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Barber: 49ers’ Richard Sherman must shine in Super Bowl LIV

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For most of the players preparing for Super Bowl LIV here, the frenzied week leading up the game has been something to tolerate, to endure. For Richard Sherman, it has been a tour de force.

Sherman, the veteran 49ers cornerback, owned the microphone in Miami. He was on the podium each day from Monday through Thursday, for a total of perhaps 2½ hours, and he never cracked. Not once did he stumble for an answer or say something off-note. Not once did he show the strain having to repeat himself over and over. He smiled and winked and charmed the most cynical people in America.

When the question was lighthearted, Sherman was lighthearted. “Viva Mexico!” he shouted to a TV duo from down south, fulfilling their request during Super Bowl Opening Night on Monday.

“I’ve never been to Japan,” he told a foreign reporter who asked him what he like most about that country. “And I wish I did! But the hibachi-style grill …”

And when the questions were serious, Sherman aced those, too. He eloquently mourned Kobe Bryant and vehemently dismissed the NFL team owners’ push for a 17-game season, mocking their public devotion to “player safety.”

When someone asked Sherman about the lack of diversity among NFL coaches, he crushed it out of the park: “Everybody feels comfortable asking a player a hard question, like, ‘Man, why don’t these black coaches get jobs?’” he said. “Ask the dudes who hired ’em! Ask the dudes who have all the power in the world to hire and fire these men. Then you’ll get the answers. Or maybe we’re not looking for the answers from those dudes, because we kind of know what they are.”

At 31, Sherman has become of the NFL’s most esteemed citizens. He speaks for himself, but also for teammates, for players around the league, for fathers and people of color everywhere. On the field, he experienced a rebirth in 2019. Opposing quarterbacks compiled a pathetic passer rating of 46.8 when targeting Sherman during the regular season. The scouting service Pro Football Focus gave him an overall grade of 88.9 during the regular season and bumped it up beyond 90.0 after adding two postseason tallies.

Sherman is revered in the 49ers locker room and admired throughout the league. So why does he still feel disrespected?

True, the man has mellowed quite a bit. The Sherman who screamed into a Fox Sports microphone after locking down the NFC title with a victory over the 49ers in January of 2014, crowing that he was “the best corner in the game” and that Michael Crabtree was “a sorry receiver” hasn’t made an appearance in quite a while.

“I’m a father now,” Sherman said Wednesday. “I guess that’s the biggest change, and it changes a lot of things in you fundamentally, gives you more patience, more understanding, changes your perspective of it. Got married. And just stayed the course. Went through the Achilles’ surgery, went through getting cut (by Seattle), so I guess those experiences changed me and moved the needle a little bit for me.”

But the veteran cornerback still takes every possible opportunity to find signs of disrespect, or to invent them if necessary. You probably remember the brief controversy over Cleveland quarterback Baker Mayfield refusing to shake Sherman’s hand before a game in October, a kerfuffle that died swiftly when video replays showed Mayfield, you know, shaking Sherman’s hand.

And his feud with Jim Harbaugh, which began at Stanford in 2008 and peaked in 2011 when the ornery coach supposedly undermined Sherman’s draft stock? If you think the player is over it, you’re crazy.

“Honestly, I wanted to put him out of the league,” Sherman said of Harbaugh on Monday. “And once I got that done, I had no animosity against the 49ers or any organization.”

That same night, he laughed and said, “You know, my petty factor is pretty up there.”

Why? Why does such a beloved sports figure feel the need to sew this idea of disrespect? It’s a mysterious force in Richard Sherman’s core that continues to propel him forward.

“Obviously, he’s not broke. He’s had the accolades, all-pros, Super Bowl winners, all that type of thing,” NFL Network analyst and former teammate Michael Robinson said. “But I do think he does a great job of creating that chip on his shoulder. He knows how he gets motivated, you know what I’m saying? And he also listens. He listens to analysts. Anytime I say anything that’s close to being negative about the 49ers or him, I get a text, I get a call.”

Sherman might be the NFL’s foremost practitioner of the art of invented disdain. Some other players can relate.

“I think we all dig back in that treasure chest and try to find things that motivate us,” said safety Tyrann Mathieu, who was cast off by the Cardinals and Texans before landing in Kansas City. “I think me and Richard are kind of built the same. I think we both have two ears and we listen. We hear the criticism. And sometimes we feel like we don’t get that proper respect, right?”

Watching him during Super Bowl week, it was hard to reconcile that version of Sherman with the one who collects slights as if they’re pieces of gold. He acknowledged there’s a switch that flips itself every time he steps onto the football field.

“I don’t even think it’s the field,” he said. “It’s just when I’m in a competitive setting, when there’s a win or a loss. And I think that’s one of the things that my parents and teachers realized early on, that if you make it competitive, then I’ll put everything I can into it. It doesn’t matter what it is. It can be a spelling bee, it could be a quiz, it could be a paper. Make it a competition and I’ll do my best to win it.”

It’s a relevant topic this week, because for the first time in a while, there is legitimate reason to doubt Sherman. This Super Bowl is a brutal assignment for the veteran.

San Francisco defensive coordinator Robert Saleh recently compared the Chiefs receiving corps to an Olympic relay team. It’s no exaggeration. Tyreek Hill, Mecole Hardman and Sammy Watkins form one of the fastest trio of wideouts I’ve ever seen. And as Saleh noted, they’re not just sprinters. They run good routes and can catch the ball.

Sherman remains a top-notch cornerback, but his game is built on physicality, technique and anticipation. He was never one of the NFL’s fastest cover men. He certainly isn’t now.

This challenge is all the tougher for Sherman and his fellow 49ers cornerbacks because of the Chiefs’ reliance on the run-pass option. As ESPN talk show host Dan Orlovsky pointed out, the RPO puts tremendous strain on corners because it tends to freeze up safeties. Yes, the 49ers’ pass rush is fearsome. But if Patrick Mahomes is able to draw Jaquiski Tartt and Jimmie Ward toward the line of scrimmage with a run fake, leaving one or more of those lightning-fast receivers one-on-one with Sherman with no deep help? Hoo boy, that could get ugly.

You know Sherman is aware of these analyses. He might even see this one. It would be one more drop of fuel, added to the cascade that constantly feeds his fire. The Super Bowl LIV matchups don’t favor him. But if he can find a way to come out on top — to flip that switch once again and prove his doubters wrong — this could be Richard Sherman’s finest hour.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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