SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Richard Sherman sauntered into the 49ers locker room late Saturday, dapped an equipment guy and tugged on a blue suit. He had a message that he wanted to deliver, and he commenced delivering immediately—at his locker, at the podium, even as he wheeled his suitcase toward the exit at Levi’s Stadium. His message was centered on disrespect.
“They just never want to give me credit,” he said.
“They always want to make an excuse for why I’m great,” he said.
“People want to hate me,” he said. “They want to treat me like a villain.”
By “they,” Sherman meant the media, the public, the ever-vague critics he feels have never given him his due. Not after seven stellar seasons in Seattle; not now, even with the 49ers positioned as the top seed in the conference, after winning their first playoff game in six years against the Vikings, one home victory away from returning to the Super Bowl. And certainly not on Nov. 9, 2017, the day that changed everything for Sherman and two NFC West rivals.
On that night, Sherman’s family sat in the stands at the University of Phoenix Stadium, watching him take the same field where the Seahawks had lost on a last-minute interception in Super Bowl XLIX. His older brother, Branton, knew that Richard had been dealing with two sore Achilles’ tendons for the better part of a year-and-a-half. He iced both legs there every night. So when Branton saw Richard clutch his right leg after one play in the third quarter and watched him limp off the field, “I already knew,” Branton said.
His mother, Beverly, turned to her husband, Kevin. “I hate this stadium,” she said.
The injury ended both Sherman’s 2017 season and his decorated tenure in Seattle. The Seahawks would dismantle their famed Legion of Boom defense that next summer. Sherman would turn 29 that next March, and if didn’t have too many doubters then, they started to surface with more frequency.
Sherman attacked his injury rehab with the same cerebral approach he takes toward shutting down receivers. His brother says Sherman is one of those guys who can remember one of those long Wi-Fi passwords after seeing it only once, who studies tendencies like a defensive quarterback, who can hear a rap song twice and remember all the words. Most corners, his defensive coordinator Robert Saleh says, just want to cover, not think. Sherman grounds his success in an analytical bent. After assessing the requirement for his comeback, he changed some things as he worked back toward the field, like meeting with fellow DBs for the first time, working on his footwork.
His father checked in every morning as Richard started rehab. They did their workouts simultaneously, with Kevin calling before and after he hit the treadmill. Father and son put in so much time that Kevin says he gained an added side-benefit, losing 17 pounds. The layoff helped his son in even more ways, giving his body time to heal, allowing his mind time to rest, allotting for additional time to sort out his future.
“He needed to refresh himself,” Kevin says. “There was just a lot of stuff going on. That was his first major injury and he was cut from Seattle, pretty much.”
Sherman become a free agent that off-season. While on vacation in Las Vegas with his family, he told his father and brother that he would be leaving for the night and returning in the morning. He did not say where he was going until he came back. He had met with the 49ers, he told them.
“Wait, what?” his brother said. “Like the Niners, 49ers?”
San Francisco had just finished the season 6–10, and they had been dominated by their rival Seahawks. But the franchise had a new coach in Kyle Shanahan and a new general manager in John Lynch, and Sherman told his family he had hit it off with both men. Shanahan, he said, was “the greatest football mind I’ve ever sat in a room with.”
Sherman also chose to represent himself in negotiations. Twitter went bananas, and a consensus emerged: Sherman had lost his mind. Even his brother was wary. “Personally, I wasn’t a huge fan of it,” Branton says.
After the corner signed a three-year deal with San Francisco for over $27 million that was heavy on incentives and included only $9.05 million in guarantees, Branton says he told Richard: “Bro, you’re really not guaranteed much here. Anything can go wrong.” But Richard wasn’t hearing it. He told his brother all his reasons: he would be healthy again, for the first time in years; he would have a fresh start; he would reach all his incentives if he just did what he had always done. Richard ultimately told Branton, “I’m betting on myself.”
In his first practice as a 49er back in 2018, Sherman lined up across from Marquise Goodwin, a wideout so athletic that he made the 2012 Olympic team in the long jump. His brother filmed the next play on his phone, which captured Goodwin flying by Sherman, catching a long touchdown. “That’s when the narrative really began,” Branton says. “He’s washed. He’s not the same. He lost a step. So on and so forth.”
But as Doug Baldwin, Sherman’s former teammate at Stanford and with the Seahawks, watched his friend fight back into form, he saw the same guy, the same competitive nature, the same unflinching belief. “I knew,” Baldwin says, “this was his plan all along.”
Sherman played in 14 games in 2018, for a team depleted by injuries. He liked how they competed. He thought that they could win. This year, in training camp, he told his family the 49ers could be good, better than most expected, and that this team reminded him of those Seahawks in the building years. Branton went to the family’s barbershop and told everyone the 49ers would win 10 games. The room exploded in laughter and mockery, same as the posts on social media when Sherman chose to represent himself.
In 2019, Sherman returned to his dominant, All-Pro form. He picked off three passes. He scored a defensive touchdown. According to Pro Football Focus, quarterbacks could muster only a 46.8 passer rating when targeting him, third-best in the NFL. His play helped turn the 49ers into a fearsome defense, one that allowed the fewest yards per play in the NFL and one that surrendered just 157.9 passing yards per game at home. The 49ers didn’t win 10 games—they won 13, losing the other three on the final play.
“A lot of the pundits saying negative things, all that was really stupid,” Baldwin says. “Sherm is just different in how he operates. He was willing to prove it. That’s what motivates him. A lot of people talking s--- online don’t have the balls to do that.”
After all of it, after the injury and the rehab and the doubters silenced, Sherman showed up for another playoff game on Saturday and then showed out. He helped the 49ers limit the Vikings to 147 total yards and shut down one half of the field. In the third quarter, with San Francisco ahead 17-10, he recognized a Minnesota pass pattern while in man coverage, stepped in the line of a Kirk Cousins throw and nabbed a crucial interception. The 49ers would score another touchdown on the next drive, and the game would never again be in doubt. “I like that!” Sherman exclaimed as he swaggered to the sideline, mimicking Cousins’s famous quote. The pick marked Sherman’s 38 career interception, more than any other NFL player since 2011. “But I’m just a zone corner,” he said afterward, sarcastically.
Sherman’s not wrong. There aren’t many players who can stake their claim as the best cornerback in the NFL, suffer the kind of injury that he endured and come back to stake the same claim yet again. Adrian Peterson’s insanely quick comeback after the ACL tear comes to mind as one, but not many other examples, if any.
As his true comeback season draws to a close, more symmetry may be on the horizon. Should the Seahawks topple Green Bay on Sunday, they will play San Francisco next weekend, here, with a trip to another Super Bowl at stake. A Hollywood screenwriter could not pen a better, juicier script. “I hope the football Gods make it happen,” Branton says. “They’re going to smack Seattle.”
Late Saturday, when asked about the Seahawks, Sherman said he didn’t care who the 49ers played. He said he didn’t care if people found him overconfident. He said he didn’t care about his critics. Even if it seemed like he did care, because he continued on about the disrespect he believed he suffered, it didn’t matter. He’d proven “they” wrong and proven himself right.
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