When practice ended four days before the Seahawks season opener, cornerback Richard Sherman and receiver Doug Baldwin remained on the field.
Baldwin, who has spent a lot of his career running routes from the slot receiver position, spent a few minutes helping Sherman with the nuances of covering a receiver in the middle of the field. Sherman, who had mostly played left cornerback his entire career up to that point, spent the season opener splitting time between his usual spot and the nickel corner position, and while the Seahawks lost that game, Sherman's play helped pave the way for what has been, in a different way than years past, one of his best in the NFL.
In his first four seasons, Sherman built a reputation as one of the game's best cornerbacks by taking away one side of the field. Back when teams tested him, he posted 20 interceptions in 42 starts in his first three seasons. Later, as offenses learned to fear Sherman's coverage ability and ball skills, teams often just avoided throwing his direction, which still benefited Seattle's defense because it meant opponents were playing with a limited offense, not to mention that most quarterbacs are better throwing to their right, hence teams traditionally putting their best cornerback on the left side of the defense.
This season, however, starting with that Rams game, Sherman has made his impact with his flexibility. If you were to only look at Sherman's interception total (1), you might think he's having a down year, but put in the tape or look at the stats of opposing receivers Sherman has covered this year—including some of the best in the NFL—and you'll realize he is, in a lot of ways, doing more than ever.
"Giving him a shot to show us how he could play at the nickel spot got him inside on the slot and got him working both sides and all that, that just added to the story a little bit that he was prepared and ready to do whatever we needed him to do," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "He has always been willing, but now that he's worked all over the place, we have a lot of flexibility with him. That was always the issue. You guys were wondering why we left him left and right. Over a lot of years technique-wise guys get settled in on one side or the other. When you don't flip flop them, then you're asking them to do stuff that can feel a little bit left-handed at times. So now that he's had the preparation, and so has (DeShawn) Shead, we've made our other guys do that. It gives us some flexibility to do whatever we want to do in a game plan. But he's doing well."
Sherman hasn't played the nickel role again this season, but he has moved around to cover other teams' top receivers in several games, and for the most part come out ahead in those battles. After Cary Williams struggled a bit early against A.J. Green in Cincinnati, Sherman spent the rest of the game on Green, who had just one catch in the second half. Sherman held another Pro Bowl receiver, Dez Bryant, to 12 receiving yards on two catches, limited San Francisco's best receiver, Torrey Smith, to one catch for 16 yards in two games, and last game against Antonio Brown, who came into the game with second most receiving yards in the league, Sherman helped keep the Steelers star to a modest six-catch, 51-yard game.
"He has been phenomenal this season," Baldwin said. "You look at the productivity when he's covering guys, what's he's asked to do in this defense, it's through the roof. Obviously it's extremely impressive, but not surprising, because that's what Sherm does."
All season long, even as Sherman has found another way to quiet his critics, he has tried to downplay his new role of erasing an opposing team's top target.
"I've always just done what I'm asked to do," he said. "I think people put more into it than what's there. They act like we go out there and say I want to guard this guy, and everybody gets to pick their assignment, and pick the play, and I'm going to call this play for myself so we can go out there and guard these guys like that. It's the game plan. It's the defensive coordinator, it's the DB coaches, the head coach. We have little say-so in the play calls. We go out there and do your job. Anybody criticizing how you do your job, or what way, or who you're guarding, it's also laughable."
Yet to his teammates, Sherman is doing some of the best work of a career that already includes three first-team All-Pro selections.
"Very impressive," safety Earl Thomas said. "He just does what the coach asks him to do… He's a great competitor. That's the thing I love about him the most. He's come a long way since he first got here, from our first conversation, he's come a long way.
Sherman moving around the field has, "made me better as far as understanding how teams run their (offense)," Thomas said. "Just growing. They don't know what we're going to do. I think with him moving around like that, it really helped me out. It really helped my game out a lot."
That first meeting that Thomas referenced took place at nearby Dino's Pub not long after the Seahawks drafted Sherman in the fifth round of the 2011 draft. Thomas wasn't all that impressed with Sherman's wardrobe, but he knew the confident kid out of Stanford had a bright future.
"He had these big jeans on with this loose belt," Thomas said. "He even dresses differently now. I'm pretty sure I do too. I believed in him from day one. He'll tell you that. Before anybody knew he was Richard Sherman, and look at him now… I could just tell. Guys that ask the right questions, they're always on your coattail in the beginning. They want to be great."
In addition to taking on an expanded role this season, Sherman's life has changed off the field as well since he was a rookie in big jeans with a loose belt. Sherman is engaged and has a son, he is more involved in the community every year, which led to him being nominated for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award, and some might say he has even mellowed out a bit since his trash-talking, Twitter-beefing days. The way Sherman sees it, however, is that he just hasn't been provoked as often.
"I'm as vocal as they come," he said. "You've got to have something to talk about. Like I've always said, I think you guys have tried to make stories out of it. I'm more of a responder. I don't go after anybody, I don't go say hey. If somebody wants to say something outrageous and outlandish to me, I'd happily put them right back in their seat. That's just how it's always been. People say, 'Oh, he's not as talkative as he once was,' because nobody's been disrespectful. Respect gets respect. Disrespect gets disrespect. It's always been that way, but there's been no disrespect so there's no reason for me to say anything. It's been calm."
And despite a season with just one interception—so far—Sherman's game deserves nothing but respect in 2015.