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Don't be mad at Richard Sherman because he knows the rules better than the referees

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He’s just finding advantages, like he always does

One of my favorite videos to explain Richard Sherman is this. It’s called “Student of the Game,” and includes a lot of talking on the practice field with Sherman breaking down some of his own plays on film in between. And if you pay attention to what he says when he’s mic’d up in practice, Sherman’s advantages on the field become obvious.

While tall and long, Sherman isn’t the most athletic cornerback in the league. He plays a lot of cover three, erasing the deep third of the field and daring you to play underneath — something the Seahawks as a whole do on defense. Where he excels, though, is soaking up knowledge and using it to his advantage. He’s a smart player who knows the game, and the rulebook, in and out, and how to find small advantages playing on the margins (like grabbing a receiver’s skin while fighting for position instead of jersey, as he explains in the video above).

Sherman and the Seahawks defense have a reputation that precedes them. They’ve spent just about the past half decade playing at a historic level, and can be frustrating for any team to face. The defense as a whole, like Sherman, plays on the edge too: They’ll grab and tug and pull and put the pressure on the refs to call it. You can call a penalty on every play in the NFL, and the Seahawks are fine taking a defensive holding once in a while if it gives them an advantage the rest of the time.

That reputation also affords Sherman little leeway when it comes to being in the middle of something controversial. Since he tipped away a pass intended for Michael Crabtree in the end zone of the NFC Championship, Sherman has remained polarizing as ever, making him an easy target.

But on Monday night, Sherman wasn’t really at fault for what happened at the end of the half, and the end of the game, against the Bills. That honor goes to the officials, with an assist from Sherman.

* * *

A field goal just before the half is a great time for a special teams unit to get creative. It’s low-risk: If the field goal block team misses, or is penalized, it’s likely the offense will just tee it up again. So you see things like Kam Chancellor jumping over a center multiple times because hey why not?

That’s what happened on Monday night. With almost no time left, Seattle was selling out from the edges to try and get a block. Sherman jumped the snap early, and found himself barreling towards the holder and kicker like he was in a Madden game without penalties.

Yes, he was way offsides. A 5-yard penalty here doesn’t hurt too much — Dan Carpenter is solid from less than 45 yards and shaky from beyond this year.

But Sherman also slammed into the kicker, taking Carpenter out at the knee and drawing immediate cries of foul.

Couple problems there, though. First, here’s where Sherman was when the whistle blew.

Richard Sherman when the whistle blew

The ball is gone and Sherman has already drilled the Carpenter in the leg, taking unnecessary roughness out of the picture because it was a live play and live ball*. There should be some kind of foul for roughing the kicker there, as Jon Gruen was calling for on the broadcast, right?

*The officials didn’t blow the play dead in time. They admitted as much.

Richard Sherman's hand on the ball

That’s Sherman’s hand on the ball. He stole the snap from the holder, which also negates any roughing. The relevant section of the rulebook on that:

No defensive player may run into or rough a kicker who kicks from behind the line unless such contact:

is incidental to and occurs after the defender has touched the kick in flight

Which leaves us with ... nothing. The officials didn’t blow the ball dead early enough and Sherman played until the whistle — which, in his shoes, also makes sense. If you let up as an offsides player, you’re liable to watch your team get burned. Aaron Rodgers did this repeatedly to the Seahawks last year.

Weird things happen when you catch a play at the mesh point, and that’s what happened here. Sherman dove at the ball, and even tipped it out of the hands of the holder, and there’s nowhere to really go except into the kicker after that. Two people converged on the same spot at once, and down went Carpenter.

You can be mad that Sherman was even in that position anyway having jumped early, but you should be mad at the officials for not bothering to stop the play.

* * *

In the middle of all of this, Sherman and Rex Ryan had a discussion. A couple, actually: One coming off the field before halftime — Ryan, mad because his kicker almost had his leg ripped off — and another following Sherman’s third-quarter interception. They stared, they talked, it was a great time.

If that upset you, too, ask yourself why you’re taking sides in a fight between Rex Ryan and Richard Sherman that includes sideline cussin’. Laugh a little.

* * *

There was one more moment that was pointed out as an example of Sherman getting away with something, again at the end of a game.

This is actually a smart play, and something Sherman does quite a bit. Because you don’t generally see a receiver get laid out mid-route like this, it looks weird and maybe like it should be some kind of illegal contact. But it’s not: It’s just a solid play to take one player out of a scramble drill.

Sherman had his eyes in the backfield the whole time, and turned to pop the receiver when Tyrod Taylor rolled out. It’s exactly what Gruden called for all night — in a coded way, he said corners needed to press to receivers when Taylor scrambles, which is a nice way of saying drill them if the chance is there because it’s fair game.

The official was standing right there, looking at the play, and made no call.

* * *

Knowing the rulebook, and how to stretch that rulebook, is one of Richard Sherman’s distinct advantages on the field. It’s also an advantage that leads to weird, out-of-the-ordinary-looking plays, like a disjointed field goal block attempt that even the refs didn’t know what to do with.

The same goes for the grabbing and holding and arguing with officials over the course of 60 minutes, putting pressure on the other human element of the game. This is all part of what makes Sherman so polarizing — it’s likely you or your team can remember a moment where he’s caused a visceral, frustrated reaction.

Sherman has calmed down quite a bit since he yelled at America following the NFC Championship. He’s not perfect, either, and remains a quintessential example of someone you love if he’s on your team and hate if he isn’t. He pushes the rules and gets little benefit of the doubt in the eyes of the public.

On Monday night, though, Sherman attempted to make two smart plays in high-leverage situations. Each ended up being weird and controversial, and each worked out in Seattle’s favor.

That shouldn’t make you mad at Sherman, though. It should, however, make you mad at the officials who, as a result of Sherman doing something just a tad bit out of the ordinary, completely bungled the play clock and entire end of half situation on their own.

Under pressure, the officials were the ones that folded.

Sherman wasn’t at fault for any of that, but it’s a lot easier to yell at him than an officiating crew you’ll forget about by tomorrow.

Update: Sherman was fined for the offsides hit. The NFL also chose not to discipline the officiating crew. It’s still unclear what Sherman did wrong.