In the expanse of the Seattle Seahawks locker room, in the early afternoon on a grey Thursday, Richard Sherman bounces, gleefully and proudly showcasing a new Nike Inc. commercial on his iPhone to teammates.
The cornerback, one of the best in professional football, is featured in a spot along with basketball star Kobe Bryant.
“I’m in there with Kobe! In there with Kobe!” Sherman exclaims.
A teammate nods appreciation: “You officially made it now.”
In the far corner, there is quiet.
Russell Okung readies for practice. He is a hulk, 6-foot-5 and 310 pounds, but Okung does not seem so big, so immense, in person. He outstretches a huge hand to shake. His grip, which could easily break bones, is pleasantly firm. There is an aura, almost one of peacefulness.
On Sunday, Okung will be in the vicious trenches, where men built like tanks smash into each other with dizzying force. His duty: to fend off some of the most fearsome linebackers in the sport when the Seahawks play host to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC championship game to see who goes to the Super Bowl.
This is the relative silence for Okung and the Seahawks before the gladiatorial spectacle to be staged in a madhouse stadium packed with nearly 70,000 riotous fans, and here is something you may not expect to hear from one the elite left offensive tackles in football: “Oh, I meditate a lot.”
Welcome to what’s been called Bizarro World of the NFL. There’s mediation and yoga and a free-range organic chicken farm – and a think-positive mentality that pervades everything the team does. But make no mistake. This isn’t a hippie commune, even if button-down quarterback Russell Wilson is growing his hair long.
The Seahawks are, at heart, no different than any on-the-verge-of-greatness football team before them. They are ferocious on the field, with the best defence in the league and an offence powered by a running game in the era of the pass-happy NFL. It’s everything else that’s new.
Down the coast, in Northern California, there’s much the same.
The 49ers are the resurrected incarnation of a once-great franchise that made the playoffs 18 of 22 seasons and won five Super Bowls. Then, there was a decade in the desert of losing.
In late 2008, the then-28-year-old son of the owners was put in charge.
Jed York took inspiration from nearby Silicon Valley. He decided to run a football team like a startup. Results quickly arrived. York raided Facebook to overhaul his front office and in 2011, hired a crazed but brilliant head coach, Jim Harbaugh.
The new field boss immediately turned the team around, a manic and military ethos cajoling players to success, whose game plan includes an intensive stretching routine that has slashed the number of injuries. The 49ers nearly won last year’s Super Bowl and, in Harbaugh’s third season, arrive in their third consecutive conference championship, a never-before-achieved feat for a new NFL coach.
Behind the scenes, the 49ers (with German technology giant SAP AG) have overhauled their scouting from pen and paper to a one-page, on-screen distillation of so much data – bolstering their drafting prowess and game-to-game preparation versus opponents. But make no mistake: the 49ers on the field are as old school as the Seahawks, a smash-mouth defence and a pounding run game.
It is “the whole DNA of football,” the effervescent Sherman said. Violent and grinding. “Real football.”
These are two of the smartest, and best, teams, in the NFL and in all of pro sports.
There are other examples, of course, the San Antonio Spurs in basketball, the Tampa Bay Rays in baseball, the Los Angeles Kings in hockey, never mind the New England Patriots, a potential Super Bowl opponent for San Francisco or Seattle.
In a football world, like hockey and basketball, constrained by a salary cap, management and coaches of the Seahawks and 49ers seek advantage everywhere they can, just as they do in games.
There’s luck involved – and the question of how long these teams can be kept together before salary demands of the players as they get older rips rosters apart. Come Sunday, however, the tilt between Seattle and San Francisco will be a kind-of Petri dish, football at its most modern, and primal.
Back in suburban Seattle, a couple dozen reporters gather in an auditorium to hear the daily briefing from 62-year-old coach Pete Carroll, who was hired in January of 2010, and, with 42-year-old general manager John Schneider, has remade Seattle.
Carroll’s goal was to reimagine how a NFL is run.
The Seahawks had been a good team – a run of five playoff years in the mid-2000s, including their one-and-only Super Bowl berth, a loss in 2006 – but rot was setting in. Owner Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft Corp., gave Carroll total control.
Schneider, meanwhile, has been called an aggressive gambler – by his friends – and almost is playing fantasy football, with more than 800 roster moves in four years.
At the podium, the silver-haired Carroll doesn’t want to make too much of the meditation or yoga. He is, after all, a football coach.
“I’m not leading meditations,” Carroll said last Thursday – to laughter. “I might be able to” – cue more laughs – “but I’m not.”
Carroll, while playing down the push for advantages, did generally cite the work of the team’s high-performance sports psychologist Mike Gervais, the meditation man. Then, there’s Sam Ramsden, the director of player health and performance, who, according to an ESPN report last year, will look for things such as amino acid deficiencies in players’ blood tests as an indicator of inadequate levels of serotonin and dopamine.
“Around here,” Carroll said, “we’re trying to do everything that we can possibly think of to help our guys.”
In the locker room, Okung – Schneider’s first draft pick, No. 6 overall in 2010 – has flourished, last year reaching the Pro Bowl in his third pro season.
“I don’t necessarily get into the yoga,” Okung noted in an interview, “because time won’t permit, but I meditate, man, and clear my mind, and really try to understand who I am. We teach a lot about identity here, purpose, what do you desire to be? Outside of football, what sort of man do you want to be?”
Savvy smarts extend to the field. In the Seattle secondary – the self-declared Legion of Boom led by Sherman, one of three Pro Bowlers among the defensive backs – the team is known for its overly aggressive play. It cows receivers and stifles opponents’ passing games, a marriage of analytics and violence.
“We can bully whoever we want to bully,” Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas told reporters last week. “We love when a coach is on the sideline and, ‘Hey, look at him, he’s holding.’ ”
Cornerback Walter Thurmond called it “an almost grimy demeanour.”