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Richard Sherman wanted to send a message to Russell Wilson. It was June 2014, and it’d been a testy day at Seahawks minicamp, with defensive players hitting the offense in a non-contact practice. On one play, Sherman had ripped off the helmet and jersey of receiver Phil Bates, igniting a brawl, the cornerback’s dreadlocks flopping in the air. Both sides cleared. Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” blasted from the loudspeakers. But the defense, a ruthless and crazy and awesome bunch that less than five months earlier had delivered the franchise its first Super Bowl victory, was just getting started.
Sherman is famous for loving practice, for treating it like a game, for rarely missing it even when injured. For him, it’s where a mystical bond is forged and a win on Sunday becomes an almost accidental byproduct. And so, a few plays later, when Sherman picked off Wilson, it wasn’t enough just to make a great play. He wanted to get inside Wilson’s head, to remind the young Pro Bowler that despite his Super Bowl fame — and endorsements that many on the defense felt they deserved — Sherman still owned his ass.
“You f—ing suck!”
Sherman, to quarterback Russell Wilson after intercepting him in practice in June 2014
According to witnesses, Sherman threw the ball back to Wilson and yelled, “You f—ing suck!” Another fight broke out. Sherman was cussing and yelling; Wilson seemed stunned. Pete Carroll stopped practice and would later hold a series of meetings to remind the players they needed to build each other up, not tear each other down — and that they needed to support their quarterback, further pissing off a defense that already thought the head coach went out of his way to protect him.
At the time, of course, nobody wore the scars they do now. Nobody knew the pain of losing a Super Bowl at the 1-yard line. Nobody could have predicted the strangest storyline from the 2017 offseason: Sherman, a future Hall of Famer in his prime, open to a trade, and the Seahawks open to shipping him. Tensions lurked beneath the surface, but the Seahawks were building something special, on an ascent toward a limitless future.
The next day, the Seahawks got their Super Bowl rings. Four phrases were engraved inside. The last one read:
You know what happened next. With 26 seconds left in Super Bowl XLIX, on second-and-goal from the 1, Patriots corner Malcolm Butler jumped a route like nobody had ever jumped a route on the game’s biggest stage. That moment haunts the Seahawks to this day. “If Russ had just thrown it low and away …,” one Seahawks staffer says. “If we had just executed the play, it would have been the easiest touchdown in history,” says a former assistant coach. Nothing that’s happened since — not the Seahawks twice reaching the divisional round in the playoffs before running into Cam Newton and Matt Ryan, not Wilson developing into a franchise quarterback, not the defense becoming the first since the 1950s Browns to lead the league in points allowed for four straight years — has brought anything near closure.
If the hardest thing in football is to manage the celebrity that attends a Super Bowl win, the next-hardest thing is to forget a catastrophic Super Bowl loss. Something complicated and vital to the chemistry of a great team was broken on that interception. According to interviews with numerous current and former Seahawks players, coaches and staffers, few have taken it harder than Richard Sherman. He has told teammates and friends that he believes the Seahawks should have won multiple Super Bowls by now. And with just one trophy and the window closing fast, he has placed responsibility for that failing on the two faces of the franchise: Wilson and Carroll. Sherman, who like Wilson declined comment for this story, thinks Carroll hasn’t held Wilson or many young Seahawks to the defense’s championship standard. He’s been disillusioned not only by that single play more than two years earlier but also by his coach’s and quarterback’s response to it.
“If we had just executed the play, it would have been the easiest touchdown in history.”
Former Seahawks assistant coach
“You got me coming off the practice field, and I’m really pissed off,” Carroll says from his office overlooking Lake Washington after a May minicamp. “I worked up a lot of energy, and I’m really pissed off.” He pauses. Inhales, exhales. “OK, let’s have a nice conversation.”
Carroll is joking, though it would have been easy to buy. It’s been a tense offseason. In mid-March, word emerged that Sherman was available for a trade. Normally, a team would try to squash such a bombshell involving an iconic player beloved by fans. But general manager John Schneider later admitted the team was taking calls. And Carroll had been unusually blunt, saying at the league meetings that many of Sherman’s issues — he seemed to go off the rails at the end of last season as his anger boiled over — were “self-inflicted.”
