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Richard Sherman Is Back—and He Wants Everyone to Know It

Two years removed from an Achilles injury, the 31-year-old is returning to the NFC championship game, this time as a vital piece in the 49ers defense. He’s not only one of the most dominant players of his generation, but he is also one of the most interesting.

Scott Laven / Netflix

The first Richard Sherman press conference I attended was the most famous. It was in a small room in Seattle a few minutes after he became a superstar in January 2014. He was already one of the top cornerbacks in football—a first-team All-Pro that season and the season before—but he reached new heights that afternoon when he tipped a pass from 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick towards his teammate Malcolm Smith to clinch the NFC title for the Seahawks. There’s a lot I remember about that game: Macklemore was around a lot. But what I remember most is Sherman, not just the play he made, but his breakdown of it. There were detailed descriptions. There was the backstory between him and the intended receiver, Michael Crabtree, that Sherman delightfully spelled out for reporters. This is Sherman: His play is always the most fascinating thing about his game—he wouldn’t have been giving that press conference without it—but the second-most fascinating thing is how he talks about his play. Sherman is not only one of the most dominant players of his generation, but he is also one of the most interesting in a league where those two things rarely intersect.

Sherman, at age 31, is back in the NFC championship game, the round where he first became a superstar, only this time with the 49ers. According to Pro Football Focus, Sherman is allowing a 46.8 passer rating against this season, the third-best mark of his career. He’s allowing far fewer yards per reception than at any time in his career, with 8.4 (his previous low was 12.0). He allowed just one touchdown in a season for the fourth time in his career. The Niners allowed the fewest average passing yards in the NFL in 2019, and were second in yards allowed overall. Their defense is great for a lot of reasons: The pass rush of Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead, and Dee Ford, among others, helps. Fred Warner has excelled at linebacker. Kwon Alexander, who returned to the lineup last week, is one of the best coverage linebackers in the sport. Robert Saleh is a good defensive coordinator. But Sherman’s performance is one of the most impressive parts of an impressive defense:

Sherman once told me a theory he has, which is that great defenders get knocked for playing on great defenses. He thinks this never happens to, say, quarterbacks, or players on worse defenses. “There have been years Earl [Thomas] should’ve got Defensive Player of the Year, I should’ve got Defensive Player of the Year, but the biggest knock was we played on a great defense, which made our stats and everything look different I guess,” he told me late in 2017, while he was recovering from a season-ending Achilles injury, a few months before he signed in San Francisco. This phenomenon probably could have applied to Sherman until the last few weeks: For such a famous player, his play this season wasn’t talked about nearly enough nationally, possibly because the Niners defense played so well as a whole. This changed for a few reasons: Sherman made second-team All-Pro, then went on a dunk contest on Twitter, coming at people who’d questioned his self-negotiated contract with the Niners. He was named Pro Football Focus’s corner of the decade three weeks ago. He had an interception in the Niners’ playoff win over the Vikings:

He was dominant in that game:

And he really wanted to talk about it (more on that in a second). This week, in the NFC championship game, Sherman will face Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who he has held to a 58 quarterback rating on throws in his direction in his career. Rodgers called Sherman “one of the headiest players to ever play that position” this week. Sherman will likely not shadow star Packers wideout Davante Adams, but he’ll line up against him when Adams moves to Sherman’s side. Sherman already picked off a Rodgers pass intended for Adams five years ago in the conference title game. Football players rarely age gracefully, and all three returning to the conference championship game is a minor football miracle, especially for the nonquarterbacks.

The most recent Sherman press conference I attended was last week in San Francisco. Sherman, simply, is back where he belongs: playing well and talking about playing well. After the Niners’ win, he contended he never left. “Unless I tear my Achilles, I’m out there and I’m doing my job on a high level,” he said in the midst of a long monologue about his accomplishments. Sherman had picked off a Kirk Cousins pass and he was ready to talk about it all: the pick, his game, his career, his legacy. “The only place that I’m not the best corner in the game over the last generation is in the haters’ minds,” he said. It is unclear who the haters are in this situation, but I’m sure they exist. More importantly, he believes they exist. The larger point is that Sherman is still really good.

“Since I got in the league, in every category that matters to a corner, I’m no. 1: in completion percentages, interceptions, touchdowns against, yards, completion percentage, passer rating,” Sherman said. “If that was any other corner, it wouldn’t even be a conversation. But I just get tired of it. In the playoffs, I played in 13 games now, zero touchdowns given up, three interceptions.” This is not, strictly speaking, true. Sherman has given up, for instance, a playoff touchdown to Roddy White, but let’s not get bogged down on the details.

“Like, show me somebody else doing it like that. Then I’ll enjoy the argument. But there isn’t one.” He continued: “I get tired of hearing, ‘Oh, man, he’s a zone corner. I get tired of hearing the excuses for why I’m great. It was man coverage. I covered the man. I picked the ball off. In the playoffs, in big games, I show up. I show up year in, year out, whether it’s 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014.”

Sherman explained that he thinks people were frustrated with him because he was so confident early in his career, and because of that, people wanted him to fail. “When I didn’t fail, it’s like, ‘How do we tear him down in other ways? How do we rip his game apart?’ Because I’m too consistent on a year-in, year-out basis.”

Sherman’s press conferences are back to being must-watch. It’s not always pretty: In October, Sherman ignited an inexplicable drama over a handshake with Baker Mayfield, but it’s a net positive for the league that Sherman is still Sherman.

Sherman, the player, however, is still the main event. Even before his return to relevance after an Achilles injury in 2017, Sherman was a unicorn. He started as a 6-foot-3 receiver who was converted to defensive back at Stanford and selected in the fifth round as a defensive back, a position where elite talents are identified and drafted early. Doug Baldwin, his teammate at Stanford and with the Seahawks, told me in 2014 that Sherman was “awful” and “terrible” at defensive back when he made the switch. He couldn’t track the ball, Baldwin said, and he couldn’t jam receivers because he was lost on the line of scrimmage at the snap. This did not last long. Length in the secondary was becoming more important in the NFL, and the Seahawks cornered the market, initially, with tall cornerbacks like Sherman and Brandon Browner, and massive 6-foot-3 safety Kam Chancellor. The important part, however, is they could also move. “Taller corners are a dying breed,” Kris Richard, then the Seahawks defensive backs coach, told The New York Times in 2012. “The rules changed. That made it harder to use press coverage. But that’s what we do. In this new-age game, we play with an old-school flavor.”

For three seasons, between 2013 and 2015, Sherman never gave up more than 31 receptions in a season. He was targeted less than 65 times in each of those years. “I’m a good enough athlete. I’m not terrible. You can’t be a bad athlete and be successful in this league,” Sherman told The Athletic this week. “But I always felt like my mind was my advantage because I can think through case scenarios … in split seconds.”

The Seahawks dominated for half a decade, won one Super Bowl, and came a yard away from a second. Sherman continued playing physically, with the old-school influence Richard describes. The Legion of Boom, as the team’s defensive back unit was called, broke up after 2017—Chancellor retired, Thomas is in Baltimore, Richard left Seattle, and Sherman plays for the Seahawks’ biggest divisional rival. But he is still here. He’s still playing big games, and he is still genuinely himself, on the field and off. What that means for Rodgers and the Packers will help determine the NFC title on Sunday.