Seahawks CB Sherman Always Doubted, Never Deterred

Defensive backs take part of their traditional pregame huddle before taking the field for warmups.
It was a Pop Warner practice. Richard Sherman was a 9-year-old running back who shied away from contact, and he had just received more contact than he asked for during a tackling drill. It was the second time he’d been told to try and run through this bigger player, and the outcome was not getting any less painful. He picked himself off the ground and took account of all his limbs to make sure they were still working when something odd happened.

“I felt all my weight leave me,” Sherman said. “And I was like, ‘Why am I flying?'”

Sherman was not flying…for long. His father–and coach–Kevin, was so livid that his son was not running tough enough that he had picked him off the ground and slammed him down.

“It felt worse than getting hit.” Sherman said. “And he was like, ‘Do it again,’ so after that, I ran right through the dude’s face and never [avoided contact] again on that football field.”

A.J. Green and Danario Alexander got a first-hand look at Sherman’s fiery demeanor and physical play during a stellar rookie season for the Seahawks cornerback. It began with a role on special teams and nearly ended with a spot in the Pro Bowl. Football is a team game, but it would be hard to argue Sherman’s impact on opponents passing games last year. Seattle yielded a cumulative 91.4 passer rating in the five games before he became a starter. That number dropped to 65.9 in the eleven games that followed. Sports Illustrated writer Peter King called Sherman the best rookie corner in the NFL. Don’t expect Sherman to spend any time reading that. He needs more fuel to keep that fire burning.

“Football is a game of pride,” Sherman said. “There’s a lot of things that challenge your pride. I carry a lot of the things I read off the field, onto the field. I read everything. The good stuff, I try to stay away from, but I read every knock on me. I still remember stuff from before the draft when people were saying I couldn’t do this or that. I just couldn’t wait to get on the field and prove everybody wrong. I’m trying to get all those people fired.”

Sherman’s past is littered with examples of people selling him short. Those Pop Warner years? Sherman turned in a couple great seasons, but failed to be selected for the all-star game. He was not a five star recruit while playing at Dominguez High School in Compton, CA. despite averaging 31.5 yards per reception as a senior. Only a select few people saw greatness in Sherman. He gives credit to his Dominguez track coach, Darryl Smith and football coaches Willie and Keith Donnerson for seeing more in him than he knew was there.

“I was kind of lanky and uncoordinated [as a freshmen],” Sherman said. “I didn’t think I was going to win anything. [Coach Smith] just believed in me every year, and by the time I was a junior, I was an All-American in track.”

There were no college recruiters coming around before Sherman had that success as a junior. He was considering University of Washington, USC and Stanford at the end. Tyrone Willingham’s offer came late, and by then, he had made up his mind that he wanted to set an example for his home town by going to Stanford. Academics had always been a focal point in the Sherman household, where a “B” on a report card was treated like an “F.” Walt Harris was the Stanford coach at the time Sherman signed on, but Jim Harbaugh took over by his sophomore year.

It was a great marriage at the beginning. Harbaugh stack-ranked all the players he had on the roster in terms of value, and put Sherman at the top of that list.

“When he first came in, he was great,” Sherman said. “He’s such a [hardass] when you’re not on his good side, but it’s great when you are.”

Sherman would see both sides of Harbaugh before his Stanford career would wrap up. After a promising freshmen season, he was enjoying a breakout sophomore year and Harbaugh took notice.

“[Coach Harbaugh] came up to me at one point and told me, ‘Hey, you’re on pace to have an incredible season,'” Sherman said.

The passes stopped coming Sherman’s way after that conversation. He caught a combined six passes in the last three games of the season, including three in the final two games that went for a total of 16 yards. This, for a receiver who averaged 16.7 yards per catch that season. It could have been a coincidence, or it may have been Harbaugh’s way of keeping Sherman’s feet on the ground heading into his junior year.

Everything changed as a junior. Sherman tore his patella tendon during camp. He wanted to get surgery, but the team’s receiving corps was inexperienced behind him, with only sophomores Doug Baldwin and Ryan Whalen there to pick up the slack. He talked with the coaches and decided to play through the injury for a while, which ended up being four games, before having the surgery and missing the rest of the season. Four games was the maximum he could play while still preserving his medical redshirt eligibility.