No trade materialized, and Sherman is now back at his usual spot at left corner. Carroll seems refreshed and energized, but this year may test the powers and limits of his coaching style. In his book, Win Forever, Carroll argues that the only way to actually win forever is to let go of failure. Most of the teaching points are not from the hundreds of wins in an outstanding career but from moments when he’s been broken. When Carroll was a quarterback at Redwood High in Larkspur, California, his coach, the late Bob Troppmann — Coach T, Carroll calls him — ordered him to run the ball late in the fourth quarter of a game seemingly in hand. Carroll instead called a pass, which, you guessed it, was intercepted. To this day, he remembers Coach T’s fury. More than that, he remembers that Coach T quickly believed in him again, a forgiveness that allowed Carroll to forgive himself.
When in doubt — when doubted — Carroll always has plugged into an extremely positive mindset that borders on New Agey. One of his rules for answering questions in interviews is “no negatives,” something he learned from the late Jim Valvano. The mentality has helped Carroll survive while coaching 42 of the past 43 years. It helped him keep faith after being fired twice in the NFL. It helped him process the 2006 Rose Bowl loss to the University of Texas that denied him a third straight national title at USC. And it helped with the Butler interception. “The instant that play occurred, I knew what I was dealing with,” Carroll says. “I had to get back to business as soon as possible.”
“The instant that play occurred, I knew what I was dealing with. … I had to get back to business as soon as possible.”
Pete Carroll, on the Super Bowl interception against New England
It’s a competitor’s challenge, really. A game within a game. How quickly can Carroll flush pain? He’s so good at it, so smooth, so positive, that it’s easy to forget he’s trying to somehow take his team back in time this season, to exchange the current mistrust for a moment when everyone still believed in one another.
Tension flared at strange times last season, blowing little issues into big ones. One day, Sherman walked into a team meeting and found rookie guard Germain Ifedi sitting at a desk. That’s a no-no. Rookies sit on the floor; veterans get the desks. Sherman lorded over him, but Ifedi did what Sherman might have done as a rookie: He stayed at the desk.
Finally, Sherman broke: “Get up.” Ifedi stood up and knocked over the desk, tossing it aside. The 6-foot-5, 325-pound Ifedi stared at the 6-3, 195-pound Sherman as if ready to throw down. Ifedi eventually stepped aside, but Sherman later told friends that he saw the incident as emblematic of a bigger problem. The offense, led by Wilson, was in the midst of a season in which it would score fewer than 13 points five times, but the only players being held to the lofty standard created by the defense were the members of it.
Sherman, of course, is the face of a defense that stands out in the free agency era, having been assembled in a run of straight-flush drafts and unheralded free agent signings that allowed players to bond like a college crew. They were underdogs together, became great together, changed a franchise together, got paid together, won a Super Bowl together — and lost one together. They shared an ambition for excellence, impossible to articulate but as palpable as the hits they delivered in practice. They’d war with offenses, both opposing and their own, and often with one another. Free agents who sign with the Seahawks are always shocked at how savage the locker room can be, a violence at odds with Carroll’s laid-back persona. There was a fistfight between Seahawks receivers the night before they beat Denver in the Super Bowl, and nobody was punished. In fact, many considered it a sign of unity that news of the fight didn’t immediately get out. No matter what, by kickoff, Sherman would stand in the middle of a circle, brothers in arms, and yell, “We’re all we got!” To which his teammates would reply, “We’re all we need!”
The pain of the Butler interception wasn’t just the pain of losing a Super Bowl. It was destiny unraveling, the defense losing its claim as greatest ever for toppling Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in consecutive years. Never mind that the defense missed 11 tackles in that game, allowed New England to convert a third-and-14 in the fourth quarter and blew a 24-14 lead — even after linebacker Bobby Wagner turned to safety Earl Thomas and said, “We’ll be considered the best D, bro. We got to stop them now.” That failed throw at the goal line is all anyone remembers — and it’s what Sherman can’t forget. He’d trash-talked his way through the game with an elbow injury, inspiring and irritating as always. He’d gotten in Julian Edelman‘s face and yelled, “You’re all weak! We eat y’all!” In the end, though, there was a viral video of his face, jaw dropped in disbelief after the fatal play: Sherman Crying.
