“We’re on the 1-yard line here!” 49ers GM John Lynch said late Saturday afternoon to the free-agent corner he was recruiting, Richard Sherman. “We can do this! We can put this in the end zone!”
Sherman smiled. “I’ve been at the 1-yard line before,” he said, “and it didn’t go so well.”
Lynch said: “I promise you, we won’t throw it this time.”
This was not your typical negotiation. Here, in the inner sanctum of the team Sherman kept out of the Super Bowl four years ago, the most hated rival in recent San Francisco history spent four hours on Saturday afternoon negotiating his own contract with no agent. Imagine David Ortiz negotiating with Brian Cashman. For four hours, the football version of that scenario happened in Santa Clara, Calif. Lynch and veteran Niners cap man Paraag Marathe on one side, Sherman and his fiancée, Ashley, on the other side.
And the specter of Super Bowl 49 reared its head. Lynch didn’t realize he was conjuring up a bad memory for Sherman—the three-year-old memory of the Seahawks passing on second-and-goal from the one instead of running Marshawn Lynch, down four points to New England in the final minute of the Super Bowl. The Russell Wilson pass, of course, was intercepted by New England’s Malcolm Butler at the goal line, and instead of being a two-time Super Bowl winner, the Seahawks suffered the bitterest last-second loss in Super Bowl history.
Now Sherman could smile about it. And very late in the talks, Sherman said for the second time that he wanted to sleep on the offer. He wanted to think. This was too big a deal to rush, and there were the Lions and the Raiders and, yes, the Seahawks he had to consider and get back to before making the deal.
“We are right there,” John Lynch said, having structured the three-year deal that Marathe called “one of the most complicated contracts on our team,” with much of it massaged by Sherman. “Let’s do it!”
Sherman, of course, hadn’t represented himself like this before, but he did know one thing: If the deal didn’t get done right now, and if he walked out and took a couple more free-agent trips, the Niners might not be there for him in a few days. “I would assume if I leave, some of the things in this deal would get walked back,” he said to Lynch. Could be, he was told.
So much at stake. Twenty-eight hours earlier, he’d been released by Seattle. Richard Sherman needed time to think.
You know the ending now. Sherman got the heavily incentivized deal, both sides recognizing that cornerbacks about to turn 30 and coming off Achilles surgery are no sure things. But let’s start at the beginning, when Sherman’s name appeared on the NFL waiver wire on Friday at 1:05 p.m. Pacific Time. In fact, let’s start a few days before.
“We did have a trade in place with Denver for a veteran cornerback,” Lynch told me late Sunday afternoon. “Aqib Talib. I think he didn’t like the idea of being traded—he wanted to be released. I think he felt, ‘If I’m going anywhere, I want to play for [Patriots coach] Bill Belichick or [Rams defensive coordinator] Wade Phillips.’ I talked to the Broncos at the scouting combine in Indy about it, and I thought we had a deal. Richard [Sherman] wasn’t available then. But we might have had to fight to make the trade for Aqib, so we just dropped it.”
Then, on Friday afternoon, Sherman got dumped by Seattle, which wanted to save $11 million on its tight salary cap. Lynch said it was like the Niners had Sherman on speed dial. They were the first to contact him. Sherman was in Las Vegas, at the annual NFLPA meetings, and the Niners wanted him to fly to San Jose on Friday afternoon to meet coach Kyle Shanahan for dinner at team hangout Nick’s Next Door in Los Gatos, Calif. Sherman said yes. Shanahan and his wife, and Sherman and his fiancée, met for a dinner that lasted four hours.
Lynch was at a charity function in San Diego on Friday night and went to sleep afterward. He missed an 11:43 p.m. call from Shanahan. When they spoke on Saturday at 7 a.m., Shanahan told him the dinner went well and he supported the idea of signing Sherman. Lynch and Marathe prepared to meet with Sherman and had to figure out the smartest way to structure a contract. Sherman on Saturday morning got some medical tests, including a scan on his healing Achilles. The meeting in Lynch’s office started after noon.
“Richard came into the meeting with us having read all the contracts for all the top cornerbacks past and present,” Marathe said. This was only the second time in 16 years as negotiator that Marathe faced off against a player advocating for himself. Defensive end Justin Smith was the first, in a late-career deal that took “two minutes,” Marathe said. Sherman, he said, “studied our contracts and knew who we’d given real guaranteed money to. He brought up an old Nnamdi Asomugha contract with massive acceleration in it. He’d done his research. Very impressive.”
Said Sherman: “I spent maybe 10, 12 hours reading all these contracts and studying the contract language. If I was going to represent myself, I was going to do the research.”
Normally, when teams talk to agents during negotiations, some negatives about players come up. Now there was no buffer. Lynch and Marathe had to make Sherman realize that with his age and recent surgery, he would be subject to significant clauses protecting the team. Sherman didn’t get ticked off, Lynch said. Sherman understood. “Sometimes contract offers sting the player,” Lynch said. “We said to him, ‘There are some realities here where you’re going to have to give.’ And he got it.”
Occasionally, Sherman stepped out to talk to other teams. Occasionally, Lynch and Marathe stepped out to massage their offer and clauses. Sherman got the Niners to budge on a few things. “This is how much Richard studied this,” Marathe said. “We had a clause in a bunch of our contracts saying players got an incentive for making the Pro Bowl, even if they were medically excused from playing in the Pro Bowl. Richard said, ‘What if I’m voted to the Pro Bowl and I can’t go because we’re in the Super Bowl?’ We thought, He’s right. Great observation. We changed the wording.”
