TAMPA, Fla. – Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Richard Sherman jumped on a flight -- a Boeing 738 to be exact -- and flew 2,520 miles from Seattle to Tampa on Sept. 28, practiced for two days, and, at the age of 33, having not played in the NFL in 288 days, lined up for all but one of 54 defensive snaps against the New England Patriots five days later.
Sherman learned he’d play Friday or Saturday, but it wasn’t until Saturday night, when starter Jamel Dean was still unable to push off his injured knee, that Sherman found out he would start in a complicated Todd Bowles’ defense. He also had barely scratched the surface of learning it at that point.
“In the middle of the game, I realized there wasn’t gonna be a rotation, once [Carlton Davis] went out,” Sherman said. “Once that happened, the plan kind of got thrown out the window.”
His help was supposed to be cornerback Pierre Desir, who was elevated from the practice squad one day earlier. But late in the second quarter, Desir was forced to step in for Davis, who at that point was their lone original starter. By the game’s final two drives, the Bucs had one of five original starting defensive backs -- Jordan Whitehead -- because safety Antoine Winfield Jr. (concussion) left the game.
“I started to get into ‘energy conservation mode’ throughout the game,” Sherman said. “You hate to say you saved some for the swim back, but it’s like, you don’t have a choice at that point. Because I don’t know exactly what I have for the rest of the game. … And even still, in the fourth quarter, my legs were like Jell-O, but you’ve just gotta soldier through and do what you can to help the team.”
A week later, in the Bucs' 47-15 win over the Miami Dolphins, and Sherman’s first time playing in a 1 p.m. ET game in Tampa, where it was 84 degrees, the Bucs’ offense scored three times in a span of six minutes in the fourth quarter.
“Yeah, I kept checking with him today because, you know, he didn’t play in this heat in a while,” Bucs coach Bruce Arians said. “He said ‘No, I’m going to get oxygen, and I’ll be back.’ "
Sherman won’t get much of a rest, as the Bucs travel to the Philadelphia Eagles (2-3) on Thursday night (8:20 p.m. ET, FOX) -- his third game in 12 days.
However, he's not the only one having to adjust.
“I’ve never been in this situation before,” cornerbacks coach Kevin Ross said. "I’ve never been in this situation here, before. No, uh-uh. I’ve had a guy or two go down. … This is a unique thing. You’ve got three or four guys down.”
How exactly did we get here, with the defending Super Bowl champions forced to ‘plug and play’ players in one of the most volatile position groups in the NFL?
Whitehead missed a large chunk of training camp and the first week of the regular season because of a hamstring injury. They then lost starting cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting, who also serves as their nickelback, to injured reserve with an elbow dislocation in Week 1.
They lost Dean for the majority of Week 3 and all of Week 4 with the knee injury, though he was able to return for Week 5. Davis is also now on IR, with Arians saying it does not appear he’ll need surgery, but also admitting, “I have no clue how long this is gonna be,” while Winfield has yet to clear concussion protocol.
To make matters worse, longtime defensive captain, and their best linebacker in coverage, Lavonte David, will be out this week after suffering an ankle sprain against the Dolphins.
For Sherman, there's been no time to blink. The same for Desir, who was in a similar predicament last season, when he was cut by the New York Jets and called up from the Baltimore Ravens practice squad to the active roster.
It’s meant living in a hotel, out of a suitcase in an unfamiliar city, studying 3-4 hours nightly, trying to cram for a weekly exam, let alone getting to a place where his body and brain are working together as one.
“It took lot of hours of just going back and forth. A lot of questions that may have been dumb for other guys to ask, but I didn’t know,” Sherman said. “Even throughout the process of the week, there would be checks. It’s just human nature to assume [we all knew what’s going on] because we’re in the season. It’s not like you’re doing installs anymore. They’d be like, ‘Oh yeah, we just make this check, this check and this check.’ I’d be like, ‘Hey, uh, what does that mean exactly? So, I’ve got him? OK, perfect. Sorry.’”
He's been in this position before though, when he was with the San Francisco 49ers.
“It was like that every year,” Sherman said. “Each year, we lost two, three guys. My first year we were there, I want to say we lost three guys in a game one time. … That’s one thing about the pros -- everybody is capable of getting the job done.
“You’re only as strong as your weakest link. You have to make sure everybody is prepared. You have to treat everybody as important.”
For Sherman, phone calls to his wife and children, who were at the game Sunday, have kept him level-headed and provided perspective. For Desir, it’s the reminder that he’s been through much worse. He emigrated to the U.S. from Haiti when he was four and fathered his first child at 16.
“Football is easy. When it comes to what I’ve been through, growing up in poverty, growing up and having to sacrifice and scratch [and claw], and being a teen father -- I’ve been through a lot,” Desir said. “When it comes to football and having those types of adversities, I draw back on those experiences and then I’m like, ‘You know what? This is just football. You’ve handled a lot worse.'”
Once the NFL’s youngest defensive backfield, with an average age of 23 in Super Bowl LV, the group has grown up quickly, in more ways than one.
“If the group had remained young, and we were replacing young guys with young guys, I would say we could not do [this],” Ross said. “When you’ve got guys like Sherman, when you’ve got guys like Rashard [Robinson], when you’ve got guys like Pierre -- these are veterans. They’ve been through some battles before. They understand how to play and what to do.”
Sherman has played in 156 career games -- more than Davis, Murphy-Bunting, Dean and Winfield combined.
“He came in, and we told him, ‘We’re all young, we kind of need that leader,’” Whitehead said. “From the [first] walk-through, he was already teaching, asking us questions and giving us hints.”
Dean added, “I always looked up to him as a kid, and I always tried to mimic my game after him. Now, being able to watch him live, it is really helping a lot because I am more of a visual learner.”
Desir has played in 75 career games with 44 starts on seven different teams. He’s seen a lot too. Robinson has played in 45 games with 18 starts.
“I mean, it is good having vets there, so they can give us, like, tips and pointers, like what to expect and how to watch film,” Dean said. “It is just showing us the ways. We didn’t have that going into our rookie year. So, now that we are getting it, we have something to build from.”
Arians expounded on what that means for the team.
“They see how he prepares and what he’s looking for and how to study film," he said. "Young players -- the big thing is, you can watch film, but you have to learn what you’re looking for and what you’re looking at, and I think [Sherman] can help them in that regard.”
Tampa Bay held the Patriots and Dolphins to 17 points apiece the past two weeks, helping the Bucs (4-1) take sole possession of first place in the NFC South.
“The whole room is different," Ross said. "The practice squad is different. The backups are different. But the standard's not different. That’s the key to this whole thing.
“When you get a guy like Sherman to replace some of these guys we’ve lost, you don’t feel like, ‘Oh my God, it’s over. We can’t do this. We can’t do that.’ You feel like, guess what? It’s gonna pick up even more now. And when those guys get healthy and come back, we’ll be better than we were. We’ll be smarter. We’ll be tougher.”