For the first time in exactly 2,500 days, the Seahawks will play without Richard Sherman. The All-Pro cornerback suffered an Achilles injury in Week 10’s Thursday Night Football game, and Monday night’s matchup between Seattle and the Atlanta Falcons will be the first missed game of Sherman’s career, snapping a streak of 105 games and 99 straight starts. Without him, the Seahawks are flying into uncharted territory.
Irreplaceable?— NFL Research (@NFLResearch) November 15, 2017
Richard Sherman has lined up on the offense's right side 81.3 percent of the time since 2015.
That side of the field has been off limits for opposing passers.@Seahawks @RSherman_25 pic.twitter.com/vth3Ed8Fz6
Seattle’s season got even grimmer when NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo reported Saturday that safety Kam Chancellor would likely miss the rest of the season with neck stingers. The Legion of Boom—the secondary that has governed the NFL’s skies for the last six seasons—won’t be in full force for the rest of the year. Both Chancellor and Sherman are under contract for next season, though Seattle would save $11 million in cap room if they released Sherman in the offseason.
While members of the secondary have come and gone, Sherman, Chancellor, and Earl Thomas III have made up the LOB’s nucleus since 2012, and together they’ve combined for 13 Pro Bowls and six first-team All-Pro selections. They’re supernatural when playing together, but this is the second year in a row that they won’t finish the season as a full unit (Thomas broke his tibia in Week 11 last year).
Now the Seahawks sit at 6-3 and are currently in line for the final NFC wild-card spot, though it will be a challenging final six weeks, especially without Sherman and Chancellor.
As we lament Sherman’s absence on Monday night (and potentially Chancellor’s for the rest of the season), let’s celebrate the group that came to define secondary defense in the 2010s.
The Legion of Boom has been the best defensive unit so far this decade, but just saying that doesn’t fully explain their dominance. Sherman, Thomas, and Chancellor were the heart of a suffocating secondary that somehow peaked during the most prolific passing era in NFL history, and they’ve maintained that dominance since 2012—eons in the salary-cap era.
The group was crafted by a savvy front office that sought big, physical defenders to counter the league’s pass-happy trends. The Seahawks spent a first-round pick on Thomas (5-foot-10, 208 lbs) and a fifth-round pick on Chancellor (6-foot-3, 232 lbs) in 2010. In 2011, they added Sherman (6-foot-3, 195 lbs) and corner Byron Maxwell (6-foot, 202 lbs) with fifth- and sixth-round picks, respectively, and then signed former Calgary Stampeder Brandon Browner (6-foot-4, 221 lbs). That ragtag group was coached up by Pete Carroll, a defensive backs coach at heart who preached unorthodox yet disciplined training on the field and a laid back management style off of it.
The results were stunning. From 2012 to 2015, the Seahawks allowed the fewest points in the league each year, and their defensive DVOA ranked second, first, first, and fourth in that four-year period. In 2013, the season that they won the Super Bowl, they allowed the fewest points, yards, yards per play, first downs, and net yards per pass attempt, and they led the league in turnovers. And in the Super Bowl, they held the Broncos—who had scored the most points in NFL history during the regular season—to a mere eight points, beating them 43-8 in one of the biggest Super Bowl shellackings in history.
The Seahawks succeeded by zagging where other teams zig, most notably in their defensive scheme. In an age where many defenses bend over backward pre-snap to disguise increasingly complex coverages, the Seahawks often use a simple Cover 3 that they don’t bother hiding. This strategy, akin to letting your friend screen-look in Call of Duty and then killing them anyway, is made possible because of Thomas, a player so good that Seattle built an entire scheme around his abilities.
“It’s not about me being the best safety,” Thomas said in 2014.”It’s about me being the best defensive back ever. That’s what I’m after. That’s how you leave a mark on this game. When I think about the Hall of Fame and things like that, that’s why I grind so hard. I know I have a chance to redefine this position.”
And he’s close to accomplishing that. In coverage, Thomas seemingly always knows where the ball is heading, and his predictive instincts allow him to have otherworldly closing speed. With that ability, he’s able to cover the biggest area of the field while also handling the most difficult assignments.
Nobody else in the league can handle a wider-range of coverage responsibilities—which is usually great for Seattle, except when he’s hurt. Through the first 11 weeks of last season, before Thomas was injured, Seattle’s defense ranked fifth in passing DVOA and third in deep-passer rating (55.5), according to Warren Sharp’s Football guide. But after Thomas broke his tibia and missed the rest of the season, the Seahawks plummeted. Without him in Weeks 12–17, Seattle had the 26th-best pass defense DVOA, and their deep-passer rating nearly doubled to 100.2, 28th overall.
But numbers only do him so much justice. Thomas is literally and figuratively at the center of what Seattle’s defense does. His ability to karate chop the ball out of Todd Gurley’s outstretched hands at the goal line in Week 5 this season is evidence that Thomas trained under Ra’s al Ghul.
Thomas used the same goal-line karate chop two years ago, also against the Rams (he unleashed it on poor Benny Cunningham, who must really be starting to hate this stupid touchback rule).
But Thomas isn’t the only Seattle safety with martial arts moves on the goal line. Whereas Thomas prefers the swiftness of a chop, Chancellor uses a Superman punch to dislodge the football. It’s on brand for the Legion of Boom’s enforcer, who wields a Terminator-like physique and wears an opaque visor that seems like it’s made out of pure dark matter. Chancellor is (in)famous for hits over the middle, and he’s a throwback safety from an era in the league when the middle of the field was truly a no-fly zone. He quite literally has a greatest hits record, and one of those hits came on a play against Cleveland in Week 7 of 2011, where he channeled a great white shark hunting seals off the coast of South Africa.
But while Thomas is one of the best defensive players of the decade and Chancellor is an old-school heavy hitter, Sherman has always been the star.
Sherman, in a self-fulfilling prophecy worthy of Sophocles (or perhaps LaVar Ball), shouted his own greatness into existence. Guided by a petty, undying fury over falling to the fifth round of the draft (a.k.a. the Tom Brady Complex), Sherman set the modern bar for trash talk—and could back his words up on the field. The most enduring memory of his career to date—the legendary batted pass against Michael Crabtree in the 2013 NFC championship game (and the subsequent post-game interview)—solidified his place as one of the league’s most polarizing superstars.
No other player combines Sherman’s skill, star power, and and unique smack-talking ability (remember when he threw Skip Bayless into a volcano?). And now for the first time since 2011, Seattle will take the field without him.
“It’s definitely going to be weird,” Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner said about playing his first game without Sherman. “He’s definitely going to be missed.”
Sherman, Thomas, and Chancellor have been together since the start of their pro careers, an elite ensemble that continued together into their peaks and provided a blueprint for playing defense in the modern NFL. At a time when the NFL was pushing for passing, parity, and politeness, the Legion of Boom gave us defense, dominance, and debate. Let’s hope we haven’t seen the last of them.