Perhaps by now you have read Seth Wickersham’s intriguing story on ESPN.com about the drama that enveloped CB Richard Sherman’s season, which was sufficiently disruptive to lead the Seahawks to entertain trading one of the NFL’s most valuable players. If you don’t have time for the magnum opus, I will share a central point of the story, then explain why the story misses a greater point.
The set-up is that Wickersham reported, from mostly anonymous sources, that Sherman never got over the goal-line interception that cost the Seahawks a Super Bowl win over New England. In that, he’s exactly like 100.5 percent of the fan base (the .5 is for the children whose mothers were pregnant with them on game day, and passed on the compulsive grief). He writes:
If the hardest thing in football is to manage the celebrity that attends a Super Bowl win, the next-hardest thing is to forget a catastrophic Super Bowl loss. Something complicated and vital to the chemistry of a great team was broken on that interception. According to interviews with numerous current and former Seahawks players, coaches and staffers, few have taken it harder than Richard Sherman. He has told teammates and friends that he believes the Seahawks should have won multiple Super Bowls by now. And with just one trophy and the window closing fast, he has placed responsibility for that failing on the two faces of the franchise: Wilson and Carroll.
To which I respond: Um, yeah.
That’s how it almost always goes when a sports mistake is epochal. The perps are branded for life, be it Bill Buckner or Steve Bartman, Chris Webber or LeBron James. Wickersham suggests that while Carroll and Wilson understand their responsibility, they have never said, “I f—— up. Sorry.”
That apparently galls Sherman. But neither Carroll or Wilson are wired that way, because in order for them to fulfill their contracts, as well as the dreams of players and millions of fans, they have to develop workarounds to avoid emotional trauma that will compromise them.
Ironically, Sherman, who is indulged nearly all of his behaviors, has a hard time admitting error too. Nor does it seem from the story that he can tolerate the different coping mechanisms in Carroll and Wilson.
Now Sherman has already denigrated the ESPN story, for which he declined to be interviewed.
He texted Sirius XM NFL radio Thursday, several hours after publication of the story: “It’s just a bunch of nonsense from ‘anonymous’ sources. Can never put much gravity of things like that.”
Sherman’s entitled to his opinion, but he can’t argue with the fact that the second of his two infamous public blowups last season was over a perceived replication of the Super Bowl mistake.
Against the Rams Dec. 15, on first and goal at the 1-yard line, Wilson threw incomplete to TE Jimmy Graham. In the middle of the next play call, Sherman came over and disruptively castigated offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell and then Carroll.
After Sherman was pulled away, the next play was a run for no gain. On third down, Wilson threw again from the 1, this time finding WR Doug Baldwin close to alone for the touchdown.
In theory, that should have quieted Sherman, or at least scuttled his argument. But no.
After the game, Sherman still claimed his cause was just.
“I don’t like it when we throw the ball at the 1,” he told reporters. “We throw an interception at the 1. Luckily (the Graham pass) went incomplete, and I wasn’t going to let them continue to do that.
“I was letting Pete know. I was making sure Pete knew that we’re not comfortable with you throwing the ball at the 1.”
Not sure who “we” was, but I think most coaches would agree that Sherman’s in-game rant crossed the line into insubordination. Certainly it broke Carroll’s first covenant: “Protect the team.” And it subsequently looked foolish, since the Seahawks scored on a pass two plays later.
The reason for the re-hash of the episode is that if Sherman has sufficient mistrust of Carroll and/or Wilson to disrupt a game to express himself about a two-year-old mistake, when and how, at 29, does he join them in getting beyond The Play That Cannot Be Unseen?
Where this gets toxic is when Sherman, a team leader, distrusts, publicly as well as privately, the decisions of Carroll and Wilson.
A money quote from the Wickersham story:
Sherman is “always looking at what other people are doing,” says a former assistant coach who has had many talks with him. “He’s made it personal. ‘It’s your fault we’re not winning.’ It wears guys thin.”
