Before he became the mythical dark-visored merchant of punishment, Kam Chancellor had to sit and watch.
Before he could fly over opponents, and deliver hits that no longer merely left bruises, they “damage people’s souls,” he had to study at the knee of a master.
Before he could intercept a pass in three consecutive playoff games, he had to rise above the scouting reports that said: “… doesn’t possess the coverage skills, ball skills and instincts to be consistently relied upon against the pass.”
In his fifth season, the Seahawks’ strong safety continues to secure his place in the pantheon of physical defenders, as well as the nightmares of NFL receivers.
He dominated the Carolina Panthers so completely in Saturday’s 31-17 playoff win, coach Pete Carroll said, “I don’t know that a strong safety can have a better game than Kam had tonight … it was just an amazing football game.”
It makes it hard to remember that, in 2010, he was such a raw prospect out of Virginia Tech that the Seahawks could get him with a fifth-round pick they got from Detroit in exchange for guard Rob Sims.
That first season, Chancellor’s hunger for contact was sated with extensive special teams duties, but when the defense was on the field, he had to stand on the sideline and watch how the position was played by veteran Lawyer Milloy.
Milloy, the Tacoma native, Lincoln High grad and University of Washington All-American, was 37 years old and in his final season. He’d been to four Pro Bowls with the Patriots, and earned a reputation as a student of the game and a ferocious competitor.
Pete Carroll was Milloy’s coach in New England for three seasons, and knew he’d be the perfect role model for the raw Chancellor.
“That was an invaluable opportunity for him,” Carroll said of Chancellor being mentored by Milloy. He could learn, Carroll said, from Milloy’s “approach to the game, his toughness, that unbelievable competitiveness that Lawyer always had.”
Carroll said he never saw Milloy back away from a challenge, a tough play, or a chance to deliver a big hit. “You’ll never see Kam back off, either,” he said.
It’s a fact that’s been obvious to NFL opponents the past several seasons. When he first took over in Milloy’s place, Chancellor said the main thing he adopted, was Milloy’s attitude. “He always wanted to take people’s heads off,” Chancellor said at the time.
Chancellor has been able to play with similar extreme prejudice as well, but mostly within the structure of the new regulations that protect receivers.
But he’s nonetheless developed a reputation that has caused receivers’ arms to shorten in his presence, and others to consider their future in the game when their routes enter his area of coverage. He has become Chancellor of the Gut-Checker.
For instance, his hit of Denver’s Demaryius Thomas, on a short crossing pattern early in the Super Bowl, established a tone of toughness that may have served as the trigger to the lopsided win.
Thomas, a big man himself, caught the ball at the 40 yard line, but after Chancellor sent him airborne, he landed back on the 35.
At times, Chancellor’s reputation alone is enough to cause opponents to try to avoid his whereabouts. New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham once made a blatant change of course, in the wrong direction, just to avoid a Chancellor hit.
Asked about his quick slide when he saw Chancellor nearing him one time, Rams quarterback Kellen Clemens said: “Kam Chancellor, have mercy. Do not be standing on the tracks when that freight train comes down the tunnel.”
Chancellor is half of the best safety tandem in the NFL, along with his close friend Earl Thomas. Thomas is 25 years old and Chancellor 26. They have seven Pro Bowl recognitions between them already.
Asked about the pair before the Super Bowl, gold-standard safety Ronnie Lott compared Chancellor to Seattle’s five-time Pro Bowl safety Kenny Easley.
“Chancellor is getting close to being in that community of greatness,” Lott said.
That’s high praise for a player who was once rated only the 27th best safety prospect in the 2010 draft.
Clearly, he learned a lot more from Milloy than a desire for primitive contact.
“I don’t know what Kam would have been like without (Milloy’s influence),” Carroll said. “I just know what he is now; he’s a perfect strong safety, and Lawyer was exactly that (too).”