It’s customary for a coach or player to pen a letter to the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee to endorse a player they believe to be deserving.
But the letters that Bill Belichick and Tom Brady wrote last year on behalf of Richard Seymour, who had been passed over by the Hall four times by that point, were more than endorsements. They read like explanations on impact and value for people who didn’t understand how the concepts worked.
Belichick and Brady did their best to put Seymour’s value to the first three Patriots Super Bowl winners in layman’s terms.
“He was a smart player who understood game plans and adjustments on the field,” Belichick wrote. “His length, strength, and quickness allowed him to match up on any offensive lineman favorably. Although primarily a defensive end in our 3-4 defense, Richard also played nose tackle.
“In the four-man line, Richard could play defensive end or defensive tackle depending on the situation and desired matchups. His physical and mental versatility, as well as his ability to master multiple techniques, made him dominant as an inside or outside player.”
Seymour was a seven-time Pro Bowler and a three-time All-Pro for a reason. His physical attributes not only made him a matchup nightmare but also allowed the Patriots to lay the groundwork for using different fronts and schemes depending on the matchup, something that became a defining trait of their defense.
He didn’t have to be chained to a position to make an impact. In fact, the more he moved around the defensive line, the more havoc he caused and the more flexibility it gave the defense.
“He was a selfless player who accepted the roles he was assigned, knowing the impact it would have on the entire defense,” Brady wrote.
It took four years for Seymour to finally cross the Hall of Fame threshold — the induction ceremony is Saturday — but the wait is a measure of how long it takes impact to connect.
‘Impact over stats’
Certain statistics can become so sacred that they oversimplify a player’s true value. For defensive linemen, that stat is sacks. Eye-popping sack totals were never going to push Seymour into the Hall of Fame. Among the 40 defensive linemen in the Hall, Seymour’s 57.5 sacks will rank 30th.
Measured a different way, though, Seymour’s talent was an extreme rarity throughout his 12-year career and possibly a precursor for the way defensive linemen move around and hunt mismatches in today’s game. According to data culled from pro-football-reference, of the 929 defensive linemen listed from 2001-12 (the span of Seymour’s career), Seymour was one of just three to line up at right end, left end, right tackle, and left tackle.
Racking up stats didn’t matter to him as much as knowing how much he could open up for the defense by taking on so many roles. His mantra was: “Impact over stats.”
“We’d have a saying with the Patriots that stats can be for losers,” Seymour said. ‘Like, ‘Hey, this is what I’ve done,’ right? But it’s a team sport. So you want to win, and I think for me I was asked to do selfless things.
“At the end of the day, winning is the most important thing that you can do, because it makes everything better. Anytime you can be a multi-time Super Bowl champion — played in four Super Bowls, winning three, and played multiple positions along the defensive line ― for me, it’s about the body of work.”
‘We’d have a saying with the Patriots that stats can be for losers. ‘Like, ‘Hey, this is what I’ve done,’ right? But it’s a team sport. So you want to win, and I think for me I was asked to do selfless things.’
When Seymour came into the league in 2001, the most dominant defensive lineman in the league was Michael Strahan of the Giants. But early in his career, Strahan’s ideas of impact and value were different.
He came into the league in 1993 as a defensive end on the right side of the line. That’s where all the best opportunities for sacks came. And all the great defensive ends sacked the quarterback.
But in 1996, Giants defensive coordinator Mike Nolan wanted to make a change. The Giants used the fifth overall pick in that year’s draft to select Cedric Jones, a 6-foot-4-inch, 275-pound defensive end out of Oklahoma. Nolan planned to move Strahan to left end so Jones could play on the right side. Moving to the left meant Strahan would protect against the run.
The Giants waited until midway through training camp to spring the change on Strahan. It didn’t go over well.
“I really didn’t want to do it, and I wasn’t going to do it,” Strahan told the Associated Press. “Of course I was upset. I’ve been here three or four years, and I thought I did well at that end and I am only going to get better.”
Despite the skepticism, it worked out for Strahan. He played 175 games at left end and finished his career with 141.5 sacks, sixth all-time.
But Seymour had a different mind-set when he came into the league.
“My rookie year, I played out of position, a position that I wasn’t really comfortable with,” Seymour said. “But I did it because the team needed me there. So really, I think my story is a story of impact because it was selfless and it was about the team and being a competitor.”
A rare talent
Ty Law played four seasons with Seymour, and in his eyes, if Seymour cared about hunting sacks, he could’ve piled up just as many as Strahan.
“He had plenty of stats, but he would’ve probably had more if he wasn’t utilized different — just go get the quarterback, shoot the gap,” Law said. “He was taking on double-teams, two-gapping, taking on two guys, sometimes three at a time.
“So it opens up a lot for a lot of other people to make plays and get the glory a lot of times. But his impact was unparalleled for what he did for our defense because no one was stupid enough to try to block Richard Seymour one-on-one.
“I mean, personally, hell yeah I would’ve wanted Richard Seymour to help me out and rush the quarterback every time. That’s going to help me.
“I think when you’re talking about the linemen, he made more of an impact on them personally because they were playing right next to him. And they would get the one-on-one because somebody always had to double-team Richard.
“My other guys got there, don’t get me wrong, but I kind of wonder how many damn picks I could’ve had if you just let Richard go and just let him do him.”
‘His impact was unparalleled for what he did for our defense because no one was stupid enough to try to block Richard Seymour one-on-one.’
Ty Law on Richard Seymour
The weight on Seymour’s shoulders couldn’t be measured by stats.
“He just had so much responsibility,” Law said. “But it takes somebody that can do it for it to be successful. He was able to do that, make the impact not only by opening things for other guys — taking another one of their guys off their assignment because they really had to double-team him — and still go out there and get his fair share of sacks and disrupting the quarterback and things like that.”
To Law’s point, the only other players to line up at four different spots along the line while Seymour was in the league, according to pro-football-reference, were Rob Meier and Tommy Kelly.
Meier was a No. 1 draft pick in the Canadian Football League who wore as many hats as possible over nine seasons with the Jaguars until he found a home at defensive tackle later in his career.
Kelly, who spent a season with the Patriots in 2013, was an undrafted free agent who caught on as a rookie with the Raiders because he could switch between defensive end in a 3-4 alignment and defensive tackle in a 4-3. The Raiders saw the value in that versatility, signing Kelly to a seven-year, $50.5 million contract in 2008 that made him the highest-paid defensive tackle at the time.
Seymour knew his skill set was hard to come by. The only validation he needed was from the team that asked him to utilize it.
“The bigger picture for me is as long as the teams valued what I was bringing to the table,” Seymour said. “And they showed it in terms of my contracts and that sort of thing.”
Seymour’s rookie contract was a six-year deal worth $14.5 million. In 2005, believing firmly that he should be among the highest-paid defensive linemen in the league, he held out of training camp until the Patriots bumped his annual salary by $2.5 million. The next year, he signed a three-year, $28 million extension.
His run in New England ended abruptly when he was traded to the Raiders in 2009, days before the start of the season. But in 2010, the Raiders used their franchise tag on Seymour, paying him $13 million with the intent to work out a longer deal. That ended up being the two-year, $30 million contract he signed in 2011, which made him, at age 32, the highest-paid defensive player in the league.
“So I knew they valued me and they told me they value me and they made me one of the highest-paid defenders,” Seymour said. “Then when I got to Oakland, I was the highest-paid defender. So I knew I was valued but it was, ‘Hey, this is what we need you to do.’ ”
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.