Fear takes subtle forms in the NFL. An offense fearing dominant defensive linemen can assign additional blockers to mitigate the damage. A defense fearing a gifted receiver can roll its coverages. A quarterback fearful of an elite cornerback can direct his passes elsewhere. True intimidation is mostly a myth -- unless, that is, you're a wide receiver or tight end venturing into the Seattle Seahawks' secondary, where 25-year-old strong safety Kam Chancellor turns alpha males into wary self-preservationists.
It's gotten comical of late. In the last five weeks alone we've seen the most productive tight end in the league reverse course and run backward into a Seahawks linebacker to avoid Chancellor, a veteran quarterback try to wave off Chancellor before sliding short of a first down, and a former Pro Bowl receiver whiff on a slant route as Chancellor threatened to greet him with all of his 6-foot-3, 232-pound might.
Rule changes designed to facilitate offense and promote player safety have not stopped teams from valuing the rare intimidating presence at the safety position. Chancellor and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Dashon Goldson provide two prominent examples. They are receiving a combined $34 million in guarantees as part of contracts they signed in the past 10 months. "You're talking about one of the most intimidating players in the NFL," Seahawks general manager John Schneider said when the team announced Chancellor's contract extension last April. While Goldson has continued to rack up fines and risk suspension, Chancellor has managed to affect games through intimidation without violating rules nearly as frequently as he did earlier in his career.
The storyline carries additional interest as the New Orleans Saints prepare to visit Seattle for a divisional playoff game Saturday. The U-turn Saints tight end Jimmy Graham made when confronted by Chancellor in Week 13 is worth another look, as are additional plays that resonate in NFL film rooms and affect how the game is played.
Is there an intimidation factor in the NFL?
That question made Chancellor chuckle as he sat in his locker before a recent practice. "I'm the type that never calls guys scared because you have to have guts to play this game," he said. "I just say they make smart decisions."
The game tape that players study shows every play from two angles, the first one wide enough to show all 22 players from start to finish. The hits a player such as Chancellor puts on video can influence how a quarterback, receiver and even a coordinator approach a specific opponent. When Chancellor de-cleated and pancaked Arizona Cardinals offensive tackle Eric Winston before making a physical tackle back in Week 7, the Seahawks' Week 8 opponent, St. Louis, took note. As Rams quarterback Kellen Clemens put it when addressing reporters a few days later, "Kam Chancellor, have mercy, do not be standing on the tracks when that freight train comes down the tunnel."
Clemens' words proved prophetic, as we'll see when running through five recent examples of intimidation at the highest level of the game.
1. Waving off trouble. Clemens was scrambling to his right with 7:07 remaining in the fourth quarter of the Rams' Week 17 game at Seattle when he spotted Chancellor about 5 yards away and closing fast. Clemens pulled up quickly and raised his left hand in the air as if preparing to take an oath. I solemnly swear to gain no additional yardage if you promise not to eviscerate me in a game we're losing by 24 points. Clemens dropped to the ground. Chancellor spared him. Pause the video at the 7:02 mark and you'll see the gesture, the only one of its kind that I can recall.
"That is the first time I've ever seen where you could tell a guy saw who it was and said, 'Nah, I'm going to turn this one down,'" Seahawks defensive end Cliff Avril said.
Broadcast footage showed players and sideline support staff laughing after the play.
"We were joking and laughing about it," Chancellor said. "He said, 'I seen the tape,' and I'm joking and laughing with him. It is just a smart decision, that's all, because I'm coming downhill with a full head of steam not looking to stop."
2. Graham's U-turn. Chancellor talks about smart decisions, and Graham appeared to make one of them on the first play of the fourth quarter during the Seahawks' 34-7 victory over the Saints in Week 13. Graham had broken a tackle and was 19 yards downfield when he suddenly turned to his right and headed backward, away from the onrushing Chancellor and directly into linebacker K.J. Wright. The play was not on my radar until I asked Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman whether he believed in intimidation at the NFL level.
"I didn't think it existed," Sherman replied. "But check out the play where Jimmy Graham caught the long pass and ran across the middle and I missed the tackle. Kam is in front of me. Kam is the high safety. K.J. Wright is maybe 5 yards behind him. [Graham] catches it, he looks at Kam, he runs upfield and then goes backwards and gets tackled by K.J. I've never seen it on a football field before. It definitely exists."
