Professional football players are hyper-competitive as a rule, and the occasional exceptions tend to wash out of the NFL pretty quickly.
Coaches and fans alike are well aware of the danger of creating locker room bulletin board material before a game — the boasting challenges to manhood or insults that motivate opponents to compete even harder.
But the amount of energy that Richard Sherman generates from what he sees as disrespect or slights is unmatched. And it has pushed him further in a career almost certain to end in the Hall of Fame.
It’s not that he’s always fighty or cocky. He often shares respect with worthy opponents who return the favor, as he did with Kansas City Chiefs speedster Mecole Hardman before they faced off in the Super Bowl.
But if you don’t respect Sherman or his team, well, deal with the consequences. He first came to the broader public’s attention with his rant against then-Niner Michael Crabtree after he is breaking up a potential game-winning touchdown pass in the 2013 NFC Championship game.
He was obviously responding to some disrespectful analysis about his coverage skills (or perhaps his mother) that Crabtree had delivered before that crucial play. Still, the people at home never saw that part.
Sherman’s response was broadcast to tens of millions of people who had never had a direct shot of competitive player trash-talk before, and many fans were frightened by Sherman’s intensity (as well as, frankly, in many cases just racist).
We’ve already discussed Sherman’s response to Adam Rank’s dismissal of the Niners as a 3-13 team, but notice how central the concept of integrity is to his challenge.
”... don’t flip-flop with us. If you said, we weren’t going to make it, if you said we were some way early on, stick with that position. ... Stick by your word.”
There was a huge dustup after the Cleveland game when Sherman told Michael Silver of NFL.com that Baker Mayfield had refused to shake his hand at the coin toss, and that motivated the team to put the cocky youngster in his place. [i]
Fans started reviewing the tape and found the place where Mayfield and Sherman sort of slapped hands, filling talk radio for hours and hours with their hot takes on the matter.
Sherman ended up apologizing to Baker publicly and privately, but a couple of things about the incident were lost in all the shouting.
First, Mayfield was pretty brash and cocky, especially his rookie year, and many pundits hyped him as an MVP candidate before the 2019 season. If you watch the video of the hand-slap, [ii] it was kind of jokey and dismissive on Mayfield’s part — unlike the more serious and respectful handshake, Sherman shared with Cleveland LB Adarius Taylor immediately afterward.
In the Silver article, the cornerback lists several other obnoxious bits of behavior from the rookie, such as criticizing his teammate Duke Johnson, mocking his ex-coach Hue Jackson on the football field after Jackson took a job with Cincinnati, and trashing the pick of Daniel Jones by New York.
Second, Sherman was not the only Niner who didn’t like Mayfield’s attitude. Remember, this was Nick Bosa’s “plant the flag” revenge game against the rookie quarterback. Bosa told Silver that
”I’ve been mad for two years. And I was gonna get him back tonight.”
Third and most importantly, the motivation worked. Sherman and Bosa did put Mayfield in his place, and he was less cocky (and less successful) for the rest of the 2019 season.
When Richard Sherman started his pro career back in 2011, there was no ambiguity about some of the slights he faced, as David Lombardi detailed in an article for the Athletic that’s well worth looking up. [iii]
At the Senior Bowl, for example, Sherman got beat on a double move while trying to ballhawk. While he recovered in time to break up the pass, he remembers his coach (Cincinnati’s Marvin Lewis) yelling at him afterward.
”That’s why you’re not getting drafted. That’s why you’re not going to f**king play in this league!”
Lombardi recounts that Sherman kept quiet but thought:
”OK, you don’t know who the f**k you’re talking to, but I hear you. You’re the coach, so I can’t say sh*t to you right now, but I usually get my revenge. And I’m gonna get my revenge.”
Jump ahead to Sherman’s first NFL start, and sure enough, it’s against the Bengals, coached by Lewis. And the rookie’s memory of disrespect wasn’t the only thing that motivated him.
Sherman was matched up against W.R. A.J. Green, who started trash-talking the rookie like you do.
”I’m better than you. I was drafted fifth pick [overall], and I’m about to show you why.”
The combined disrespect from both Green and coach Lewis only fueled Sherman, at least the way he tells the story.
”I’m nervous. It’s my first game. But you sent me to a place where my nervousness and anxiety is out the window because you got me to a place where all I’m doing is trying to embarrass you now for the rest of the game. And I don’t give a f**k about anything else.
And with that, I don’t think about anything. My will power kicks in. Will is much different than preparation or athleticism. Will, it’s very hard to overcome when I’m willful in that way.”...
Don’t think for a second that Sherman forgot about coach Lewis’ insults, either.
”I got a pick on his team that he’s coaching in front of his bench. And I threw the ball right at him, like, ‘You f**king bitch. Don’t you ever talk about me.’ That was my first career pick.”
The nuance about all of this, and the thing missed by so many “hot takes” on this Baker Mayfield handshake brouhaha, is that Sherman absolutely believes these slights are real. And he really doesn’t care whether you do or not.
He’s not trying to ruin anyone’s reputation. He’s trying to destroy his opponents on the field, and he’s psyching himself up in the way that works best.
After he apologized to Mayfield, he said
That’s what I thought happened. That’s what I remembered happening. He stood back and I said it the way I remembered it happening. I took it as disrespect and I took it out on him, as I should.” [iv]
And if Sherman is maybe less skeptical about his perceptions than a good customer service employee should be, or less than gracious about incidents of understandable human miscommunication, well good for him. Placebos actually work, too, even if they don’t have an active ingredient. That’s the definition of a placebo.
Whatever the facts behind Adam Rank’s disrespect or Baker Mayfield’s attitude at the coin toss, they drove him to be his best. And at 31, coming off of a torn Achilles tendon that caused Seattle to cut him simply, Sherman won PFF’s award as 2019’s Top Coverage Defender. [v]
“Legendary: the story of the 2019 San Francisco Warriors” is available at Green Apple Books and Books, Inc. in San Francisco, Bell’s Books in Palo Alto, Great Good Place for Books in Oakland, Bookshop Benicia, and on Amazon.