Fear takes subtle forms in the NFL. An offense fearing dominant defensive linemen can assign additional blockers to mitigate the damage. A defense fearing a gifted receiver can roll its coverages. A quarterback fearful of an elite cornerback can direct his passes elsewhere. True intimidation is mostly a myth -- unless, that is, you're a wide receiver or tight end venturing into the Seattle Seahawks' secondary, where 25-year-old strong safety Kam Chancellor turns alpha males into wary self-preservationists.
It's gotten comical of late. In the last five weeks alone we've seen the most productive tight end in the league reverse course and run backward into a Seahawks linebacker to avoid Chancellor, a veteran quarterback try to wave off Chancellor before sliding short of a first down, and a former Pro Bowl receiver whiff on a slant route as Chancellor threatened to greet him with all of his 6-foot-3, 232-pound might.
Rule changes designed to facilitate offense and promote player safety have not stopped teams from valuing the rare intimidating presence at the safety position. Chancellor and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Dashon Goldson provide two prominent examples. They are receiving a combined $34 million in guarantees as part of contracts they signed in the past 10 months. "You're talking about one of the most intimidating players in the NFL," Seahawks general manager John Schneider said when the team announced Chancellor's contract extension last April. While Goldson has continued to rack up fines and risk suspension, Chancellor has managed to affect games through intimidation without violating rules nearly as frequently as he did earlier in his career.
The storyline carries additional interest as the New Orleans Saints prepare to visit Seattle for a divisional playoff game Saturday. The U-turn Saints tight end Jimmy Graham made when confronted by Chancellor in Week 13 is worth another look, as are additional plays that resonate in NFL film rooms and affect how the game is played.
Is there an intimidation factor in the NFL?
That question made Chancellor chuckle as he sat in his locker before a recent practice. "I'm the type that never calls guys scared because you have to have guts to play this game," he said. "I just say they make smart decisions."
The game tape that players study shows every play from two angles, the first one wide enough to show all 22 players from start to finish. The hits a player such as Chancellor puts on video can influence how a quarterback, receiver and even a coordinator approach a specific opponent. When Chancellor de-cleated and pancaked Arizona Cardinals offensive tackle Eric Winston before making a physical tackle back in Week 7, the Seahawks' Week 8 opponent, St. Louis, took note. As Rams quarterback Kellen Clemens put it when addressing reporters a few days later, "Kam Chancellor, have mercy, do not be standing on the tracks when that freight train comes down the tunnel."
Clemens' words proved prophetic, as we'll see when running through five recent examples