For the first time in recorded history, Richard Sherman was quiet. He was inconsequential. A nonfactor.
That’s how Green Bay wanted it on Sept. 4 in Seattle. In the NFL’s opener, with every player, coach and fan in the league watching, the Packers had Aaron Rodgers drop back 36 times to pass.
Not one of those throws was in the direction of the Seahawks’ All-Pro cornerback.
A sign of respect? More like a source of chafing for a star far more used to being dominant and dynamic, not dormant.
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Four months after the most boring game Sherman’s ever played in, the Packers are returning to CenturyLink Field for Sunday’s NFC championship game.
How frustrated was he that night four months ago, even though Seattle beat the Packers 36-16?
“On a scale of 1-10?” Sherman replied Wednesday.
After that game Sherman’s answers were like his contribution: minimal and uncharacteristic. He was so steamed coach Pete Carroll felt compelled immediately after the win to visit Sherman at his locker. Carroll’s message: look how respected you are. An entire offense just avoided you. And it helped our team, making teammates’ jobs easier.
“This is an extraordinary competitor that wants to be in the middle of everything, and it’s frustrating,” Carroll said the day after that Packers game. “He didn’t feel like he was an active part of it, and I’m telling him that he was.”
Sherman remembers it the same way.
“I like to play the game. I like to play like everybody else,” he said Wednesday. “I guess everybody sees it a different way. But, I mean, when you get balls thrown your way you get a chance to be involved and make plays.
“I mean, there’s also the chance for another guy to make a play, as well.”
Sherman didn’t become the NFL’s leader in interceptions since 2011 — 24, one off the most in the first four years of a career since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970 — didn’t become a national social lightning rod for a postgame rant this time last year, didn’t get a Super Bowl ring, a visit to the White House, President Barack Obama’s personal invitation to the White House Press Corps annual black-tie correspondent’s dinner, a new contract with $40 million guaranteed or a spot on Time magazine’s 100 most influential people on Earth list by letting another guy make plays for him.
This week that other guy is Byron Maxwell. He was on Sept. 4, too. Maxwell is back after not playing opposite Sherman in last weekend’s divisional-round playoff win over Carolina because of the flu and breathing trouble.
Rodgers and his coach, Mike McCarthy, have since said it was a mistake to avoid Sherman in that opener. It essentially left the other 10 Seahawks having to cover just two-thirds of the field. Rodgers managed just 189 passing and a passer rating of 81.5 — his second-lowest of the season.
The Packers expected Sherman to follow Green Bay’s top receiver, Jordy Nelson, all over the field that night. But that’s not the way Seattle plays defense. It is a straight-up unit that is relatively basic in scheme and assignments. It relies on its defenders’ speed, length and physicality, instead of tricks, to overwhelm offenses.
When the Seahawks didn’t shuffle Sherman around to shadow Nelson, the Packers simply kept Nelson away from the league’s best cover man.
As Rodgers said Tuesday on his weekly show on ESPN radio in Milwaukee: “You go look at the film and it wasn’t like the guy he was guarding was open.”
The Packers vow to go more aggressively at Sherman this time.
“I plan to throw to the open guy. That’s kind of been the way I’ve played for a number of years,” Rodgers said Wednesday. “If the guy on the right is open, I’ll throw it to the right. If the guy on the left is open, I’ll throw it to the left. I’ll go through my progressions and play the way I’ve always played.”
Except Sept. 4.
Even Maxwell thinks the Packers are going to challenge Sherman this time. Or at least have a different plan than they had in September.
“I would be surprised if they don’t,” Maxwell said. “We beat them by 20 points. I think they will switch up that plan a little.
“Midway through that game I realized, ‘Yeah, they really aren’t throwing at Sherm! OK, then.’ ”
Asked when in the game he realized the Packers weren’t throwing to him, Sherman said, “When it was over.”
He says he doesn’t know what to expect this time. But deep down, with a spot in the Super Bowl at stake, he must know the Packers are going at least test him once. Which would be more than they did last time.
“You have a ton of respect for him,” Rodgers said. “Look at the numbers, they don’t lie. Not a lot of guys catch passes on his side, and for the amount of time he’s targeted, his interception totals are very impressive. You just have to play your game, but if he’s locking his guy down, he’s probably not going to get a lot of passes thrown his way.”
To which Sherman said: “I expect them to execute their game plan, whatever that may be. Not sure what they’re going to do.”
Sherman had eight interceptions in each of the previous two seasons, including on 58 targets last season. This season he has four interceptions, two in one game when the 49ers brazenly went after him on Thanksgiving night, on far fewer targets.
But none fewer than opening night against Green Bay.
Packers receiver Davante Adams was a breakout star in last week’s win over Dallas that got Green Bay to Seattle, catching a fourth-quarter touchdown. A star, that is, to most — but not Sherman. Asked what he saw from Adams last weekend Sherman said Wednesday: “They threw him the ball and he caught it. That’s pretty much all I saw.”
Now Green Bay’s No. 3 wideout, Adams was in for just nine offensive snaps in that first meeting, and Rodgers never targeted him. That’s because he ran his routes against Sherman.
Adams was surprised Seattle’s notorious in-game yapper was silent.
“He didn’t say anything,” Adams said. “Actually, I said something to him about it. … I asked him where all the talking was. He said, ‘There’s nothing to talk about.’
“I said, ‘All right, I guess so.’ ”
Here’s guessing this time, with the NFC title and place in the Super Bowl at stake, Sherman’s going to be heard from. Loudly.
“After a game like that, you feel like you haven’t contributed anything,” Sherman said. “Everybody’s like, ‘Man, that’s cool! Nobody threw to your side!’
“But if you’re a player,” one of the league’s best said, “you want to make plays.”