Byron Maxwell next in Seahawks’ next-man-up approach

Posted Dec 19, 2013

Byron Maxwell has stepped in as the third-option at right cornerback. How’s that working out? He’s got three interceptions in the Seahawks’ past two games while being targeted by opposing quarterbacks.

Byron Maxwell isn’t just getting his chance, he gets it.

After making his first NFL interception – near the goal line, no less – two weeks ago in the Seahawks’ two-point loss to the San Francisco 49ers, the third-year cornerback displayed his mental grasp of the situation, to go with the physical skills that allowed him to track down and grab Colin Kaepernick’s pass that was intended for Michael Crabtree.

“I just know I’m unproven. I’ve got an All-Pro corner (Richard Sherman) on the other side. Everybody in the secondary is pretty much Pro Bowlers,” Maxwell said, referring to free safety Earl Thomas, who has played in the Pro Bowl the past two seasons; and strong safety Kam Chancellor, who played in the Pro Bowl after the 2011 season.

“I’m the only unproven one out there. So they’re going to come at me. It’s opportunities, really, and I’m just trying to take advantage of it.”

Like he did in Sunday’s shutout victory over the New York Giants, when Maxwell picked Eli Manning twice – first at the Seahawks’ 35-yard line at the end of the first quarter on a deep ball intended for Victor Cruz, where Maxwell’s coverage was so tight that Cruz was wearing him like a second jersey; then on the first play of the fourth quarter at the Giants’ 22 on a pass intended for Hakeem Nicks to setup the Seahawks’ second touchdown.

Three interceptions in two games? The last time that happened for the Seahawks it was Brandon Browner in Weeks 13 and 14 of the 2011 season. And that seems fitting, because it’s Browner and Walter Thurmond that Maxwell is replacing, as the third option at right cornerback – the same way Sherman got into the lineup on the left side midway through the 2011 season.

Browner was out with a groin before being suspended indefinitely by the league Wednesday, and Thurmond is in the final week of his league-imposed four-game suspension. So Maxwell it was, and is as the Seahawks prepare for Sunday’s game against the Arizona Cardinals at CenturyLink Field when he and his teammates can clinch the NFC West championship, a first-round bye in the playoffs and home-field advantage throughout the postseason with a victory.

The 6-foot-1, 207-pound Maxwell joined the Seahawks as a sixth-round draft choice in 2011, but he was limited mostly to special teams duty his first 2¾ seasons while playing behind Sherman, Browner and Thurmond. Finally given his chance, Maxwell is running with the opportunity.

“He’s been very productive and very consistent,” coach Pete Carroll said when asked if Maxwell has been exceeding expectations. “That’s what we hoped he would do. We’d hoped he’d jump in there and just take off like he has been.”

Until now, you had to watch practice to see what Maxwell was capable of.

“He had a great (training) camp, he had great practices, he had practiced as well as any of our guys and just has been kind of as one of the backups and just couldn’t punch through it,” Carroll said. “But it wasn’t because he hadn’t performed really well.

“So everything that we had seen was like he’s playing right now, and his ability to translate that from practice to the game field is noted. He did a great job and he’s been productive as can be.”

But who is this guy? Why has Maxwell, like Sherman before him, able to step in and play like a starter after being a backup to a backup in the NFL’s best and deepest secondary?

“He’s very humble. He wants it. He gets it. He’s very familiar with the system,” Thomas said. “Byron is a want-to guy. When you have guys that show great effort, like him and Jeremy Lane have shown, you’re going to have a lot of success.”

Thomas then offered something that shows just how close the members of the Legion of Boom secondary are – be it All-Pro or waiting-his-turn backup.

“One thing I need to say about Byron, he needs to cut his hair,” Thomas said. “He’s being like a caveman out there.”

Chris Maragos is another of the Seahawks’ waiting-his-turn defensive backs. He backed up Pro Bowl free safety Dashon Goldson while playing for the 49ers in 2010 and is now in his third season as the backup to Thomas.

“Byron Maxwell, man, he’s a competitor, he’s a playmaker, he’s a man who’s committed,” Maragos said. “That’s the best thing that you see about him. He’s just a guy who goes out there he works hard every day, doesn’t say a whole lot and just owns his responsibilities.

“What he’s doing is not a surprise to any of us, because we all know what everybody in the room can do.”

Ah, the room – the defensive back’s meeting room at Virginia Mason Athletic Center, which is overseen by Kris Richard. He played cornerback for the Seahawks from 2002-04, as a backup, and now coaches the secondary. Like all the other assistants on Carroll’s staff, Richard doesn’t treat the backups any differently from the starters. And that’s been a huge reason why the Seahawks have been able to continue to win despite playing without key starters, as the next-man-up has stepped in and stepped up.

“I’m going to tell you something about Byron, he’s very humble, he’s diligent and I don’t think what’s happening to him could happen to a better person,” Richard said. “He’s fantastic to be around, and he has been for years. So he’s kind just been sitting back in the wings and waiting for his turn. And here it is.

“We’ve always held Byron in such high regard; we just had corners ahead of him. Now here it is, it’s his time and he has taken full advantage.”

Maxwell grew up in Charleston, S.C., like so many other kids who grow up in so many other parts of the country – with dreams of playing in the NFL. For Maxwell, dreams didn’t hit the definitely possible level until he was playing at Clemson.

“Obviously playing football as a kid, you want to play in the NFL,” said Maxwell, who began playing when he was 10-years old. “But it was until I got to college where it was like, ‘OK, I could probably play this game at that level.’ ”

Instead, Maxwell found himself playing the waiting game with the Seahawks, when his role the first two seasons was on special teams. He had eight coverage tackles last season to tie for fourth on the team, and added a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. This season, he has three coverage tackles, and his efforts as a gunner on the punt-coverage unit have been praised for helping the Seahawks allow a league-low 19 return yards.

Now that his time has come to play cornerback, Maxwell isn’t wasting any time.

“Byron is a guy who’s been faithful, he prepared with diligence,” Richard said. “He’s just seizing his opportunity, which is all you can hope for from anyone in his position.”

And, he gets it.

When Maxwell said, “I’m unproven,” it was suggested that “was unproven” might be a better term.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“Well, just look what you’ve done the past two games,” came the response.

“That’s two games, just two games, man,” Maxwell said. “That’s not a season.”