RENTON — The process of building the best secondary in the NFL started simply enough.
Coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider were prepared to trade back in the opening round of their first Seahawks draft in order to load up on picks, but when Texas safety Earl Thomas was still sitting there at pick No. 14, they simply couldn’t pass up the chance to select him.
But how the rest of the back end of Seattle’s defense — now known as the “Legion of Boom” — came together is anything but conventional.
Assembling a secondary full of Pro-Bowlers and All-Pros started with Thomas, then continued with the selection of Kam Chancellor in the fifth round of that same draft. Chancellor would bide his time in 2010 backing up veteran Lawyer Milloy before emerging as a star in 2011, the same year the Seahawks added two long-limbed, physical corners — the kind Carroll always dreamed of coaching. And neither Brandon Browner, who was signed out of the Canadian Football League, nor Richard Sherman, a receiver-turned-corner who was a fifth-round pick, was close to a sure thing to earn a roster spot, let alone Pro-Bowl or All-Pro honors. Yet three years after Chancellor and Thomas first met — back when Thomas thought the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Chancellor must have been a lost linebacker or defensive end when he walked into the defensive backs’ meeting room — and two years after Browner and Sherman joined the team, the Seahawks secondary, or LOB for short, is, along with second-year quarterback Russell Wilson, the biggest reason the Seahawks are a trendy Super Bowl pick.
Heck, they’ve even got floor mats in front of their lockers, custom jobs made by the brother of assistant equipment manager Derin Lazuta that read “Legion of Boom” and have the numbers 29, 25, 31 and 39 printed on the corners. And if custom floor mats aren’t a sign that you’ve made it, what is?
The members of Seattle’s secondary say the hype surrounding them and the team as a whole won’t change the way they go about their business, but they also aren’t going to waste their time or yours with false modesty.
“We set the bar for secondaries around the NFL,” Thomas said.
Don’t just take their word for it. Listen to a player who has to go against Seattle’s secondary on a daily basis in practice.
“It’s the best back end in the league, hands down, by far,” receiver Doug Baldwin said. “There’s no question about it.”
And if you’re worried that Baldwin is biased, how about an endorsement from Carolina Panthers receiver Steve Smith, who will open the season against the same secondary that held him to four catches for 40 yards last year despite being targeted 13 times.
“They’re very physical, they fly around,” Smith said on a conference call. “They trust and believe in each other, they believe that they’re the best on the field and they carry that on to the game, and when you have confidence like that, it’s hard to be shaken.”
So what makes the Seahawks’ secondary so darn good? How did a too-small free safety, two fifth-round picks and a guy the Seahawks found playing in Calgary end up, in Thomas’ words, “setting the bar” for NFL secondaries?
Well for starters, there’s the obvious physical traits — Thomas’ sideline-to-sideline speed, Chancellor’s physicality, Sherman and Browner’s disruptive length — but there’s more to it than that. There’s the work ethic possessed by all four players.
As Sherman describes it, Chancellor and Thomas are such film junkies that they can tell you what an opposing team’s tackles look like pre-snap when the offense is going to run as opposed to pass, or which linemen are likely to be farthest down field blocking on a particular run play.
As a group, they’ll discuss what went wrong or right on a particular play not on the sideline following a series, but right then and there between plays, before they hear it from coaches, and more importantly, before that mistake can be exploited by an opportunistic offense.
And on a team full of players who have the edge that comes with feeling underestimated or slighted — Wilson, Baldwin and Chris Clemons, to name a few — Seattle’s secondary is a microcosm of a roster full of aggressive, athletic players who take the field with a certain swagger fueled by a desire to be great and to prove wrong their doubters, both real and perceived.
“Most definitely we feed off of that,” Browner said. “Our whole team, our core group of guys are like that. Russell’s a third-rounder and they brought (Matt) Flynn in right before him, all across the board our team’s like that. That’s what makes us who we are, we play fast and physical out there and that’s what gives us the edge.”
There’s also an element of coaching involved, to be sure. Carroll is, after all, a coach who first made a name for himself as a defensive assistant, and the former college safety has long been known as something of a secondary guru. But perhaps what makes this group so good is their ability to complement each others skills.
“It’s just that, they’re a unit,” Baldwin said. “There’s not one person on that back end who’s more important than the other.”
Any member of Seattle’s secondary would be good on plenty of other teams, but together their sills form a unit that’s exceptional. Not only do their physical talents make each other better, so does the hypercompetitive attitude that permeates the Seattle locker room, and the secondary in particular.
“Individually they’ve all got their special unique skills,” defensive passing game coordinator Rocky Seto said. “They’re big, and Earl’s the really fast guy in the middle, but how they really complement each other is how they drive each other to try to get better every day. They feed off each other and have a pact with each other to try to get better every single day.”
Yet that competitiveness between teammates shouldn’t be confused for animosity. As Thomas notes, they get on each other’s nerves — and yes, Sherman is the biggest culprit — but they also can perform so well because they know each player will do his job on any given play.
“That’s a big part of it,” Sherman said. “Trust on defense is one of the biggest aspects. It’s almost like a quarterback and receiver, they’ve got to trust the guy’s going to run the right route. Earl and Kam trust that me and B.B. are going to do our jobs on the edge, and we trust they’ll take care of the middle. If anything goes awry, there’s never a moment like, ‘Oh man, I don’t think he’s going to do it this time.’ There’s never a doubt in one another. We’re brothers out there. Something might happen, we’ll discuss it, but we’ll never lose confidence in each other.”
That closeness is the reason Thomas suggested before last week’s preseason game that all four be introduced together, not individually.
“I’m always the last one they call out on Sundays,” Thomas said. “But it’s not about me, it’s not about anybody, it’s about the collective group and what we’ve got going and what we set out to do.”
And, of course, when it comes to building the game’s best secondary, shrewd talent acquisition doesn’t hurt either. The Seahawks aren’t just talented at the starting spots. They’re deep enough with players such as nickel corner Walter Thurmond and backups Jeremy Lane and Byron Maxwell that Schneider and Carroll felt comfortable cutting three-time Pro Bowler Antoine Winfield last weekend.
“I’ve never had this much depth at corner,” Carroll said.
And whether he wants to admit it or not, the realities of the business side of the game mean Carroll may not have this particular secondary full of stars much longer. Browner and Thurmond are both free agents after this season, and while Chancellor signed a long-term extension in the offseason, Sherman and Thomas both have just two years left on their rookie contracts. The Seahawks likely will make extending Thomas and Sherman priorities in the offseason, but there are no guarantees that this group can stay together beyond this year.
So while fans would be wise to enjoy watching the Legion of Boom in case this year marks the end of an era, the players are realistic enough to know that there is an opportunity at hand that may not come around again.
“You never know how it will go from year to year,” Thomas said. “You can see that from the cuts they made this year. So we’re excited to be a part of what we’ve built, and we know our opportunities are slim to none, so we’ve got to take advantage of this opportunity.”
The members of the Legion of Boom would love to stay together for the long haul, but for now, they know that can’t be the focus. They’ve got bigger goals in mind than just being known as the best secondary in the NFL.
“That’d mean a lot (to keep the secondary intact),” Browner said. “Hopefully we can get it done. But for now, we’re hoping we can win the Super Bowl, that’s the biggest thing.”
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.