A couple of years back, when Richard Sherman was early in the process of making his bones in the NFL, he was asked about Darrelle Revis, the reigning king of the cornerbacks.
Revis exhibited such uncanny coverage skills that few teams dared pass in his direction, leaving his portion of the field seeming deserted.
Revis Island, they called it.
Sherman didn’t like the sound of all that isolation.
“I don’t want to be an island,” Sherman said back then. “I’d rather be an amusement park. A place where everybody goes to have fun.”
It’s unlikely that many in the NFL have more fun playing football than Sherman. He chatters and goads, dances between plays, and delights in getting inside the heads of opponents, and under the skin of opposing fans.
In contrast to Revis Island, his amusement park doesn’t yet have a name. ShermanWorld? The Magic Kingdom? Six Flags over Shermland? (Nah, he was penalized only five times this season).
With Sherman and Revis named the two first-team All-Pro cornerbacks the past two seasons, Sunday’s Super Bowl 49 will be the ultimate showcase, the optimal common proving ground for the game’s best corners.
There will be no confusing them because they look and operate differently.
Revis is sometimes sicced on the opponent’s greatest receiving threat, regardless his location on the field, while Sherman predominately patrols the Seahawks’ defensive left side.
“I’m sure people make comparisons — they always do,” Sherman said. “But I think we play the game two different ways. He plays it more conventional … (I’m) a little more unorthodox. It’s just two different styles. I play my way, he plays his way, and both of them are effective.”
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll pointed to the most obvious difference: Their size.
Sherman is a spidery 6-foot-3, 195 pounds. Revis is a few pounds heavier and 5-11.
“I think these are two really, really savvy football players that really understand the game and have tremendous feel, which needs to be inherent to great players,” Carroll said.
“They make plays when other guys can’t because of the things they see and feel and can adapt to. So, they don’t look the same, they’re not anywhere near the same style of player, yet the results are really very similar.”
Similar, yes, but some of the statistics used to evaluate defensive backs favor Sherman.
Both players have 26 interceptions in the regular season and postseason. Sherman has accumulated those in half the seasons (four to Revis’ eight) and 61 percent of the games (73 to Revis’ 119).
Those 26 interceptions since 2011 don’t just lead the NFL, they lap the field. Closest to Sherman’s 26 is Sam Shields’ 16, followed by the 15 by Patrick Peterson and Tim Jennings. Revis has 10, which is fewer than Sherman’s secondary mates Earl Thomas (13) and Kam Chancellor (11)
But there’s been less amusement in Sherman’s “park” this season, as his interceptions (four) and passes defensed (11) numbers dropped to career lows. Simply, he’s getting the Revis Island treatment.
In the opener, Green Bay embargoed passes in Sherman’s neighborhood entirely. And through the first 12 games, Sherman totaled one interception because of wary quarterbacks.
“There’s no way around it, you’ve got to be careful,” said Josh McDaniels, New England’s offensive coordinator. “It’s not an easy thing to avoid him the whole game, and we’re going to try not to do that; we’re going to try to go wherever the ball needs to go. But you need to be sensitive to where he is. We’ve got to be real smart about giving him the opportunity to take the ball away from us.”
Even though the styles are distinct, the roots of success similarly lie in the two players’ study of the game.
McDaniels said that practicing against Revis every day should help them prepare for facing Sherman.
“(Sherman) is a very intelligent player who understands schemes and route concepts, very much like Revis,” McDaniels said. “Darrelle will do some things in practice against us where you’ll go, ‘How the heck did he know that was coming?’ Well, because he sees more (on the field) than just his guy.”
Seattle receivers coach Kippy Brown offered the perspective on facing Revis.
“He’s a top-notch cover corner, so they play a lot of man-to-man coverage and you can put him on a good receiver and he can hold his own,” Brown said. “That’s a rarity, and that’s why they get paid so much money.”
Seattle receiver Doug Baldwin has studied films of Revis, and played with Sherman since back in college at Stanford. His take?
“Revis is probably one of the most patient defensive backs I’ve watched on tape,” Baldwin said. “His technique is so vastly different from what I’ve seen from other guys. Sherman might not be the most patient, but he has length to him and his competitiveness is unparalleled.”
In an era when the rules propagate passing records for offenses, playing cornerback is one of the most difficult positions in the game. And that’s why there’s so much contention over who is the best in the league.
Revis was asked about the contenders, and he reeled off a few of the good ones: Arizona’s Peterson, Cleveland’s Joe Haden, Denver’s Aqib Talib … Sherman.
Sherman has listed himself at the top, with not-so-subtle answers. “I don’t really answer pre-school questions,” he said once when asked to name the best.
And he explained the source of his belief last season before the Super Bowl. His theory: You have to think you’re the best to be a good cornerback in the NFL.
“I’m sure every corner out there that’s playing good football feels like they’re the best corner in football,” Sherman said. “In order to play the game at the highest level, that’s how you’ve got to feel. Now, they may not go out and say it out loud like I do. But I’m 100 percent sure they feel that way.”
Whether it’s in his media sessions or film studies or reading routes, Sherman has shown what Carroll calls “a great mind.”
“He’s bright, he’s sharp; he’s got wit and creativity to him, which is really what his game is like, as well,” Carroll said. “He can take in all the elements and the indicators … and incorporate that into his decision-making. His ability to analyze and break down things that are happening are really phenomenal, and that’s why he’s so unique and special.”
Certainly special, but fans of Revis would argue that Sherman might not be unique in his talent. Former receiver and NBC commentator Hines Ward was asked to rate the two but couldn’t break the tie.
“No, I can’t pick,” Ward said. “Those guys are 1-A and 1-B, either way.”
Sherman appeared to tire of the debate during Super Bowl week.
“I think it’s more for the historical aspect of it,” he said. “It’s a respect thing. You’re not going to impress everybody. You kind of have to prove it to yourself more than anybody.”