Patriots could use more guys like Richard Sherman

Patriots could use more guys like Richard Sherman
January 23, 2014, 3:00 pm
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Are you sick of talking about Richard Sherman? Yes, you probably are. And for that reason, I never planned on writing about what happened last Sunday night with the Seahawks Pro Bowl cornerback. That was a tire fire I was more than happy to watch burn from a distance. But here I am anyway, and I hope you’ll keep reading. At least until you don’t want to anymore.
 
So why the change of heart? Well, because in the four days since Sherman’s interview with Erin Andrews, the interview has taken on a life of its own. Today, it’s no longer so much about what Sherman did or said, but about who he is, what he represents, and of course, the color of his skin. That last angle of the conversation has been perpetuated by the use of thinly veiled racist terms like “thug” and, of course, has been done so locally by Boston’s most notable thinly veiled racists. In some cases, Sherman has become the determining factor in shaping otherwise neutral Super Bowl rooting interests. Actually, forget neutral, even here in New England, the should-be least neutral non-participating NFL fanbase, some folks have strapped themselves to the Broncos bandwagon. They want Peyton Manning to win the Super Bowl. If only because that means that Richard Sherman will not.
 
That’s because Richard Sherman is bad. He’s evil. He’s everything that’s wrong with professional sports. Because he’s a THUG who probably wears HOODED sweatshirts and listens to that JIGGA MAN and KANYEEZEE WEST. And OK, I’m taking it too far. I actually don’t want to make this about race, because it shouldn’t have been in the first place. I don’t want to suggest that everyone who had a problem with Sherman’s interview was influenced by race, because that’s definitely not true either. Because you know what? Sometimes an asshole is just an asshole. And in this case, Richard Sherman was and is an asshole.
 
I don’t mean that as an insult, necessarily. As we learned last week, when Rajon Rondo and Kobe Bryant mutually exchanged that word as if it was a synonym for “Rhodes Scholar,” being an asshole isn’t always bad. In this line of work, it’s almost a badge of honor. That said I don’t have an issue with anyone who interpreted Sherman’s actions in a negative light. It’s entirely reasonable for someone, anyone, to have watched that interview and thought, “Eh, that’s not for me.” Either way, no one would ever put their arm around a child, direct him to Sherman’s trash talk and say, ”Be like him, son.” If nothing else, the guy is a horrible sport. If the NFL had a version of the Lady Byng Trophy it would be a mold of Sherman with a golden bag over his head. Or maybe not. I’ll get to the point.
 
Point: For all the hate that Sherman has received this past week. For every Patriots fan he’s miraculously transformed into a temporary Broncos fan. For all the reasons you might rather buy your child an Aaron Hernandez jersey over a Richard Sherman jersey —
 
Sherman is exactly the kind of player that the New England Patriots could use right now. He’s exactly the kind of player that’s been missing.
 
For one, and this is the obvious so I won’t belabor the point, Sherman is the best cornerback in the NFL. Not just one of them, but the best. He’s been a first team All-Pro in each of the last two seasons. He led the NFL in interceptions this past year, with eight. He was tied for second last year, with eight. And yeah, I know. Interceptions can be a misleading statistic. Kyle Arrington led the league in picks three years ago. But consider this:
 
The fantastic website Pro-Football Reference has developed a statistic called Approximate Value, which is their “attempt to put a single number on the seasonal value of a player at any position from any year (since 1950).” As you can imagine, it’s an incredibly complex formula, and if you want to a complete breakdown, you can read about it here. Also, as you can imagine, and by PFR’s own admission, Approximate Value is not a perfect statistic. It’s an approximation. But their methods in reaching that approximation are well thought out and thorough.
 
Anyway, last year, Sherman’s AV was 18, which tied him for third in the NFL (with, among others, Tom Brady), behind only Adrian Peterson (19), who finished nine yards short of the all-time rushing record, and J.J. Watt (20), who became only the ninth player in history to record 20 sacks in a season. This year, Sherman’s AV was 19, which tied him for first in the NFL along with Peyton Manning and Broncos right guard Louis Vasquez. (According to ProFootballFocus.com, there were 38 guards who played at least 900 snaps this year, and Vasquez was one of only two not to allow a sack.)
 
In other words, Sherman is dominant. He’s transcendent. He’s a game changer. He’s one of the best. Obviously, every team could use a player like that, and obviously the Patriots are at the top of that list. Their secondary has been an issue for as long as their nine-year Super Bowl drought has been in tact. And in turn, that Super Bowl drought will likely remain in tact for as long as the secondary is still an issue.
 
But in this case, there’s obviously more to the story. I’m sure there are a lot of Pats fans out there who don’t care about Sherman’s dominance, because some things are more important than that. Like his attitude. His persona. His braggadocio. He’s just not a guy they’d ever want to root for.
 
He was also suspended for PEDs last season. In general, he seems to approach the game as an individual, consumed by one-on-one match-ups. He has a knack for letting that get the best of him. At times, it seems, while losing sight of the bigger picture and the concept of team.
 
Then again, re-read that last paragraph, and pretend this column is about Aqib Talib, a player who so many Patriots fans and media members are so desperate for the team to re-sign. A player who arrived in New England last year in the midst of his own PED suspension. A player who, this season, during one of the biggest games of the year, was entirely consumed by his individual battle with Steve Smith.
 
In that game, Talib was flagged for a 15-yard personal foul in the first quarter for hitting Smith after the whistle. On the very next drive, he initiated another fight, this one went unpunished, but it was obvious that Talib hadn’t learned his lesson and was more interested in battling with Smith than anything else. Talib ultimately left that game early with an injury, and the Panthers came out on top. Afterwards, Smith was asked about his match-up and delivered a toned-down version of what Sherman offered up on Sunday. “I don’t know,” Smith said, “you’ll have to ask him because he didn’t finish the game. Ice up, son!”
 
