In an NFL season of unusual carnage, the San Francisco 49ers are an unexpected high point, a team that combines fantasy-legend offense with boa constrictor defense into an undefeated bandwagon. At the heart of it all is the unexpected rebirth/return of a guy we’d thought consigned to NFL Films: Richard Sherman, who has transitioned smoothly from Legion of Boom loudmouth to needling, elder-statesman Jedi master. He’s the kind of guy you hate with the fury of a thousand suns … until he’s on your sideline, and then you’ll run through fire for him.
Sherman comes along at an optimal time for these 49ers, a team still coalescing and seeking an identity but with all the parts in place for a run to match the standards of the past. The 49ers of Montana and Young always had a sleek corporate quality about them, striding through the league with an air of relentless blue-chip Masters of the Universe. The Super Bowl 49ers of a few years back existed in a perpetual tug-of-war between Jim Harbaugh’s disappointed-Little-League-dad persona and Colin Kaepernick’s improvisational freestyle; management opted to dump them both, and the result was a long tour along the ocean floor of the NFL standings.
These Niners? Well, we’re not quite sure yet. Kyle Shanahan is validating his offensive-mastermind rep, Jimmy Garoppolo is still figuring out whether he’s as good as everyone thought he could be in New England, and everyone else is taking turns in the spotlight, like Tevin Coleman’s four (!) touchdowns Sunday in a total decimation of allegedly good Carolina.
‘Uncle Sherm’ is back for a second act
Here’s what we know. Sherman, dubbed “Uncle Sherm” by his much younger teammates, is proving to be a unifying force. He’s not the uncle who embarrasses you at Thanksgiving by braying about politics at the table; no, he’s the uncle who takes you for a ride on his motorcycle after dinner and tells you not to tell your mom.
It’s a strange marriage, Sherman and the 49ers. For years, Sherman and San Francisco had a hate-hate relationship. He famously smoked Michael Crabtree on national television during the NFC championship in 2014. He ate a turkey leg on the 49ers logo when Seattle beat San Francisco on Thanksgiving later that same year.
But nothing turns an enemy into an ally like a common foe, and after Seattle cut ties with Sherman in 2018 after injury, both San Francisco and Sherman had chips on their shoulders, people to prove wrong, games to win.
“When I go out there, I expect to dominate. I expect to perform at a high level,” Sherman said in 2018 when asked about his goals with the 49ers. “I expect to make my stops, to play my technique, to be where I’m supposed to be when I’m supposed to be there. Outside of that, I expect to be a great teammate and to encourage my young guys when I’m not practicing.”
Sherman continues to deliver
Turns out he has done exactly that. Like an old rock star hauled back up onstage for one more go, Sherman’s playing like he’s running wild in the Seattle secondary again. He has three interceptions, his highest total since 2016, and 65 receiving yards, his highest total since 2014. He is getting playing time, too; he has been on the field for 94 percent of San Francisco’s defensive snaps, his highest percentage since the high-90s playoff days of 2012-16 in Seattle. With 23 tackles through seven games, he’s on pace to record his highest tackle total since 2016.
He has been around long enough to be the NFL’s active leader in interceptions (35, tied with Aqib Talib). But he’ll still go to the wall for a young teammate, like he did last season when he got himself thrown out of the season’s second-to-last game when he started a fight with most of the Bears’ sideline to defend a teammate. That’s the kind of attitude that makes an impression.
He’s also susceptible to — or, more likely, lets himself surrender to — mental tricks, just like a shot-out-of-a-cannon rookie. Niners receiver Dante Pettis may have had some inside intel on Sunday’s game plan, or he may have just been trying to fire Sherman up. Pettis, apparently a friend of Kyle Allen, pulled Sherman aside prior to the game and said, “Hey, man — his plan is just to go at you.”
Sherman used that as motivation, intercepting the previously unpicked Allen — one of three 49er INTs on the day — and reveling in the complete salt-the-earth destruction of a no-longer-unbeaten quarterback. Here’s what he offered to Twitter on the matter:
After the game, Sherman allowed to the San Francisco Chronicle that Pettis might have made the whole thing up to get Sherman going. “He knows how I am, too. So he could have not known this kid at all and just said that,” Sherman said. “I don’t know if he said it, but Pettis said he said it, so it pissed me off.”
It’s a turnabout of another infamous Sherman moment from earlier this season — when he tried to gin up controversy about Baker Mayfield not shaking his hand at the pregame coin flip, even though replays showed Mayfield had done exactly what he was supposed to. Find motivation wherever you can, even if you have to create it out of thin air. It worked for Shaq, who famously created a feud with David Robinson out of a perceived slight that never really happened, and it’s working for Sherman, too.
“It’s like you’ve got to understand,” Sherman said after the Carolina game. “I’m not new to this. I’m true to this. And my 15 minutes [of fame] started an hour ago.”
The way he and the 49ers are playing, those 15 minutes might last right on through to February.
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