When we last left the world of the NFL, Sherman had it in his hip pocket. On the field and off, he was the NFL's biggest story.
Nothing has changed.
In my game preview, I predicted Packers head coach Mike McCarthy would use the well-known fact that Sherman only plays on the left side to avoid him and instead attack right corner Byron Maxwell with No. 1 receiver Jordy Nelson. Nobody could have predicted the Packers would literally never throw the ball to Sherman's side of the field:
It's not uncommon for teams to avoid picking on the league's top corners. But Aaron Rodgers didn't just choose not to throw it Sherman's way; McCarthy and the Packers game-planned to make sure he wouldn't.
It's been a long time since a cornerback was so respected—so feared—that the league's best quarterbacks and teams refused to even test him. Not since Hall of Famer Deion Sanders has one man been able to shut down a third of the field like that.
As Sherman told Dan Wetzel of Yahoo Sports, this is far from the first time opponents have played keep-away with him:
I used to get pissed off when I was younger. Now I just stay sound and make an impact somewhere...you just have to stay locked in. You can't be selfish. That's the biggest thing. You have a job to do, and you have to do it and let the chips fall where they may. But you can't lag on a play and cost your defense.
Working mostly against receiver Jarrett Boykin, Sherman had one long, boring night.
However, Sherman is not the only corner in the NFL who could shut down Boykin for a night. Whispers in NFL circles have become shouts that the former Stanford star can't be as good as everyone thinks he is if he's not always covering the No. 1 pass-catcher.
Hines Ward, legendary Pittsburgh Steelers wideout and NBC Sports analyst, told Bleacher Report NFL Lead Writer Mike Freeman that Sherman "takes himself out of the game by not covering the best receiver."
Ward isn't the first NFL great to make this point. In fact, Deion Sanders said it himself. He told Dan Bickley of The Arizona Republic Sherman isn't as good as Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson:
First of all, I know this position. When you look up, ‘cornerback,’ you see me. There’s a picture of me. When I start talking about cornerbacks, there’s Darrelle Revis; Champ Bailey; (Antonio) Cromartie from the Jets; Joe Haden; and, of course, Patrick Peterson. They play both sides. They play every receiver.
But with Sherman, I said, ‘Let me take a look at this guy who is only playing left corner and making all this noise.' And what I found out was, he’s not as athletic as Patrick Peterson; he’s not quick and doesn’t come out of breaks like Champ Bailey. But the guy is smart. He studies his butt off. And the reason I know that is the anticipation I saw him make on a couple of plays comes from studying, not from skill.
This is a classic reflection of what football has always been about: matching man up against man and finding out who's The Man.
Prime Time shouldn't strut too much, though; he didn't always cover the best man on the field either.
In the early 1990s, the San Francisco 49ers got sick of the Dallas Cowboys' No. 2 receiver, Alvin Harper, torching them while they tried to cover Hall of Fame No. 1 Michael Irvin. So, per Hank Gola of the New York Daily News, in the 1994 NFC Championship Game, they put Sanders on Harper and rolled double coverage over on Irvin.
In terms of stopping Irvin, it was a disaster: He snagged 12 catches for 192 yards and two touchdowns, per Pro-Football-Reference.com. But Sanders erased Harper, allowing just one catch for 14 yards—and the 49ers won, 38-28, and went on to win Super Bowl XXIX.
In the wake of friction between Sanders and 49ers Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice, Sanders left the 49ers for the Cowboys that offseason. The 1995 Week 11 rematch was bound to be one for the ages. San Francisco offensive coordinator Marc Trestman wanted no part of settling the Rice/Sanders rivalry, though; he wanted to win.
Per Vito Stellino of The Baltimore Sun, the 49ers game-planned Sanders out of the game by moving Rice into the slot, leaving Sanders on receiver John Taylor—and opening Rice up for a huge game.
Sanders didn't need to be shadowing the best receiver on the field to be the best cornerback in the NFL, and Sherman doesn't either.
Sanders and Ward are absolutely right to point at Revis and Peterson as great players. But, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), they aren't anywhere near as lethal as Sherman. Take a look at the five least-targeted cornerbacks of 2013 among those with a qualifying snap count:
|2013's Least-Targeted NFL Cornerbacks|
|Name||Team||Snaps||TA %||% Ct||TD||In||PD|
|Pro Football Focus|
Sherman was targeted on just 5.7 percent of the 1,003 snaps he played, by far the lowest target rate of any qualifying cornerback. Revis was second-lowest at 6.5 percent—but Sherman grabbed eight interceptions to Revis' two, and Sherman surrendered just one touchdown, compared to Revis' four.
It's worth repeating: NFL quarterbacks threw just 57 passes at Sherman last season, and he picked off eight of them. That's a 14.0 percent interception rate!
Would Revis' targets go down if he stayed on one side and let teams game-plan around him? Would Sherman's fantastic interception rates drop if he always matched up against the No. 1 wide receiver? No one can say.
However, you can say Richard Sherman dominates games like no other cornerback in the NFL—even if quarterbacks never throw a pass his way.
Just ask Aaron Rodgers.