Sherman has always been a man of extremes, of loud arrogance and quiet desperation, who plays as if his self-worth were at stake. It’s how a skinny kid from Compton who shied away from contact in youth football willed himself to Stanford and became one of the most physical corners in football history. He’s famous in the building both for being a teammate you can go to with any personal problem and for pointing fingers.
“He’s always looking at what other people are doing,” says a former assistant coach who has had many talks with him. “He’s made it personal. It’s your fault we’re not winning. It wears guys thin.”
“He’s always looking at what other people are doing. He’s made it personal. It’s your fault we’re not winning. It wears guys thin.”
A Seahawks coach who has had many talks with Sherman
In the weeks and months after Ifedi was slow to give up his seat, Sherman and Carroll had a series of conversations about old wounds that seemed fresh. Sherman had exploded on coaches and teammates on the sideline after a series of blown coverages in a two-point win over the Falcons on Oct. 16. A week later, against the Cardinals, Sherman was on the field for 99 snaps, including four on special teams. He was so exhausted and dehydrated, shivering with a fever, that he leaned on Wagner from the shower to his locker and drained two IV bags. It was a warrior effort wasted. Before overtime, Wilson’s offense had managed only five first downs and nine punts. The game ended 6-6. The offensive line was manhandled, but Carroll complimented Ifedi’s play after the game, privately setting off many Seahawks defenders as an example of Carroll seeming too positive.
Carroll felt that Sherman was putting too much pressure on himself. “It was beginning to mount,” Carroll says. Some in the building felt that Sherman had a point about Carroll not holding everyone to a high standard, but many assistant coaches shook their heads at the notion. “Pete is consistent,” says Sherman Smith, the seven-year Seahawks running backs coach who was let go after last season. “He treats the rookies the same way Richard was treated.”
Richard Sherman told some that he felt better after chatting with Carroll, but the feeling was temporary. “He was in a bad place,” a Seahawks source says. It was clear that he felt the culture he helped build was being eroded, an erosion that predated the Butler play and traced back to the months after the Super Bowl win in February 2014, when the defensive players noticed Russell Wilson seemed to be the favored son.
Wilson is an extremist too. He claims to flush bad plays right away, speaking of letting go so confidently that it seems rehearsed — and probably is, considering Wilson has been practicing news conferences since age 7. Wilson has said that he, like Carroll, made peace with the Butler interception immediately, chalking it up to the plan of a higher power. That spring Wilson chartered a trip for the entire team to Hawaii. He later framed it to Sports Illustrated not as a therapy session but rather as a forward-looking exercise. That made no sense. After all, the story detailed the hours players spent on the trip at the edge of a cliff, rehashing the play, airing grievances. Wilson, in the vein of Carroll, doubled down by saying that he’d throw to receiver Ricardo Lockette again.
The division remained, but then again, Wilson has been a divisive figure almost from the moment he earned the starting job, long before he became the most famous and highest-paid Seahawk. It seems to go beyond the normal jealousy aimed at most star quarterbacks. Teammates privately seem to want him exposed, but ask them why, or on what grounds, and their reasons vary. A man who vowed to live in transparency — Wilson famously announced that he was refraining from premarital sex with his then-girlfriend, Ciara — required guests to sign nondisclosure agreements before entering his box at Mariners games. After the Super Bowl against Denver, team management “fell in love with Russell,” in the words of a former high-level staffer; defensive players would see him in executives’ offices and wonder, “Why not me?” Pettiness grew. In 2014, Bleacher Report reported that some black teammates “think Wilson isn’t black enough.” Every Christmas, Wilson gives each player two first-class tickets on Alaska Airlines, one of his endorsements. “It didn’t cost him anything,” one Seahawk told an assistant coach last year. “Big deal.”