Late in the process, when Sherman and the Niners agreed on most of the incentives in the deal, he got back to the three most interested teams. Seattle, interestingly enough, wanted the first right of refusal on any offer, and so Sherman called Seahawks GM John Schneider. Sherman said Schneider told him, “Incentives [are] a little rich for me.” Sherman called Oakland GM Reggie McKenzie, who said he wasn’t going to have the cap money to compete for him. And Sherman called Detroit coach Matt Patricia and GM Bob Quinn; incentive package too rich for Detroit’s blood.
So if Sherman wanted a deal today, and if he wanted a sure thing, he’d have to go with the 49ers. With the other contenders falling by the wayside, and with one final concession by the Niners, Sherman’s decision was made for him. He shook hands with Lynch, hugged him, and the deal was done.
Now, this isn’t the contract of Sherman’s dreams. As Mike Florio reported on Sunday, the deal includes $5 million before training camp in the form of a $3 million signing bonus and a $2 million roster bonus on the first day of camp. His base salary in 2018 is $2 million. He will have to be Sherman the All-Pro corner for three years to make what the contract originally was reported to be worth—$39 million. And turning 30 this year, coming off the Achilles injury, that’s highly unlikely, obviously. Could an agent have done better? Possibly. But all teams are looking at Richard Sherman, damaged goods, not Richard Sherman, sure All-Pro.
So Sherman is getting knocked for not getting a good-enough deal. That view may have some merit. But if he plays 90 percent of the snaps for San Francisco in 2018 and makes the Pro Bowl, he makes the same $11 million he was scheduled to make in Seattle this year … and his salary of $8 million for 2019 would be guaranteed if he’s on the roster on April 1, 2019.
That’s a complicated way of saying Sherman can be an $11- or $12-million-a-year player, but he’s going to have to play like the Richard Sherman of 2013 to get it.
Sherman came out firing on the players-shouldn’t-rep-themselves charge.
“I don’t think any agent in the business could have done a better job of negotiating this contract,” Sherman told me by phone on Sunday night. “As long as I’m content with what I’m making, nothing else matters to me.
“Once I make a Pro Bowl, $8 million the next year is guaranteed for me. It gives me the ability to control my destiny. The 49ers have skin in the game. I have skin in the game. In my former contract, no matter what I did this year, nothing would be guaranteed to me next year. I couldn’t feel secure in my contract. Now, if I play the way I know I’m capable of playing, I know I’m going to get paid.”
Now about the Seahawks’ part of things. While Seattle reconstructs its franchise, its heart-and-soul guy—its Ortiz, its LeBron—flies south. Lots of familiar things in the Bay Area for Sherman. That’s where he went to college, at Stanford. He fancies himself a Renaissance man full of interests outside of sports, and so the imagination of Silicon Valley interests him. He’s a California guy. But there’s something else about playing for the Niners.
“We had something no other team could offer,” Lynch said.
“The ability to play Seattle twice a year,” Lynch said.
When that was relayed to Sherman, he paused for a second.
Sherman said: “I’m vengeful in that way.”
That’s what it sounded like. But I wanted to make sure. I asked him to repeat that.
“Vengeful,” Sherman said. “I love the fan base to death, and I loved playing there. It was such a great opportunity. I helped the organization get to a great place and stay there. But now it’s like I abandoned them. People are out there burning my jersey. Come on. I’m not the one who let me go. They let me go. I didn’t abandon anybody.”
The story has only just begun. The man who personified the Seahawks and who hated everything about the Niners, and whose tipped pass in the end zone resulted in the turnover that sent Seattle—not the 49ers—to Super Bowl 48, will have so much more to say. More than any defensive back since Deion Sanders, Sherman will make America listen.
Seattle Is Changing
I was in Seattle over the weekend, and someone at my hotel asked: “Are the Seahawks done? Or is there more to come?” More? I asked. “Purging,” the guy said.
There very well could be. But let me start by quoting Pete Carroll. “The central theme in this program is competition,” he said to the media on the Wednesday before Super Bowl 49. “It’s not about the opponent. We compete against each other. There will be a lot of one-on-ones, offense against defense, right off the bat, to get the tempo and the speed and the feel we want. It’s about make it a great practice day, and we compete against each other as hard as we can. We keep score. Somebody’s gonna win, somebody’s gonna lose today.”
I always wondered this: Carroll and GM John Schneider emphasize nothing but competition, almost daily. But at that time, the days Carroll spoke, he had 14 starters who, honestly, could have been relative no-shows at a given practice and they wouldn’t have lost their jobs. So what were the consequences for Marshawn Lynch or Kam Chancellor or Richard Sherman if, say, they dogged it and didn’t have a good practice on Wednesday? Nothing.
Now, I think, that changes. I think the Seahawks have a couple of nucleus players on both sides of the ball. Russell Wilson and Doug Baldwin on offense. Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright on defense—and Earl Thomas, if he stays. That’s a big “if.” There are several “ifs.” Because the Seahawks don’t know if a team out there is going to come hard after safety Earl Thomas, who probably can be had in this post-Legion of Boom era for Seattle, but only for a significant package. It seems likely that pass-rusher Cliff Avril will retire because of a neck injury, and strong safety Kam Chancellor’s future is uncertain too, for the same reasons. So I don’t think the transition from this generational defense is necessarily done with the Richard Sherman defection to San Francisco.