Kris Richard, the architect of the Legion of Boom, nearly blew up his own handiwork on an October afternoon in 2016.
Julio Jones had just glided through the Seahawks secondary, completely uncovered, for an easy Falcons touchdown. Miscommunication was the obvious cause: Some defenders were playing man coverage, some zone coverage, but none played Cover the Best Receiver on the Field Coverage.
It was a sign of growing fissures in a defense that had dominated the league for years. Earl Thomas shook his head as Jones celebrated in the end zone. An injured Kam Chancellor watched from the sideline in frustration.
And Richard Sherman went post-apocalyptic.
Sideline cameras caught a livid Sherman jawing and jostling with teammate Michael Bennett, then Chancellor, then Bobby Wagner. But sideline observers reported that the blowup started with a heated exchange with defensive coordinator Richard.
Editor's note: This is the third installment in B/R's "Next Belichick?" series, which profiles some of the top up-and-coming coaches. You'll get to know more about the following coaches in the coming weeks:
Part 1: Kliff Kingsbury
Part 2: Eric Bieniemy
Part 3: Kris Richard
Part 4: Josh McDaniels
Richard, per Dave Boling of the Tacoma News Tribune, "seemed to help push the plunger on Sherman's detonation."
The Legion was about to go boom.
You learn a lot about someone by how he responds when everything is going wrong. A traditional coach might double down after a sideline outburst like that, pull rank, enforce discipline and try to rein in his mercurial superstar, probably with counterproductive results.
But Richard isn't all that traditional.
"Calmer heads prevail," Richard said a few days after the incident. "And I am very hard on our guys."
"I coach them hard. And in light of those situations right there, maybe I need to calm down."
Richard has a reputation for being about as fiery and competitive as Sherman. Calming down and easing off can look like backing down or giving up after a mini-revolt on the sideline. It takes confidence in your authority to not exercise it when the eyes of the NFL world are on your sideline and locker room. Richard took both the defensive mistakes and his polarizing superstar's outburst upon himself.
Richard's bomb disposal tactic worked.
Wagner and other veterans simmered Sherman down, somewhat, as the game progressed. The Seahawks hung on to beat the Falcons. The team stuck together, reached the postseason, won a playoff game. There were other Mount Sherman eruptions that year, but the Seahawks found the fine line between aggressiveness and recklessness, finishing among the five best in the league in points and yards allowed for a fifth consecutive year.
Head coach Pete Carroll received most of the credit for the success. Sherman dominated the midday hot takes. The Legion reinforced its ranking on the lists of all-time great defenses.
Kris Richard somehow faded from the story.
Building the Giant
Architect of the Legion of Boom.
The title alone should get a guy a head coaching offer, right?
Calling Richard the designer of that legendary secondary is no exaggeration. It's how Sherman described Richard's role with the Seahawks in a 2015 ESPN.com interview.
"He kind of built the giant that we are now," Sherman said.
Richard did it, per Sherman, "with discipline, attention to detail, always being on it and always keeping us humble and down to earth, especially in the meeting room and making sure we understand our strengths, our weaknesses, what we do well and what we don't do well."
Calling those Seahawks secondaries a "giant" is also no exaggeration. The Legion of Boom—Sherman, Thomas, Chancellor and a rotating cast of Fourth Legionnaires—may have been the greatest secondary in NFL history. They helped the Seahawks win one Super Bowl and come down to the final play in a second. They were the linchpin of a defense that allowed the fewest points in the NFL for four straight years.
That giant rose from nowhere in the early 2010s.
"The only first-round guy that anyone ever knew about was Earl [Thomas]," Sherman said in 2015. "Now everyone is like, 'Oh, you guys have this big-time secondary.' Where were you guys at in 2011 when no one knew us from nobody?"
Sherman was a fifth-round rookie and converted Stanford wide receiver when the Legion began its run in 2011. Chancellor was a fifth-round pick in 2010. Brandon Browner, the original Fourth Legionnaire, was an unknown 27-year-old plucked from the CFL.
And Kris Richard was a 32-year-old former Seahawks bit player who followed Carroll's coaching staff from USC. Freshly promoted to defensive backs coach, Richard was tasked with turning these no-names and novices into a functioning secondary.
If you polish up a top-tier quarterback prospect like Jared Goff or Baker Mayfield for a year or two, the NFL cannot wait to label you as a genius and hand you a head coaching gig these days. But what about turning misfits into legends?
Thomas and Sherman will be Hall of Famers someday. Chancellor became a four-time Pro Bowler. Browner gave way to Byron Maxwell and then to session musicians, with minimal drop-offs in quality. That sure sounds more impressive than getting a good year or two out of quarterbacks who were expected to be great.
But Carroll got the glory as the Seahawks became champions and perennial contenders. Defensive coordinators Gus Bradley and Dan Quinn received head coaching offers elsewhere. Richard stayed behind as coordinator to deal with the injuries and shouting matches as the Legion became older, louder and more expensive, kept the pieces glued together for as long as he could and got fired when the franchise decided to blow things up and start over.