But all the resentment was manageable — until the 1-yard line. The Butler interception gave it a life of its own. Carroll hosts “Tell the Truth Monday” during the season, when he breaks down film. Some Seahawks joke that it should be renamed “Tell the Truth to Certain People,” because Wilson seems exempt from criticism. For as great as Wilson has played at times, for as well as he serves as the face of the franchise, for as tough as he is — last season he played through a sprained MCL, a high ankle sprain and a strained pectoral on his throwing side — only twice in his five years have the Seahawks finished in the top 10 in points scored. Sherman and the defense know the difference between very good quarterbacks and great ones. They see how Wilson, only 5-11, struggles to anticipate open windows; they see the offensive staff breaking down film of the Saints’ offense to figure out ways to deploy tight end Jimmy Graham, an All-Pro in New Orleans and a highly paid, ineffective red zone weapon in Seattle. It galls the defense to hear Wilson, ever positive, stand behind a podium and insist that the offense “made some great plays” after games in which the Seahawks barely score — and then be propped up as if he were Aaron Rodgers.
“Guys want Pete to call out Russ in front of the team,” Smith says. “That’s not what Pete does. Pete will single out a guy, but he does it the right way.”
Wilson’s determined self-belief in the face of crisis is as unbreakable as Sherman’s and Carroll’s. It helped him transcend his physical limitations, the death of his father, coaches who didn’t believe in him — and the loss to the Patriots. But the more Wilson spins obvious locker room strife into unrelenting positivity, the worse it seems to become. “A lot of guys, not just on defense but on offense, want Russell to fit into a mold that’s not him,” Smith says. “Why is everyone allowed to be themselves but Russell?” Wilson and Sherman are neither friends nor enemies, people who know them well say. They simply coexist — until they don’t. In Week 15 against the Rams last season, Wilson was almost intercepted at the LA 1-yard line. Sherman unloaded on Carroll on the sideline. Carroll tried to calm him down. It didn’t work. In the locker room afterward, Sherman heatedly talked to Carroll. “Yeah, I was letting [Carroll] know,” he later told reporters. “We’ve seen how that goes.”
Carroll followed up with a few meetings with Sherman. The coach believed that many intense, high-profile matchups had taken a toll. “He was keyed up, competing his ass off,” Carroll says. Sherman apologized to Carroll but publicly said he had no regrets. When questioned about it, he threatened to pull a reporter’s press credential. Sherman was asked how he would react if an offensive player jumped on a defensive coach. “If we had something like zero blitz in the Super Bowl and got bombed for a touchdown to lose, then I’m sure [it would] be understandable,” he said.
It was unbelievable: Less than three weeks before the playoffs, Sherman was bringing up the Butler interception. Some players felt that if Carroll had just once stood before the team and apologized for not ramming Marshawn Lynch into New England’s front from the 1-yard line — a front that had stuffed him on short yardage twice earlier — they would have had closure. But Carroll never apologized. And won’t. By calling a pass, he wanted to maximize his scoring chances and preserve his last timeout. Bill Belichick has backed the rationale more than Carroll’s own team.
Carroll tried to rally the team before the playoffs, but Sherman dismissed the effort as a routine “kumbaya” meeting. Even some of Sherman’s defensive teammates privately felt he had crossed a line. At Wilson’s next news conference, he opened with a canned shot at Sherman: “Don’t make me take y’all’s credentials, all right?” Three months later, after a second straight loss in the divisional round and increased chatter that an almost immortal team might be near the end of its run, the Seahawks and Sherman began to wonder whether a fresh start elsewhere would be best for both sides.