If that is an accurate reflection of Sherman’s approach, I understand how the Seahawks went down the road of a trade.
The story also says some unnamed players believe Wilson has favored-son status with the coaches and is not held as accountable for outcomes as the defense, which has carried the team for much of Wilson’s five years.
Another excerpt from the story:
Carroll hosts “Tell the Truth Monday” during the season, when he breaks down film. Some Seahawks joke that it should be renamed “Tell the Truth to Certain People,” because Wilson seems exempt from criticism.
For perspective on the Wilson exceptionalism, here’s an example from another team (not part of the ESPN story):
“The three interceptions really hurt us. I mean, that’s just reality. If I were to sit here and say, ‘Oh, man, it’s OK,’ that’s not reality. The reality is, you throw interceptions, I’m pissed off, I don’t like it. You know what I’m saying? I don’t like it, I know everybody else on the team doesn’t like it . . .
“If somebody is not playing well, they need to come out of the game. You’re jeopardizing the whole team because you’re having a bad day. To me, that’s not fair to everybody else. You’re not the only one on the team.”
That was from RB Thomas Jones of the Jets complaining to a New York radio station in 2009 about their quarterback, Brett Favre.
The example is merely one among hundreds that fill football locker rooms where lesser players — not just fans and media — blame quarterbacks, even successful ones. The complaints are acute among players because they see the deference given to star QBs in ways outsiders cannot.
How that happens is understandable. The smartest players know their careers are short. The play of one teammate has a disproportionate impact on their own lucrative livelihoods, which have less security than in any other major team sport.
But almost by definition, successful NFL quarterbacks are extensions of team management. The franchise and a quality QB combine create an otherness that strains the sappy one-for-all sports-team mythology. The modern QB is a business relationship unlike any other — one foot in management and one foot on the field. So, yes, a good QB often gets a break where other players do not.
Carroll prides himself in treating players equally, but when it comes to a good QB, it’s an aspiration more than a reality. That’s neither bad nor good, it just is.
The matter left unaddressed in the story is whether Carroll’s willingness to let Wilson play through his three injuries in 2016 was a source of locker-room irritation, as in Jones’ claim about Favre: If someone isn’t playing well, he needs to come out.
No one doubts the effort Wilson put into rehab that allowed him to play every game was laudatory. But even Wilson acknowledged by the end of the season he played through the middle of the season diminished.
Was the decision to let him continue to play more about Wilson’s ego-driven insistence in not being sidelined, or was it out of fear of inserting rookie backup Trevone Boykin? Either way, the Seahawks had five games in which they scored 12 points or less, winning one. Blame went well beyond Wilson for the paltry production, but his injuries undoubtedly compromised the playbook.
In hindsight, the preseason decision by coaches to keep a rookie as backup instead of a veteran had dubious consequences. That is a likely driver of current events regarding the potential hire of Colin Kaepernick or another veteran to replace Boykin.
For Sherman, as well as others, the 2016 decisions about the QB spot left the Seahawks vulnerable, burdening the defense, which had injury problems of its own.
A month after the Seahawks stunned the Patriots in New England 31-24, they were semi-helpless in Green Bay against the Packers, 38-10, the worst defeat of Wilson’s tenure. The next week was the infamous Rams game that provoked Sherman’s ire with playcalling.
The Seahawks were on their way to a disappointing end, despite making the playoffs and winning the first round at home against mediocre Detroit. Sherman, an ultimate competitor, let his anger compromise his standing with some coaches and teammates.
Two conclusions emerge: To move beyond the 2016 season and the Wickersham story, Sherman has to put away the lost Super Bowl and make whatever amends necessary to, as Carroll insists, “protect the team.” And he and the rest of team have to accept that Wilson, by personality, position and achievement, is as different, weird and necessary in his own way as are the rest of them.
Sherman’s tumult is not an extinction-level event for the Seahawks’ championship chances. The only way team chemistry is irretrievably broken, as Wickersham suggests, is if Sherman keeps it that way.