With Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor getting injured in 2016, the Legion of Boom wasn’t at its best ... Now, all the key elements are back in place.
First impressions turned into lasting memories for Kris Richard as he met each of the three players who would become not only the founding members of the Legion of Boom, but the ones who will define it forever.
Arriving first was free safety Earl Thomas, who on April 23, 2010, walked into the VMAC in Renton a day after the Seahawks drafted him with the 14th overall choice. Thomas walked in “like he already owned the place,’’ recalls Richard, who then was in his first year as Seattle’s assistant defensive-backs coach and now is defensive coordinator.
“Which was really cool because it wasn’t disrespectful. It was just that it wasn’t too big for him. His plan, from the first conversation we had, was that he wanted to be the best safety (in the NFL), period. Actually, he wanted to be the best defensive back — he thinks he can play cornerback, too.’’
Next came strong safety Kam Chancellor, who arrived two days after Thomas and struck Richard as displaying “a maturity kind of beyond his years. Just an understanding, a quietness about him, a peacefulness. Just an old-soul type.’’
A year later came cornerback Richard Sherman, who had wowed Seattle coaches with his understanding of football during his 15-minute official interview with the team at the NFL combine a couple months earlier.
“So bubbly, sincere, intelligent,’’ Richard said. “He’s just always been really smart.’’
Each also arrived having something to prove — Chancellor and Sherman the obvious aim to show they shouldn’t have fallen to the fifth round.
And Thomas? Richard laughs that even though he’d been taken as high as he was, Thomas thought he still had been, well, doubted.
“He felt he should have been the first overall pick and that no one should have been picked after him,’’ Richard said with a smile.
Once together, they devised a simple, if difficult to achieve, goal.
“They set out to be the best ever,’’ Richard said.
By any measure, they have at least come close.
With Sherman, Thomas and Chancellor having each been named to at least four Pro Bowls since 2011, Seattle led the NFL in fewest points allowed for four consecutive years from 2012-15. In the process, they turned in one of the most dominant Super Bowl performances ever, holding what had been the highest-scoring team in league history in 2013 to a lone touchdown in a 43-8 victory over the Broncos.
But last year, the LOB — and by extension the entire Seattle defense — looked mortal for the first time.
Chancellor missed four games at midseason with a groin injury, his longest injury absence ever.
Sherman had two notable sideline blowups and decided for a while to stop talking with local media. While his play didn’t necessarily suffer, his image did, leading to an offseason when the team took the rare step of acknowledging it was fielding trade offers for him.
Then came the most shocking moment of all as the seemingly indestructible Thomas — who just a few weeks earlier had set a franchise record for most consecutive games started by a defensive player at 107 — suffered a broken tibia in a game Dec. 4 and soon after tweeted he was contemplating retirement.
“I think the injury was just a shock,’’ said Richard. “When you have never been injured before, that air of invincibility, it gets tarnished a bit. I mean, the man broke his leg and he walked off the field — that’s how tough of a man we are talking about here. I knew he thought he was going to be able to go back in and play — in his heart of hearts he thought he was going to go back in. And it was just a heartbreaking moment for all of us.’’
Without Thomas, the Seahawks simply broke. They allowed 30 or more points in three of the six games he missed after breaking his leg. The season ended in the divisional playoffs in Atlanta against a Falcon offense that appeared able to do whatever it wanted.
“The end of the Seattle Seahawks’ Legion of Boom is officially here,’’ blared a headline from Bleacher Report that, while clearly clickbait, was hardly alone in wondering if the team’s window was closing rapidly.
But as the spring and summer of 2017 progressed, the wounds of 2016 healed.
Chancellor had surgery to remove bone spurs on both ankles, later proclaiming that he feels better than he has in years. He also signed a three-year contract extension that finally put fully to rest any possible ill feelings lingering on either side from his 2015 holdout.
Thomas quickly set aside any retirement talk that most around the team always understood was largely due to his rare emotion and passion. He was posting video on Instagram of himself running by March, and was back practicing without any real restrictions by May.
And Sherman, realizing by the time the draft rolled around that the team wouldn’t get any offers that would make it worth trading him, not only seemed accepting of at least another year in Seattle but as invested as ever. He held what felt like a clear-the-air news conference with local media in June and a month later was earning praise for mentoring a player some think could be his eventual replacement: third-round choice Shaquill Griffin.
By August, Richard said it was almost as if none of the mess at the end of 2016 and the beginning of 2017 had ever happened.
“It feels normal,’’ Richard said on the day training camp officially ended. “It feels really normal.’’
Still, time is the biggest enemy of all of us, especially for professional athletes, whose peak comes when they are still in their relative youth and who can lose the split-second difference that separates them from everyone else in the blink of an eye.
Sherman turned 29 in March, Chancellor 29 in April and Thomas 28 in May.
But easy to forget in the often-chaotic events of 2016 is that when the three were on the field together they were as good as ever.
In the seven games that all three played — which included a victory over Super Bowl champion New England on the road — the Seahawks allowed just two touchdown passes in 187 attempts, according to Pro Football Focus, and a 63.98 passer rating. That would have been almost six points better than Denver, which led the NFL in that category for the season at 69.7, and on par with the 63.4 rating Seattle allowed in 2013 when it won the Super Bowl, when Sherman, Chancellor and Thomas each played all 16 games.
Without either Thomas and Chancellor in the lineup last season (Sherman played every game), the Seahawks allowed a passer rating of at least 95.25, giving up 17 touchdown passes in the nine games one of them missed and allowed a whopping 11 touchdowns in the five-plus regular season games for which Thomas was absent.
And those who study the numbers most closely have decided that they don’t lie.
The analytic site FootballOutsiders.com, noting how well Seattle played when everyone was healthy in 2016, recently rated the Seahawks as having the No. 1 defense in the NFL entering the season, noting that the Seahawks led the league in yards allowed per rush last season at 3.4 and that “with Earl Thomas coming back, the pass defense should return to a dominant level as well, giving Seattle the No. 1 defense overall in our 2017 projections.”
The long-term future, though, is uncertain.
While Chancellor has re-upped and is bound to the team until 2020, both Sherman and Thomas have just two years remaining on their contracts, meaning each could be seeking extensions after the 2017 season (as happened with Chancellor this summer, and Thomas and Sherman in past seasons as each side typically tries to secure a new deal before a player enters the final season of his contract).
The 2017 offseason could be an especially pivotal time for Sherman. The hope is that the uprisings in 2016 were just a blip and a year or so from now each side will be announcing he’ll be finishing his career in Seattle.
The smart move, though, might be to simply enjoy the present and worry about the future later.
Sherman, certainly, reveled in the moment during a scrimmage in August when Thomas dived and caught a tipped pass for an interception.
“It’s awesome,’’ Sherman said later of what it meant to have Thomas again roaming the back end with abandon. “It means we’re back, complete.’’
And for now, maybe that’s all that matters.
Bob Condotta and Larry Stone preview the Seahawks’ 2017 season