Carroll isn’t one to sweat personnel drama. He staked his return to the NFL on the idea of coaching within his own personality, and it would be a betrayal of his life’s work if his players weren’t allowed to behave within theirs, even when it comes back to bite him. But at the heart of Carroll’s program is a tacit promise: He will help players become their best selves, and in becoming their best selves, the team will become its best self. Nobody knows how Sherman fits into that now. In Carroll’s office in May, a conversation about Sherman and how to let go detours to a conversation that the coach had last year at Seattle University. He was with psychologist Angela Duckworth, author of Grit and a consultant to the Seahawks, discussing how he tries to “instill a mechanism of resilience” by persuading players to believe that they have the natural wiring to “allow them to maintain hope.”
When he was at USC, Carroll said, he would visit kids in South Central LA. The kids would explain that they had only two life options: death or jail. At first, Carroll didn’t get it. Who gives up so easily? Then he started to meet with them one-on-one, “in essence coaching them,” Carroll says. They were quick to fall back into despair when faced with a setback, but if Carroll showed that he cared, they seemed to rebound.
Sherman and Carroll go back to Sherman’s junior year at Manuel Dominguez High in Compton. Carroll saw a great defensive back in Sherman and recruited him hard to USC, but Sherman, as strong-willed as he was gifted, saw in himself a great wide receiver and chose the more academically prestigious Stanford. Something about Sherman always stuck with Carroll. “A big-thinking guy,” Carroll says. In 2011, when Carroll was in the NFL and Sherman was desperate to get there, the coach personally scouted him, leading to a fifth-round selection. Sherman struggled early as a rookie and then took off, showing the skill set that Carroll had proudly spotted in its infancy. He backed Sherman when he became a national debate topic for screaming into Erin Andrews’ mic about receiver Michael Crabtree. “We’ve been through a lot together,” Carroll says. “I’ve invested in him.”
As Carroll speaks, he sounds as he always does in the face of conflict: sincere — and a little too rosy. When the Seahawks’ huge comeback against the Panthers fell short in the 2015 playoffs, Carroll told the team, “We had a lot of momentum, and if we had one more minute, we’d be going to the next round.” But sunny-side-up talk gets under the skin of some defensive players. They are running out of minutes.
This offseason Sherman and Carroll held several private conversations. Sherman had told friends that he allowed himself to imagine playing for the Cowboys, maybe the Patriots, hoping Lynch would come out of retirement and join him in New England. But unless bad teams like the Bills or Browns gave up two first-round picks, he wasn’t going anywhere. By the draft, both sides were tired of the drama. The conversations turned into Sherman asking, “How do we get back to playing at the highest level?” It’s a new team this year: The coaching staff is younger, and Carroll has pledged to get back to running the ball more, to returning the offense to the version that won it all four seasons ago. The night before reporting for offseason workouts, Sherman sent a few tweets that ended with an affirmation that couldn’t have been said better by Carroll: “Honestly a lot of times nightmares come before the dream.”
Carroll seemed to have done it again, flipping despair into hope. People in the building wondered how Sherman would respond to a hit to his pride, returning to Seattle after he had set the stage to be shipped. But he went about his job as if nothing had happened. All business. He’s tutoring the young defensive backs, drafted to carry on his legacy. Maybe Sherman needed to dream of playing elsewhere to realize how good he has it. Or maybe it’s all just believable now in spring but breakable come autumn, after the inevitable incomplete throw at the goal line.
“Guys want Pete to call out Russ in front of the team. That’s not what Pete does.”
Former Seahawks running backs coach Sherman Smith
It never quite goes away, that enduring love between teammates. It’s still in Sherman, buried under the rage. In the Super Bowl XLVIII win over the Broncos, Sherman left the game after hurting his ankle. When the team ran onto the field under confetti, Sherman was on crutches, left behind. Two men noticed. From the stage, during the crowning achievement of his life, Carroll made a point to spot Sherman and pump his fist, no words needed. Then a player fought through the crowd, walking away from the stage, to see him. It was Wilson.
“You straight?” Wilson asked.
“I hope I didn’t break it,” Sherman said.
“Love you, man.”
They hugged and shook hands and their eyes locked. Sherman held his look for an extra beat, the way teammates do. Wilson then left to raise the trophy. Sherman watched the celebration from the field through tears, back when everything he got and everything he needed were one.