It's such an unbelievable opportunity for a bunch of nobodies. A bunch of guys who ... fifth-rounders, sixth-rounders, undrafted. Guys who have come together like a family and played for one another. It's a fairytale story that you really couldn't write any better."
On Monday, Sherman sent a text to ESPN's Ed Werder saying that "I apologize for attacking an individual and taking the attention away from the fantastic game by my teammates ...That was not my intent.''
In the end, I think it's the unwanted angle that drives Sherman the hardest, and sometimes against his better judgment. Yes, he has a beef with Crabtree that goes back a ways, but what happened last Sunday was less cause than effect. Sherman always has in mind the names of the 23 cornerbacks taken before him in the 2011 draft. Those 23 names -- a list that includes world-beaters such as Ras-I Dowling and Chimdi Chekwa -- are lashes on Sherman's soul. They make up a demon that screams to him how fragile this all is and how quickly it can all be taken away.
So, in the biggest moment of his short adult life, Sherman acted like a child. Perhaps there was no other way for him to act at that time.
For the record, Sherman wasn't the only Seahawks player looking to settle scores after the win. Receiver Doug Baldwin, a teammate of Sherman's at Stanford who went undrafted in 2011, put up 215 total yards against the 49ers, but he didn't want to talk about that. The man called "Angry Doug" by his own teammates, the man who walks through life with a "boulder on my shoulder" in his own words, had heard ESPN's analysts call Seattle's receiver corps "pedestrian" and "appetizers," and that was his focus after the game.
"It irritates the hell out of me when you have guys that constantly want to talk about our receiving corps about how we're average, we're pedestrian," he said.
"Well, we're going to walk our asses to the Super Bowl as pedestrians."
Quarterback Russell Wilson was more graceful, but no less resolute about his motivation -- he remembers full well the "too-short" designation that dropped him to the 75th overall pick in the 2012 draft.
"To be honest with you, the thing that I thought about the last snap was ... man, I could have been playing baseball right now," said the former infielder who was taken by the Colorado Rockies in the most recent MLB Rule 5 Draft. "The other thing I thought about is just all the people that told me I couldn't do it and told me that I couldn't get there. It's one of those things that you just believe in yourself, you believe in what God has given you."
Carroll is the sheriff in charge of herding all these angry cats, and when I asked him Monday about his team's psychological makeup, he said there's definitely something to the idea that you can get outsized results from outsized personalities -- if you know how to manage the inherent risk involved.
"It's the competitiveness this team has, and I think we've really chosen guys who feel that they have something to prove," he told me. "[General Manager] John [Schneider] feels like that, I feel like that, and we all feel like that. It's a chip on the shoulder kind of mentality around here, and it's something I recognized the second year. We had a bunch of guys who kind of understood what that meant, and we've just kind of built on that. I think we're a very, very competitive group -- we understand the value of that and where we want to go. It's a powerful feeling we have."
But what happens when that "powerful feeling" gets out of hand? Carroll always talks about protecting the team, but from the various PED incidents to the ancillary public outbursts, it seems that the herding doesn't always go so well.
"Richard had a chance to ... he got his thoughts out today a couple different times about what he felt about it [the postgame outburst]. We did talk about it, and he was really clear that the last thing he wanted to do was to take something away from our team and what we had accomplished. He got caught in the throes of the fight, right off the bat, and there's a little bit of leeway there. Particularly for the guys who play on such an edge emotionally, like Richard does. This is a very emotional kid, and this is what drives him. And I understand that. We did sit down and talk about it, because I wanted him to present himself in his best light. He's an incredible kid -- he's got a great sense about things, an understanding and sensitivity. He cares, and he's a very thoughtful person. So when he puts out those kinds of thoughts, he has to know what he's saying, and I think he's very understanding at this point. He caused a stir that took something away from the team."
When Carroll took this team over, there was a serious dearth of long-term talent. He and Schneider made more than 300 player transactions in their first year, and only four players from the pre-Carroll era remain on the Super Bowl team. If you want to find this level of success in a short time, you have to think outside the box. Hell, you may have to build a new box from scratch. And that's what the team's braintrust did -- understanding implicitly that they would be able to find bargains in players discarded or unwanted by other teams because their square-peg personalities just didn't fit.
"I think I'm competitive," he said of this alleged "Moneyball" approach. "I don't know if it's open-minded. I want to help our team be great and play great football and do this game the way we're supposed to do it. I don't want to miss out on somebody because they're not like me. I'm OK with that. I'm just trying to figure out where they fit in -- if they can help us, they can help us. I look at it more competitively than open-minded."
Carroll talks about his players as sons. He identifies with their knuckle-scraping desire to get to the top, because he shares it. Carroll is not too far removed from his own failures with the New York Jets and New England Patriots in the 1990s, or the scandals that ended his hyper-successful decade at USC, and that gives him an edge when it comes to finding players who, as Ray Lewis so eloquently put it, are pissed-off for greatness.
"Our approach is to help our guys be the best they can possibly be. That's our overriding philosophy -- to figure out how we can help our guys perform at their very best. With that thought in mind, some guys have personalities that would fit in some places, and they might not fit in others. In our situation, we're pretty open to being flexible to the uniqueness guys bring to our program. Not just physically, but also in their makeup. So, maybe that's why you're asking -- I've got no problem with guys who have personalities, who are outgoing. I don't have any problem with guys who are quiet.
"What is the end result of what they bring? We're going to figure out how to communicate with them, to try to help them grow and be their full, complete selves. There's a lot to that. We care, and that makes a big difference to us. Our guys know that. When they say that we let them be themselves ... I told them this weekend. We don't let them be themselves; we celebrate them being themselves. And we cheerlead for them to be themselves. And we try to bring out the very best they have to offer. Sometimes, we go overboard. Sometimes, the individuals get out of bounds -- and then you've got to step back and get back in bounds. I understand that, but that's how we operate."
The hidden factor, of course, is what happens when a coach gets in a room with a prospect and has to determine whether that chip on the shoulder is a positive or a negative. Carroll has had enough time to think about it, and has made enough moves to refine his vetting process.
“It’s about grit to me, it’s really grit. That’s what we’re looking for in guys, and that’s that competitiveness, that mentality of 'There’s no obstacle too big.' They never give in to the thought that they can’t win. Tremendous resiliency, have to be successful, that makeup that drives them, that’s really what we’re looking for. I use the 'chip' word because the guys that have a chip on their shoulder are made up that way. I think grit is a better word. I’ve come to believe that grit is the key factor in deciding success and overcoming shortcomings and abilities and stuff like that. The guys that have the grit, they’re the ones that you’re looking for.”
True grit? It's a solid enough headline. Behind the scenes, the Seahawks are an open wound, looking to inflict pain on all those who have overlooked them. And now, they have a Super Bowl in sight where all family business can be settled. For better or worse, Pete Carroll would have it no other way.