In Seattle, a Seahawks Defense That Flowed Together Drifts Apart

In Seattle, a Seahawks Defense That Flowed Together Drifts Apart

Advertisement

It was one of the most important plays for one of the greatest defenses in N.F.L. history, but it has been all but forgotten because of what happened afterward.

Clinging to a 23-17 lead over the 49ers in the final minute of the N.F.C. championship game in January 2014, the Seattle Seahawks were sweating as Colin Kaepernick drove San Francisco to Seattle’s 18-yard line. On first-and-10, Kaepernick, the dynamic young quarterback, went for the win with a pass to Michael Crabtree in the right corner of the end zone. The pass was true, the sure-handed receiver was in position, and the 49ers seemed to be stealing a trip to New York for Super Bowl XLVIII.

Unfortunately for the 49ers, Richard Sherman, the shutdown cornerback for the Seahawks, had run step for step with Crabtree. Sherman turned first and leapt into the air. At full extension, his left hand batted the ball away from Crabtree and into the hands of Malcolm Smith for an interception that clinched the Seahawks’ trip to the Super Bowl, where Seattle romped past Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos.

An emotional argument between Sherman and Crabtree immediately after the play was not particularly noteworthy, but when Erin Andrews, Fox’s sideline reporter, approached Sherman for an on-field interview just after the final whistle, casual fans around the world were shocked at what unfolded.

Andrews asked Sherman to take her through the final play, and Sherman, still worked up from the argument with Crabtree, exploded. He shouted: “Well, I’m the best corner in the game. When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that’s the result you’re going to get.”

The incident, for people unfamiliar with Sherman’s back story as a star student-athlete at Stanford, turned one of the game’s smartest players into the symbol of what was wrong with the N.F.L. Andrews’s befuddled reaction certainly did not help as she tried to rescue an interview that had gone off the rails.

After his controversial interview with Erin Andrews after the N.F.C. championship game of the 2013 season, Sherman found himself drawing attention from the news media for the wrong reasons.CreditChang W. Lee/The New York Times

Four years later, Sherman appears to be in his final days on the Seahawks’ roster, and the team’s famed Legion of Boom defense appears to be fading into something far less spectacular. With Seattle’s secondary hampered by injuries recently, and with the often-dominant lineman Michael Bennett headed to Philadelphia in a trade, this week has the distinct feeling of a page turning on one of the sport’s great defensive units.

But even through those years of on-field dominance, it is telling that Sherman’s interview with Andrews, for some, largely shaped a perception of the player that undersold his influence both on and off the field — and that ignored the historical significance of the team’s defense.

“They misunderstand his passion for the game,” said Kam Chancellor, the team’s hard-hitting safety, in the week leading up to Seattle’s victory over Denver. “He made a great play at the end of the game and he had a microphone in his face. Anything could come out right then.”

For his part, Sherman, a communications major at Stanford, did not appear to be ready to apologize for anything he said — he was fired up, but he did not swear or physically threaten anyone during the interview. In the aftermath, however, he did seem disappointed that there was not enough focus on just how spectacular and meaningful the play had been.

“I think in some people’s eyes, the comments overshadow the play because that’s what they were focusing on,” Sherman said, “but some people actually focused on the game, and they noticed the play and understood what kind of play it was.”

If Earl Thomas was the quiet leader of the Legion of the Boom secondary, and Chancellor was, well, the boom, then Sherman was the group’s spokesman. It was Sherman who taunted Patriots quarterback Tom Brady after a regular-season victory in 2012. It was Sherman who exploded at Crabtree. It was Sherman who held court with the news media week after week.

And yet despite the spotlight squarely trained on him, the fact that he has been one of the top three cornerbacks in the N.F.L. for a significant stretch is sometimes lost in the shuffle.

Earl Thomas, top, was the quietest member of the Legion of Boom, but his speed and instincts made him the equivalent of both a linebacker and a cornerback on every play.CreditDilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

After seven fantastic professional seasons, Sherman is 30 and working to recover from a tear of his Achilles’ tendon that he sustained last season. More important, he is scheduled to count for $13.2 million on the team’s salary cap. If the Seahawks trade or release him by June 1, they will reduce that figure by $11 million. It is entirely possible that he has more good football to play, but there have been widespread reports — and thinly veiled indications from teammates’ tweets — that he will have to do it somewhere other than Seattle.

Sherman’s likely departure, Bennett’s trade to the Eagles, Chancellor’s continuing recovery from a serious neck injury and Thomas’s having missed seven games over the last two seasons because of injury adds up to a drastic overhaul for a defense that will hold a distinct spot in league history.

The unit’s on-field legacy, which includes helping the team to two Super Bowl berths, will most likely be its consistent and enduring dominance. Last year ended a streak of five seasons in which it was ranked in the N.F.L.’s top five in both yardage and scoring defense. Most impressive, Seattle allowed the fewest points in the N.F.L. for four consecutive seasons, 2012 to 2015. It finished third in 2016, leaving it one year short of matching the 1950s Cleveland Browns, who set a record by leading the N.F.L. in that category for five consecutive years.

For comparison, the 2000 Baltimore Ravens were the stingiest single-season defense of any team in the era of the 16-game season, but it took them another six seasons to lead the league again despite the continued presence of stars like Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. Even the Chicago Bears of the mid-1980s, considered the benchmark by many for modern defenses, topped out at leading the N.F.L. in scoring defense in three of four seasons with a fourth-place finish in 1987 ruining their streak.

Should Sherman truly be gone, the Seahawks will still probably field an above-average defense. Thomas and Chancellor will serve as elder statesmen, while Bobby Wagner will still give the team a legitimate superstar on that side of the ball. But with the Los Angeles Rams and the 49ers both ascending, the changing of the guard in the Seattle defense feels like a fantastic story reaching its conclusion, even if quarterback Russell Wilson and his offense can keep the team on the fringes of contention.

Summing up the team’s legacy can be hard, but in 2015, as the Seahawks faced the news media in the lead-up to a heartbreaking loss in Super Bowl XLIX, Thomas was asked to describe the Legion of Boom and explain why the group played so well together, and his words painted the picture far better than any sour memories of Sherman’s rant.

“We flow together,” he said. “It’s a beautiful thing to see, especially when we really recognize what’s going on — the little details. Everybody’s minds are not regular football minds.”

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page B9 of the New York edition with the headline: A Changing of the Guard in Seattle as a Lockdown Defense Drifts Apart. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

Advertisement

Published at Fri, 09 Mar 2018 04:54:12 +0000

Share This Post