Had the roles been reversed, and the Pats had come out on top, and Talib had stuck around to see it, and had a microphone shoved in his face mere moments after the final whistle, would you have expected anything less? Is there any chance that he wouldn’t have gone after Smith and made it more about the two of them than Patriots vs. Panthers?
 
Now take all the energy and raw emotion from that random, mid-season Monday night game. Snap your fingers and drop those guys in the heat of the NFC (or AFC, even though they obviously play in different conferences) Championship game. It’s the fourth quarter. Less than a minute left. The Patriots are up six. Smith is streaking down the sideline, Cam Newton floats one to the back corner of the endzone, Talib deflects it, Devin McCourty intercepts it and the Pats are headed to the Super Bowl. Before Talib can even catch his breath, Erin Andrew plants the mic in his face, and asks about that final play: Does he take the high road?
 
“Aww, you know, Erin. I’m just doing what’s best for the Patriots. I couldn’t have done it without my teammates. We did it guys!”
 
I don’t think so. He may not have taken it quite as far as Sherman did, but I think it’s fair to assume that his response would’ve been fallen somewhere short of graceful. And I think that’s OK. To think otherwise is to ignore all that goes into the make-up of NFL wide receivers and cornerbacks. The fact that, for them, football largely is an individual sport. Just two guys on an island, with no one to ultimately blame or congratulate but themselves. Where perception is reality and believing is the first step in succeeding. At times this can get the best of them, and that’s not always for the best, but any coach would take an overly cocky cornerback over one with even the tiniest sense of self-doubt 16 weeks a year.
 
This past Monday morning, in his weekly interview on WEEI, Tom Brady was asked about Sherman and gave a somewhat measured, but still pointed response:
 
“I don't know him at all,” Brady said. “I've watched him play. He's that kind of guy. So, you know. I approach the game -- and I have respect for my opponents. That's the way our team always plays. We win with graciousness, and when we lose, we could do better. Some teams don't always do that, or that's not their program.”
 
In Brady’s defense, he represented himself well here. He undoubtedly respects his opponents, and while he’s no stranger to in-game trash talking, he’s never one to rub in a victory after the fact. By and large, he carries himself the way you’d want quarterback to carry himself. Composed and respectful, with the team coming first, second and third. But the idea that the Patriots, as an organization, have always carried themselves that way just isn’t true. I’m not criticizing them for that; I’m just saying that it’s incorrect to pretend otherwise. I’m saying that this is the same team that danced around the Chargers 50-yard line after upsetting San Diego in the 2007 playoffs. I’m saying that Tedy Bruschi, one of the greatest and most respected players in franchise history, loved talking trash. Before and after games. I’m saying that football is an insanely emotional line of work, sometimes at grace’s expense.
 
Sunday wasn’t the first time that Brady became acquainted with the Richard Sherman experience. Last season, the Seahawks beat the Pats in Seattle, and Sherman confronted Brady on the field after the game. After that, he went on a Twitter offensive, posting photos of a dejected Brady with captions like: “He told me and earl to see him after the game when they win . . . I found him after.”
 
In the aftermath, Bruschi, working as an analyst for ESPN, was asked for his take and offered this: “The Seahawks' secondary had a huge day. There was trash-talking going on during the game, and when you win a game like that, you earn the right to talk some trash. If you're Seattle, you just shut down the highest scoring offense in the league and its quarterback was challenging you during the game. It's a little trash talking; I have no problem with it.”
 
Now let’s assume that Bruschi wasn’t as fond of the way Sherman carried himself after the NFC Championship. Regardless of how entertaining and ultimately harmless his WWE antics might have been, we can all agree that he went a little too far. Even Sherman himself has come out — albeit after loads of pressure — and admitted as much. It’s fair to say that we’ll never see that absurd level of outwardly self-centered and uncorked emotion from Sherman again. He’s a smart guy, and has learned his lesson.
 
But even if you don’t appreciate the way Sherman expressed himself on Sunday night, you have to respect the source of where that expression came from. You have to respect that his level of passion and unapologetic self-confidence exists at all. We’ve respected and celebrated it in so many Patriots players over the years. In players like Bruschi and Rodney Harrison and Ty Law and even Randy Moss. We understand that in so many ways, the NFL isn’t real life; societal norms and expectations don’t always apply. We’ve grown to appreciate how effective a mindset like Sherman’s is on the field. Especially on the defensive side of the ball. How important it is to have players with that kind of edge, who can agitate opponents, ruffle their feathers, get under their skin and, most importantly, back up the talk. It’s invaluable. And the higher the stakes, the more valuable it becomes.
 
And that’s an edge that’s been missing from this Patriots team in recent years.
 
Brandon Meriweather had it, but ultimately wasn’t worth the headache (and couldn’t really back it up). Brandon Spikes had it, and he’s probably played his last snap in New England. Vince Wilfork had it in his day, but he’s getting older and can only do so much from the trenches. Moving forward, where are New England’s trash talkers? Where’s their attitude? Where’s that borderline questionable nastiness and bravado?
 
Much respect to Jerod Mayo, Chandler Jones and Devin McCourty, but that’s not them. That’s not Rob Ninkovich or Kyle Arrington or, it appears, Jamie Collins.     
 
Talib has it, which is why he so immediately endeared himself to the organization and fans alike. Why New England so desperately wants him their future plans. Because he’s the closest the Patriots have to a Richard Sherman. But he’s just the beginning. They need more. And while it’s unlikely that Sherman himself will ever become available, more players like him should be sought out and welcomed with opened arms.
 
And just to be safe, not allowed within 20 feet of a post-game microphone.
 
Follow me on Twitter: @rich_levine