Harbaugh had publicly said that Sherman’s MRI did not show a tear. He was less than thrilled with Sherman’s decision to go through with the surgery, and when camp re-opened the following year, he had Sherman at the bottom of the receivers depth chart, even below the walk-ons. Some people would have thought about transferring when faced with that type of environment, but not Sherman.

“You can’t transfer from Stanford,” Sherman said. “That would have killed everything I came for. It’s one of the hardest schools to get into, and I came to get my degree from Stanford. I wasn’t going to let anyone change the course of my life like that.”

Locked in the doghouse, Sherman decided to bust out the back door. He told Harbaugh he wanted to switch to defense, and would be willing to start at the bottom of the depth chart because he knew he’d become a starter. It didn’t hurt that Harbaugh spent almost no time with the defense, and had little to say about who played on that side of the ball. Harbaugh would later admit to doubting the move would succeed. It takes a special kind of arrogance to not only punish a player for an injury, but then willingly let one of your best players move to a position where you do not believe he will succeed.

Sherman was no stranger to being underestimated, and quickly moved up the depth chart once Harbaugh was not standing in his way. He started every game, and turned in a standout senior season with four interceptions and 13 passes defensed. NFL scouts had trouble imagining a 6’3″ corner succeeding at the next level, which allowed him to slide all the way to the fifth round. Thirty-three cornerbacks were selected before Sherman went off the board with the 154th pick to the Seahawks. Players like Buster Skrine and Chris Prosinski had their names called before him. A certain new coach in San Francisco used a pick nearly 80 spots earlier to take CB Chris Culliver.

It was just more fuel for the fire that drives Sherman. He did not play a full game as a starter for Seattle until the seventh game of the season. That did not keep him from ending the season in the Top 12 in interceptions (4) and passes defensed (17). He paired with Brandon Browner (6’4″) to form the tallest cornerback tandem in the NFL. Browner made the Pro Bowl, along with safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor. It is not hard to imagine how Sherman feels about being left off the roster.

He has big expectations for the coming year. The level of competition will leave little doubt where Sherman fits in the NFL cornerback rankings. Receivers like Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, Steve Smith and Greg Jennings will be waiting. Sherman will be ready.

“I prepare for every receiver the same way,” Sherman explained. “All receivers have tendencies. It’s not their fault that they have them. It’s their offense, or their quarterback, or the formations that reveal those tendencies. The receiver can run the greatest route in the world, but I don’t care about the route because I’m not guarding the route. I’m guarding the offense.”

It is hard to believe a player would prepare for Steve Smith and Larry Fitzgerald in the same way.

“If you start preparing for the receiver, you start getting beat by the receiver, ” Sherman said. “Receivers aren’t calling the plays or choosing when to get the ball. They are running mostly [isolation] routes in the NFL. There aren’t many option routes where they can run whatever they want.”

Playing receiver has helped Sherman anticipate offensive play calls better and understand the route tree his opponent will be running. He relishes the moments when the offense needs to run a quick pattern. It could be a 3rd and 4, or a two minute drill. Those are the times when preparation and anticipation can allow a corner to jump a route and take it the other way.

Sherman is looking forward to more situations like that this season with the addition of players like Bruce Irvin and Bobby Wagner. He mentioned those as two players that have stood out to him during early organized team activities (OTAs).

“Bruce is going to force the opposing quarterbacks to get the ball out quicker,” Sherman said. “And Wags already has a few picks of his own.”

Seahawks fans are chomping at the bit to see this defense back on the field. National media and other teams continue to overlook or downright ignore what is happening in Seattle. Pete Carroll and John Schneider drafted Sherman last year with the hope that he could grow into a starting corner with strong press coverage skills. What they may not have known is that they added a guy that represents the Northwest sports fan perfectly. Respect has never been handed to Richard Sherman. He has had to earn it every step of the way. Where some may see arrogance, those that really know him see confidence bred from a lifetime of proving doubters wrong. He has come to expect those doubts, to even seek them out. He no longer needs his dad, or anyone else, to knock the motivation into him. Sherman has reached motivation fission, and NFL opponents would be wise to seek shelter.