3. Cruz drops the ball. It's tougher to tell whether the intimidation factor was at work when New York Giants receiver Victor Cruz let a pass slip through his hands with 6:41 remaining in the first quarter of Seattle's 23-0 victory in Week 15. Chancellor was closing in a hurry and pulled up at the last second, colliding with Cruz lightly enough to avoid a penalty. This game was more notable for receiver Hakeem Nicks' failure to compete for the football on other passes. "Cruz might have just dropped it," Chancellor said. "I don't know if that was a decision or not."
4. Ellington opts out. Cardinals running back Andre Ellington briefly cut back inside on a second-and-9 play with 5:50 left in the first quarter in Week 7. He reversed course quickly and stepped out of bounds after appearing to spot Chancellor heading his way. "He actually said something to me on the play," Chancellor said. "He was like, 'I seen the tape.' That was about it. I call that a smart decision. I don't ever call anyone scared."
5. Davis steps out of bounds. Last season, Chancellor tagged 49ers tight end Vernon Davis hard enough for Davis to suffer a concussion. Officials flagged Chancellor on the play, but the NFL later determined the hit was within the rules. There was no fine. Davis and Chancellor were on a collision course again in Week 2 this season following Davis' short reception on a third-and-20 play with 5:12 left in the first quarter. "When he caught the ball to the flat, he had his opportunity to pretty much get me back, and he stepped out of bounds," Chancellor said. "But I call that a smart decision."
Safeties, by the nature of their duties, are uniquely positioned to hit opponents at high speed and for maximum impact. The trend has been for teams to use interchangeable safeties in an effort to promote improved pass coverage. Seattle has bucked convention on many fronts, including this one. Chancellor and 5-foot-10, 202-pound free safety Earl Thomas are as dissimilar physically as safeties could be, but together, they are as formidable as any tandem in recent memory, with multiple Pro Bowl honors already. It's only a matter of time before Thomas commands a contract averaging even more than Chancellor's $7 million, four-year extension signed last year.
Chancellor stands apart from other safeties for his combination of rare size, speed and ferocity. As Sherman put it, Chancellor seemingly generates power from nowhere.
"I'd say Goldson is another guy, you have to know where you are on the field because he is going to come in flying and try to tag you," Seahawks receiver Golden Tate said. "I think Donte Whitner [49ers] is another guy. Eric Berry [Chiefs] is a good, smart player who will lay a hat. Adrian Wilson [Patriots] was a big hitter. William Moore of the Falcons is a big hitter."
The key, Tate said, is for receivers and quarterbacks to minimize risks.
"Really, that is when having a good relationship with your quarterback comes in big," he said. "The trust I have in Russell Wilson is tremendous. I trust that he is never going to throw me into a headache. He hasn't done that, knock on wood. And if he did throw me into a headache, I hope he sends me flowers."
In researching this piece, I ran across a rather illuminating anecdote regarding Goldson via Seattle receiver Ricardo Lockette, who played with Goldson when both were with the 49ers. According to Lockette, when Goldson was battling injuries, opposing receivers would approach Lockette during warm-ups to ask whether the 49ers expected Goldson to be in the lineup that day. They wanted to know the threat level.
"You would hear during warm-ups, like when we're out there throwing the ball around in our sweats and stuff, receivers from the other team would be like, 'Is Goldson playing? Tell him, man, look out for me, man, for real -- I'm just trying to make it through the game,'" Lockette said. "I would tell them, 'What's your name again? OK, cool, buddy, what is your number?'"
From there, Lockette would pass along the information to Goldson -- not to assure the receivers' protection, but to tip off the safety that certain players were particularly wary of him that day.
Another one of Goldson's former teammates, 49ers defensive lineman Ray McDonald, said he had no problem with players making the types of "smart decisions" alluded to by Chancellor, within reason. He laughed when told of the time Clemens held up his hand.
"Dudes got lives," McDonald said. "They don't want to be walking around drooling at the mouth the next couple of days. If I was him, I would have done the same thing. The game was out of reach. Live to play another [down]. You don't need to prove to anybody you're a tough guy. We all went through that tough stage in high school and college."
The trash talk that can be pervasive between plays creates the appearance that some players are going through such stages in the pros. That is apparently one area where Chancellor factors, as well.
"In terms of the intimidation factor, a lot of people don't create conflict with him," Sherman said. "You see back and forth after every play and guys bickering. You never see that with Kam. You never see anybody going back and forth and bickering and doing all that. If Kam comes up, all the bickering and those things stop. They just let him be."