The best pick
Coordinators give up play-calling duties grudgingly and admit when they do so even more grudgingly. That's why it was surprising to hear Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli acknowledge early in the 2018 season that recently hired secondary coach and pass-defense coordinator Kris Richard was calling most of the defensive plays.
"All week [we talk about the play-calling], and I'll say: 'Hey, take it, Kris, you got it. Let's go. You got a good feel of the back room,'" Marinelli said in September, per Brandon George of Dallas Sportsday.
Marinelli had delegated responsibilities in the past; assistant Matt Eberflus (now the Colts defensive coordinator) handled some play calls in 2017. But under Richard, hired last January, the Cowboys defense became one of the best in the league.
The Cowboys finished sixth in the NFL in points allowed this season and seventh in yards. While edge-rusher Demarcus Lawrence was a big-name star and rookie linebacker Leighton Vander Esch was a prized prospect, much of the rest of the Cowboys defense was populated by unheralded youngsters, misfits and no-names.
In Richard's secondary, Byron Jones went from being a misplaced safety with injury issues to a Pro Bowl cornerback. A trio of second-year players (Chidobe Awuzie, Xavier Woods, Jourdan Lewis) all grew up at once. Anthony Brown became one of the league's best slot defenders.
With Richard calling the signals, the Cowboys defense held Drew Brees and the Saints to 111 passing yards in Week 13 and five other opponents under 200 passing yards in the regular season, spurring a late-season surge that propelled the team into the second round of the playoffs.
It looks like Richard is building an all-new mini-Legion in Dallas. And Marinelli has been quick to give him credit for it, calling Richard the Cowboys' "best pick" of the season in December.
"Everything he does I admire," Marinelli said of Richard, per Clarence E. Hill Jr. of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "The loyalty, the work ethic, the intelligence, the teaching, the inspiring—it's special. It's fun to come to work every day when you are around good people. He's a special coach."
No offer materialized. The Buccaneers chose old-school offensive mastermind Bruce Arians, the Jets recycled Adam Gase and the Dolphins reportedly are waiting until after the Super Bowl to hire Brian Flores from the Bill Belichick defensive school instead of plucking Richard from the Carroll school. Most of the other coaching candidacies were filled by fresh-faced Sean McVay lookalikes.
It appears Richard will remain in Dallas as a top lieutenant. Head coach Jason Garrett is reportedly up for an extension, according to the NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, despite an offense that moves the ball in lurches and spurts and is likely to get much more expensive—quarterback Dak Prescott and receiver Amari Cooper are due for contract extensions soon—before it gets any better.
In other words, another coach is benefiting from Richard's work again. That sort of thing never happens to the NFL's young quarterback-guru darlings.
When the Cowboys faced the Seahawks in the playoffs a few weeks ago, no members of the Legion of Boom were active. Richard's Cowboys easily won the defensive battle, shutting down the Seahawks until the last few drives of the game for a 24-22 victory that was not really that close.
It makes you wonder what the Seahawks were thinking when they let Richard go.
Respect around the league
The relationship between Kris Richard and Richard Sherman lies at the heart of Richard's head coaching candidacy.
Sherman's rise is testimony to Richard's skill as a nuts-and-bolts coach, his ability to teach footwork and coverage techniques to a someone learning the basics of his position.
Sherman's All-Pro peak proved that Richard could help design schemes capable of humiliating Peyton Manning and frustrating Tom Brady in Super Bowls while keeping a room full of the NFL's thorniest personalities from turning into Arkham Asylum.
The Sherman outbursts of 2016 showed another aspect to Richard's style: that he can mend relationships and shift gears when things aren't working. That's a rare skill in the my-way-or-highway world of NFL coaching and a critical skill when dealing with 21st century athletes.
Sherman was still with the Seahawks when Richard was fired as part of a mass coaching purge after the 2017 season. Sherman was surprised by the move. "It was kind of odd, but I guess time for a change," he said in an end-of-year interview.
That doesn't mean Sherman's relationship had soured with his coach as the Legion of Boom eroded and the squabbles intensified.
"I spoke to him throughout the whole process," Sherman said. "We had a very open dialogue about the offers he was getting.
"Thank goodness he had a ton of respect around the league and had a number of offers. He picked the one that he thought would suit him best, and I was happy for him."
Sherman was released from his contract a month later, marking the end of an era in Seattle.
Building great defenses or offenses is a key part of a head coach's job. So is building good relationships, particularly with temperamental superstars. So is building trust and a collaborative relationship with fellow coaches and others within the organization, the kind of trust that convinces old football lifers to try things a different way.
Architect of the Legion of Boom. Driving force behind the resurgent 2018 Cowboys. The intense competitor who knows when it's time to become a little less intense.
Kris Richard will be a great head coach once the NFL's obsession with offensive wunderkinds ends and teams realize that coaches who have proved they can stop those offenses—and manage the strong personalities needed to stop those offenses—are in very short supply.
For now, Richard must watch and wait while yet another coach reaps the reward for his efforts.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.