This story originally appeared in the October 6 issue of Hawk Mail. To subscribe to Hawk Mail, click here.
After his first practice as a Seattle Seahawk came to an end last month, cornerback Neiko Thorpe had a bit more work to do before he could leave the field and head into the locker room.
The just-signed cornerback first had to spend a little bit of one-on-one time with unofficial defensive backs assistant coach Richard Sherman.
In what has become something of a ritual for any new player or young defensive back in whom Sherman sees something that can be corrected, Sherman pulled Thorpe off to the side after practice and worked with the former Oakland Raider on his technique.
Any fan of the NFL knows by now how talented of a player Sherman is on the field. That was on display again last week when Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Jets kept testing Sherman after having a bit of success early in the game, only to be intercepted twice by the All-Pro corner in the fourth quarter.
But what isn’t on display between the lines on Sunday, but is very evident at practice on a daily basis, is how valuable Sherman is as a teammate who goes out of his way to elevate the play of his fellow defensive backs.
Sherman downplays the work he does with teammates after practice, joking, “I’m just cursing them out about all the mistakes they made throughout the day.” But it’s evident both in watching those interactions and in talking to his teammates that Sherman plays a big role in helping Seattle’s secondary in more ways than what is on display on Sundays.
“He just pulled me to the side and told me something he didn’t think I knew already,” Thorpe said. “It’s great. I was definitely thankful for him to tell me what he told me. The faster I can learn it, the better I can be, so I definitely appreciate it. It’s definitely an honor for him to help me out, him being who he is and all.”
It’s hardly unusual in team sports for a veteran to take young players under their wing—Sherman went through that as a young player himself, learning from Marcus Trufant and Roy Lewis—but what makes Sherman’s interactions with teammates unique is the time and depth he puts into those interactions. The Stanford-educated Sherman is one of the most cerebral players in the NFL, using not just speed, size and technique to dominate, but also an uncommon understanding of how opponents will try to attack the Seahawks on gameday, and he does everything he can to make sure his teammates can also be as educated as possible.
“I Got You, Baby.”
Before a practice early in training camp in which he was mic’d up, Sherman tells a teammate to use his physical ability, saying, “They ain’t learned how to get up off you yet. All you need is one arm. If you load it up and shoulder them, they ain’t trying to have that. Even tight ends ain’t trying to have that.”
The teaching continues on the field with Sherman recognizing a route concept from the offense and telling safety Kelcie McCray, “jump it, I’ve got your back.” McCray jumps the route and breaks up the pass, with Sherman pointing at him to acknowledge the play. Those two continue the conversation on the sideline between series, with Sherman trying to make sure he has the trust of his fellow defensive back so they can make those last-second adjustments. Sherman wants McCray to understand that if he’s asking the safety to go off script, Sherman will have things covered.
“I got you, baby,” Sherman says.
Sherman the coach even extends his teaching sessions to receivers he faces in practice. After all, when you’ve started as many games as Sherman and faced enough Pro Bowl-caliber receivers, you learn a thing or two about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to beating coverage.
After Sherman covers rookie Kenny Lawler on one play, he grabs him afterwards to talk about the way Lawler can use his hands to fight press coverage. “Stab me,” Sherman says, demonstrating the technique with his hands. “Stab me and go.”
“He’s selfless,” said second-year receiver Tyler Lockett, who himself has spent plenty of time in Sherman’s on-field classroom. “You don’t really see that in a lot of people, especially who have had as much success as him. He’s willing to stay after and help people, regardless of if they’re on the first team or on the practice squad. He’s willing to go out there and help you get better. It’s kind of like that person who has already lived his life and now just wants to help other people, it’s kind of like that kind of mentality for him, because he stays 30 minutes after when he could go home and be with his girl and his kids. The thing he does on a daily basis kind of shocks you. You see a player of his ability and his accomplishments being willing to sacrifice for the greater good, just to help somebody be better.”
“I Try To Give Them A Lot Of Information.”
As Lockett notes, Sherman could spend his time focusing on himself and not worry about going that extra mile to help young players. He could still make millions and earn postseason awards without being a great teammate, but the way Sherman sees it, the better everyone else can be, the better the Seahawks will be.
“You want to give guys the best chance you possibly can to be the player they’re capable of being, and if you feel like you have information that can assist them in any way, you want to give it to them,” Sherman said. “You want to tell them about the mistakes you made before they have a chance to make them, kind of put them ahead of the curve. That’s what I try to do, I try to give them a lot of information, a lot of tricks, a lot of shortcuts they can use that will get them out of trouble.”
And if the day comes where Sherman helps groom the player who takes his job, well good for that player, he says.
“I’m a competitor,” Sherman said. “If you can take my job, then you must be a hell of a player, so good for you.”
The way Sherman helps his teammates makes him “the epitome of being a team guy,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said during training camp.
“He’s always been like that," Carroll said. "He’s always looked forward to latching onto those young guys and bringing them along. I know they appreciate it tremendously, but it’s just such a great expression about what it means to be a part of this club. When those kinds of guys are working those young guys, it means a lot to them. They really look up to them. We’re very grateful that he understands how important that is.”
Added defensive coordinator Kris Richard: “When we’re able to bring new guys in, the first thing that we talk about is the brotherhood. We live by it. There’s a law of brotherhood that’s known throughout this football team. To have a guy stand up and stay true to that law is really remarkable. Especially when he’s one of your better players. It just shows how much he cares about the guys on this football team.”
“From Day 1 When I Came In, The Motto Was ‘Each One, Teach One.’”
On a Monday night late in the 2013 season, DeShawn Shead stepped onto the field for the first time in a regular season game. Shead played only three snaps on defense that night in a crucial NFC showdown, but he remembers one thing vividly from that series that he was on the field.
“One of the best pieces of advice—I’ll never forget this—it was my first regular season game I played, it was a Monday night against the New Orleans Saints,” Shead said. “And Sherm said, ‘Look, go out there, don’t worry about it, and just know there’s 10 other players on the field who are going to help you. You’ve got 10 other great players on the field, so don’t go out there and be stressed, just do your thing.’ That was some of the best advice I heard. It helped me relax and do my job on the field.”
Shead is a starter and now is one of the veterans who helps bring young players along, but despite coming into the league only a year after Sherman, he too learned a lot as a young player studying under coach Sherm.
“He was very helpful,” Shead said. “From Day 1 when I came in, the motto was ‘each one, teach one.’ So anybody who comes in, the veteran guys try to teach them, whether it’s a rookie, second-year guy, third-year guy. It’s definitely very helpful. When I first came in, Sherm definitely took me under his wing. He definitely had already taken that leadership role. He was a young guy, but he acted as a leader. He came in there and played like one. He took that role and helped all the young guys.”
Sometimes Sherman spends his time with teammates dispensing detailed technique tips or helping dissect an offense. But other times, what is just as important is helping a young player relax, especially at a position where failures can be very public and lead to big plays.
“It’s both technique and mental stuff,” Sherman said. “It depends on the player, but it’s both. When you come out of college, there’s an entirely different mentality than when you come into the league. You have to do it against this level of talent on a consistent basis, and sometimes your confidence will waver at times. Sometimes it’s convincing guys to forget the last play and move onto the next play, good, bad or indifferent.”