Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A Different Take On Sherman & Browner

Sometime Sunday afternoon, Adam Schefter reported that Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner were facing four-game suspensions for violating the league's performance-enhancing drugs (PED) policy. The immediate response from many Seahawks fans and various media was anger at these players, and fear about what this would mean for the rest of the Seahawks season. Those two feelings persisted, and may have even amplified in the days that followed. I understood why people had those feelings, but I did not share them. I am neither assuming both of these players are guilty, nor do I believe the team will crash and burn should they be suspended.

Save The Judging For Judges
It is a fact that Sherman and Browner failed a league drug test. It is also a fact that the results are supposed to be confidential because there is an appeals process. The appeals process exists because the results are not always right, or there may be circumstances that effect the outcome. We, as Americans, have a bad habit of rushing to judge a person before all sides have been heard and the final judgment has been made. Ask Leroy Hill how that worked out for him this past April when it was reported that he was arrested for drug possession, only to later find out it was someone who had been staying in his apartment while Hill was traveling that was at fault. Hill was cleared of all wrongdoing, but that report very well may have cost him millions of dollars on the free agent market, and you can be sure some portion of the population does not remember that he was cleared. Hope Solo was all over the front page a few weeks back for marrying Jerramy Stevens after he was arrested for suspicion of domestic violence. The Seattle Times ran a 500 word story today, buried in their sports section, where Solo publicly states she was not abused, and would never stand for it. The percentage of people that read that story versus the ones that read the first reports will be infinitesimal. For most people in the country, and maybe even around the world, a fantastic Olympic athlete is  now known more for being a willingly abused wife, even if that does not appear to be the reality.

Sherman and Browner both are up for Pro Bowl spots. Sherman has been in the running for NFL Defensive Player of the Year. They have no prior history, as Hill did, that would indicate drug use is part of their make-up. Sherman has been one of the most fan-friendly athletes in recent Seattle history. He makes time for people at public training camps. He interacts with fans on Twitter. He attends local events, and makes himself available for media more than most guys are willing to do.Yet, he and Browner are already being labeled as cheaters. What's worse, Seahawks fans in large numbers are rushing to be among the first to denounce them. For what? To be morally correct? I don't see how one could argue the moral choice is to disparage someone without knowing anything more than scant media reports. I much prefer to stand behind these players. The worst-case scenario is that I supported people I believe in when many people didn't, and would be disappointed if they are proven to have made a mistake. I can live with that far easier than finding out I participated in the character assassination of two people I cheer for, only to find out they were wrongly accused. Let fans from other teams tear down our Seahawks prematurely. I stand with them.

Good People Make Mistakes
Now, as confusing as it may be given the argument above, let's dive into what it says about these two players if they are found guilty. A prevailing opinion is that taking a PED means a player is a cheater. Getting away with holding a player's jersey is also cheating, but is often celebrated as "savvy" on the field, so there is clearly some spectrum of what is considered allowable when it comes to getting an edge over the competition. The specific substance both players are accused of taking, Adderall, is not a banned substance in the NFL. In fact, players that have a prescription from a doctor can legally take the drug. Those players have the same substance in their body as these two young men are accused of taking. Are those players cheaters? You may say the prescription proves they need the drug, but think about how many people you know that now have a prescription to take marijuana in Washington. It is not difficult to get a prescription for a drug that is illegal in most states. How sure are you that the players who are legally taking Adderall have a legitimate need for it?

Now that marijuana is legal here, employers are facing the dilemma about how to handle employees who are banned from taking a drug by their corporate policies that is deemed legal in this state. Are you a criminal for taking a legalized drug? People like life to be black and white. It is not.

Push it all the way to the limit for a moment. Assume that Sherman and Browner intentionally took a PED, and hoped to get away with it. Does that make them bad people? I have never met a person that did not make a mistake, and most have made some big ones that they really regret. The people that are arrogant enough to repeat those mistakes are the ones that lose my sympathy. Many of us drank alcohol before we were 21. Many smoked pot before it was legal. Nearly everyone breaks the speed limit, and often every day. There are laws and rules throughout our lives that we all challenge. It does not make us evil. It makes us human.

