San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan had a lot to say about his new free agent cornerback, Richard Sherman, at the recent owner’s meeting. (That’s when reporters get a full hour sitting down with head coaches, and in a good year lots of interesting information comes out. Watch the full Shanahan interview here.)
Shanahan and defensive coordinator Robert Saleh are installing their own version of Seattle’s Cover 3 defensive scheme in San Francisco. Before Saleh was hired as the Jacksvonille Jaguars linebackers coach, he was Seattle’s defensive quality control coach — usually the guy who watches miles of videotape and edits together cut-ups for the other coaches — for three years, including their championship season in 2013.
Cover 3 is a complicated scheme that demands a lot from its defensive backs, and the 49ers had plenty of growing pains in Shanahan and Saleh’s first year. The team had only 10 interceptions — tied for 24th in the league — and 56 passes defensed, tied for 28th and only three better than league-worst Miami and Carolina. CB Dontae Johnson was bullied by opposing receivers and offensive coordinators all year.
Second-year CB Rashard Robinson — brash and long, but as Fooch noted, too thin to body up the likes of Dez Bryant — started the season as the other starting CB, in a gamble by Saleh that did not pay off. Robinson led the league in pass interference penalties until he was benched in October.
GM John Lynch earned his pay by trading Robinson to the New York Jets for a 5th round 2018 pick. Robinson then played only 20 snaps in the entire second half of the season, on what ESPN’s Rich Cimini described as “a secondary that had no No. 3 cornerback,” and was arrested in December for possessing “THC infused Peanut Budda Buddah Candy” in New Jersey.
On the positive side, 49ers rookie (and 3rd round pick) Akhello Witherspoon emerged as a legit NFL starter after being a healthy scratch for the first four weeks of the season.
His development is amazing given that he only played five total years of football before entering the NFL; one in high school, one at Sacramento City College, and three for the University of Colorado Buffaloes. As a 5’8” high school freshman, Witherspoon played soccer and basketball (point guard, naturally) and didn’t even consider football until he started growing.
He is exactly the kind of player that Sherman can help educate. Both men are 6’3” and Witherspoon — the grandson of blues legend Jimmy Witherspoon — is three pounds heavier at 198 pounds.
Coach Shanahan had a lot to say about Richard Sherman at the owners’ meeting. The CB was released by the Seahawks at noon on March 9th; the Niners were ready to pounce, and flew the Sherman and his fiancé down for a dinner with Shanny that night.
After a long dinner, it was clear that the two hit it off personally.
“Him I felt good with. He’s very real. I think everyone sees, he’s not hiding much back. So it was pretty easy to get to know him in the three or four hour dinner, and I was very happy with the person I got to know.”
Shanahan, just eight years older than Sherman at 38, made the cornerback sound more like a fellow coach than a player.
“I’ve played him a number of times over the years and there’s always a battle, and it’s funny to go against him because you never talk to him [when you’re on opposing teams], but he’s a guy where you always gotta think about what you’re gonna do against him.”
You often hear sportswriters talk about the chess match between coaches — implicitly using the players as their pawns — but it’s clear that Shanahan has always felt his chess game was directly versus Sherman.
“He plays very smart, and I always tell him he’s guessing but it’s an educated guess, cause he studies film. If he anticipates something he will intercept it, so you always gotta think, when you’re playing against a guy like that, what’s he thinking, so you can do the opposite, so you can get him to guess on something, and get the big move, and those are kind of fun things to talk about when you’re on the same side.”
It’s very interesting how Shanahan talks about “playing against [Sherman],” even though Shanny hasn’t played football since 2002. He caught a total of 14 passes for 127 yards for the Texas Longhorns over two seasons; Sherman was in junior high at the time.
The ex-Seahawk is arguably the best CB in the NFL over the last 6 years. As Cam Inman noted:
He ranks first in the NFL since 2011 in interceptions (32), passes defensed (99), completion percentage (47.4) and passer rating (50.9).
He was available because he’s 30, in a job where youth and speed are crucial, and he’s coming off of 2 surgeries (for an Achilles heel injury and bone spurs). But Richard Sherman at 10 percent of his best is still an upgrade over Dontae Johnson, and he brings a ton of value as a sort of player-coach.
“I think he’ll be real good for our team. He’s the type of guy that you want to be that way, also. Not all veterans can teach that the exact right way, but I think Sherm’s astute, he’s a talented guy, he’s a student of the game, and the reason he’s been so successful is cause of, to me, his talent, what’s upstairs [in his brain]. Anybody who has that kind of knowledge who’s willing who’s to share it, especially when you’re playing in a very similar scheme, that experience I think will help a lot of our guys.”
Cornerbacks fade fast as they age. Look at Darrelle Revis or Nnamdi Asomugha. But even if Sherman only plays one or two years, until the Niners draft a second Akhello, he will be invaluable in schooling John Lynch’s shrewd young picks — such as Adrian Colbert and Witherspoon — in a devilishly difficult but intensely effective scheme.
Referring to Sherman and the Seahawks, Shanahan made his strategy clear.
“They’re in such a sound scheme and it’s really hard to go against that scheme, that’s why I wanted that scheme for the Niners. And you go against some like [Sherman], who’s not only playing a good scheme but he’s really talented and knows how to play in it...”
I think you can finish that sentence for him. The Niners’ offense already improved by miles last year with Jimmy Garoppolo at the helm. With Richard Sherman shoring up the defense and schooling the young talent in this secondary, it will be very exciting to see how it all comes together next year.
When Sherman’s career ends, he’ll have a lot of options, given his education, fame and personality. But don’t be surprised if he goes into coaching, and Kyle Shanahan gives him his first job.