RENTON — In the very early stages of their Seattle Seahawks careers, Earl Thomas thought Kam Chancellor was a little weird.
The two rookie safeties, who had just been drafted by the Seahawks, were roommates in a Seattle-area hotel, and when Chancellor turned on the animated T.V. show “Family Guy,” Thomas, who’s more the ESPN SportsCenter type, wasn’t sure what to make of his new teammate.
“He called me weird for watching ‘Family Guy,’” Chancellor recalled with a laugh.
Thomas may have called his new teammate weird, but what he did not do on that day nearly five years ago was try to change the channel. Even when it comes to the remote control, people have known for a while now not to mess with Chancellor.
Over the course of five seasons, the rest of the NFL has discovered that while Chancellor has a goofy side off the field, he plays from, as he puts it, a dark place when he steps between the lines.
That was never more evident than on Saturday when Chancellor had 11 punishing tackles, one interception return for a touchdown, and two absurdly athletic, though ultimately unproductive, hurdles over Carolina’s line on field-goal attempts.
There are more talented players on Seattle’s defense, but there none more fearsome than Chancellor. There also may not be anyone more important to Seattle’s defensive dominance, not just because of the plays Chancellor makes, but the tone he sets with his physical play. If Marshawn Lynch is the engine that drives Seattle’s offense, then Chancellor is the hammer of the defense.
“He definitely sets the tone,” said Thomas, who thought Chancellor was lost the first time the 6-foot-3, 232-pound strong safety walked into the defensive backs’ meeting room. “He sets the tone. It’s something that you can feel. You see he gets up and starts pounding his hands, all that stuff is contagious, and that’s when we’re at our best, when everybody is doing their own thing and they’re bringing it to the group.”
And while a lot of different things could happen in Sunday’s NFC championship game, one of the safest predictions anyone could make is that Chancellor will again set a physical tone and come up with a few big plays. As well as Chancellor has played throughout his Seahawks career since taking over a starting role in 2011 — twice being named second-team All-Pro and three times a Pro Bowler — he has been even better in the postseason these past two seasons.
Chancellor had double-digit tackles just once last year and once this year during the regular season, yet he has 10 or more tackles in all four playoff games over the past two seasons. He also has interceptions in three straight postseason games. There’s a strong case to be made that Chancellor should have been named Super Bowl MVP last year, not just for his 10 tackles and an interception, but also for the punishing hit on Broncos’ receiver Demaryius Thomas that sent a message early that Seattle’s defense was going to dictate to Denver’s record-setting offense, and not the other way around.
“I don’t know how you can play a better game than he played last week,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “You saw the impact that he can have. A few players have that obvious impact of the physical nature that when they demonstrate it, it picks everybody up and lifts them up. Part of that is when you know the guy can do that and you anticipate it, and then he does it. It just is one of those things that you can see it coming, and then it just — it affects a lot of people, and that’s what he’s doing right now.”
Chancellor downplays the notion that he gets up for big games, but rather attributes his strong play in the postseason to getting healthy at the right time. He had ankle surgery after the 2012 season and hip surgery following last season, meaning limited offseason preparation each of the past two years.
He then dealt with ankle and hip injuries this year, playing far below his normal ability before eventually missing two games. After that absence, however, Chancellor returned playing as well as he has in his career and, along with the return of Bobby Wagner, played a big role in Seattle’s defensive turnaround.
“I always get healthier around the end of the year,” Chancellor said. “The past season I always had surgery, and ankle surgery at the beginning of the season, hip surgery, and I just had to battle to get through and keep pushing and pushing and get stronger or better.”
In an era of increasing limitations on what a defense is allowed to do, on how players are allowed to hit, Chancellor has managed to still be an intimidating force while adapting to rule changes. He has removed the concussion-inducing headshots that were part of his game early in his Seattle career and become an enforcer who is no less fearsome while leading with his shoulders, which, by the way, are tattooed with his nickname “Bam Bam” so he can “stamp” opposing players with his hits. Russell Wilson is the face of the franchise, Thomas might be the most talented player, and Richard Sherman is the most vocal and recognizable player on defense, but no one defines what the Seahawks want to be on defense like Chancellor.
“That Kam Chancellor, I don’t even let (my kids) watch it when he’s out there,” Arizona linebacker Larry Foote said this week on SiriusXM NFL Radio. “They’re not old enough. I don’t want them waking up with nightmares… I believe he’s the best safety in the game.”
Herald Columnist John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org