Some have said that taking PEDs intentionally is selfish, jeopardizes the teams a playoff chances, and the players should know that they disappointed the fans and city if that happens. All that is true and fair, again, if they are found guilty. No player should be excused for taking a PED. It should not be swept under the rug. I will be disappointed in these guys if the accusations turn out to be true. I will still support them, and cheer for them, and defend them against people will want to label them as cheaters and bad people. I was 24 once, and I am glad people have forgiven me for mistakes I made then. Now, if players were to repeat a mistake like this, they should be asked to find another team to play for.

Impact To The Defense
Should Seattle lose Sherman or Browner for suspension, injuries or otherwise, the impact may not be as great as many are predicting. First of all, the biggest problem on Seattle's defense right now is defending the run, which Sherman and Browner have little to do with. The team could have both players, and still not make the playoffs if the defense does not cure the problem there. The other major issue is lack of pass pressure and takeaways. The corners can play a role there by helping to create coverage sacks, but it has not translated that way so far. Both players are good at taking the ball from opponents, but teams are increasingly staying away from the outside of Seattle's defense to reduce their impact on the game. It is hard to take the ball away when you are not being targeted.

That brings us to the players that would potentially fill-in for the starters. The list includes: Walter Thurmond III, Byron Maxwell, Jeremy Lane, and Marcus Trufant. There are others that might find a place like DeShawn Snead off the practice squad, but let's stick with those four to start with. Thurmond exited training camp last season ahead of Sherman on the depth chart. He was the starting nickel back, and first in line to fill in for Trufant on the outside. He is possibly the most talented corner on this team. Yes, I said that. He is big enough to press, but agile enough to get in and out of breaks with the quickest of receivers. His coverage in the two games before his injury last season was fantastic. Only the coaches know whether he is back to form after his injuries, but even Carroll said on Monday that Thurmond was a "starting-caliber outside corner."  They like Thurmond in the nickel, but I would not be surprised to see him go outside.

Trufant has not done well in the nickel most of the year. It is possible that he would be better on the outside, while sliding someone else inside. That is the one I feel least confident about. Assume he stays put for the moment. That means you have the same slot corner you have had all year. Not great, but not a drop-off.

Maxwell is the guy most people know least about. He was drafted last year just like Sherman. He is a blend of Browner and Sherman, a big physical player like Browner who has some of the agility that Sherman brings. He started off slow in camp last year, but came on strong as it wrapped up, and was challenging for snaps when he got injured. Injuries have held him back, his skills have not. Maxwell showed the same tendencies as Browner and Sherman did when it came to physical play that would lead to penalties. He does not have their reputation in the league as elite corners, so I would expect him to draw flags at the rate those two did last season. At the same time, I'd expect him to blow a lot of guys up at the line of scrimmage, and be a better-than-average corner for this team. Some have accused me of rose-colored glasses, but I picked out Sherman and Browner from day one of camp last year, and feel comfortable in saying Maxwell would not be a disaster out there, and could even be a playmaker. He is a guy that would likely play on the outside.

Lane was rough in camp. He has tons of physical skill, but had a lot of trouble staying with receivers. Guys like Charly Martin that could come in and out of their breaks quickly gave Lane fits. He is a fierce competitor, and plays with a Sherman-like chip on his shoulder. He has been a fantastic special teams gunner in the last few games, as Sherman was last year before ascending to a starter. It is possible that he has made strides as a corner since the season started, and could help. I'd expect him to be the dime back.

Where Sherman and Browner really come into play is against the top-tier teams, especially the ones that rely on the pass with outside receivers. Atlanta is a good example. Playing the Falcons with those corners would be a completely different game than playing them without. It is not as clear that losing the pair would lead to certain doom.

Losing them would alter the defense, but that may not always be a bad thing. Gus Bradley could decide to get more aggressive with blitzes to help his coverage units. The team could discover they play better that way. There might be more turnovers, more sacks. I honestly can't say whether that is more likely than a big drop in play, but that's the point.

It is also important to point out the role that corners play in Carroll's defense. Scott Enyeart pointed out to me a couple of years ago that safeties play a far more integral role than corners. You have heard the names Troy Polamalu and Taylor Mays. Name a USC cornerback that played under Carroll. He does not ask a ton from that position. It is not a coincidence that Seattle has not drafted a corner before the fourth-round in Carroll's three years here. It is also debatable whether a player like Browner would be as valued by other teams that run a different defense. Of course, hitting big with highly talented corners is not a bad thing for Carroll, and he has taken advantage of what Sherman and Browner allow him to do. Fans should just keep in mind that Carroll has never needed top-flight talent at corner to field a great defense. 

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