From scrapheap to sack master

Chris Clemons’ long, winding career has finally hit stride as a pass rusher for Seattle

Staff writerJanuary 4, 2013 

RENTON — Don’t let the intimidating glare fool you.

Chris Clemons cares.

But the Seattle defensive end doesn’t care what you think of him.

He’s extremely loyal, willing to go to bat for his teammates and his family.

Every once in a while he flashes a pearly-white smile, but there will be no cozying up to the Seahawks’ leader in sacks.

“I don’t worry about what people think about me,” he said. “I come out and I play for my teammates and my family. Whatever everybody else has to say, I don’t worry about it, because they don’t really matter to me.”

That ride-or-die attitude helps explain why Clemons’ name doesn’t roll off your tongue when you think of the game’s best pass rushers.

But the numbers don’t lie. His 33.5 sacks since 2010 are tied for sixth best in the NFL. All the players ahead of him on the list have been to at least one Pro Bowl during that time.

Clemons has not, though he is a first alternate this season after finishing with a career-high 11.5 sacks, tied for fifth in the NFC.

“Recognition has never really been my thing,” he said. “As long as my teammates and the coaches in this organization know how I play and how I go out and prepare each and every week, that’s all that matters to me.

“Those are personal accolades. That’s for somebody who wants to stand out. And I have nothing against it. It would be a great honor to represent my team and my position group in the Pro Bowl. But playing alongside these guys, I feel like we’ve got a better shot at the Super Bowl than worrying about a Pro Bowl right now.”

Clemons has recorded double-digit sacks in three consecutive seasons, joining Jacob Green (1984-86) and Michael Sinclair (1996-98) as the only Seahawks to accomplish that feat.

Not bad for a guy Philadelphia unloaded on Seattle in exchanged for popular defensive end Darryl Tapp and a fourth-round pick.

But one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. After kicking around the NFL, with stops in Washington, Oakland and Philadelphia, Clemons was one of the first reclamation projects of the Pete Carroll era.

After a short holdout this summer, Clemons signed a three-year, $21 million contract extension to remain in Seattle.

“The guy has added some toughness to our team at the point where we needed to improve the toughness on that side of the ball,” Seattle general manager John Schneider said. “There are very few players that play as hard as he does. Being able to come into an agreement this past summer was outstanding for us. With (center) Max (Unger) and Chris, we felt those were our two top guys that would be free agents next year, so it allowed us to continue to focus on our own players.”

A PASS RUSHER IS BORN

Clemons’ decision to leave the University of Georgia after his junior season and make himself available for the draft didn’t look so great when he went undrafted. The Redskins signed him as a free agent in 2003.

Then he suffered a shoulder injury and spent his entire rookie season on injured reserve. In 2004, a healthy Clemons sought to find a way to get on the field.

Clemons mostly played linebacker in college, recording just one sack for the Bulldogs. But Gregg Williams, then the Redskins’ defensive coordinator, saw potential for Clemons as a pass rusher because of his length and speed.

“One day we were out at practice and he said, ‘I want to see if you can rush from a three-point stance,’ ” Clemons said. “And he saw my speed and quickness. And so he gave me that opportunity. And I never thought it would blossom into what it has blossomed into today.”

His second play in the NFL he notched his first sack.

Once Washington discovered his pass-rushing talent, Clemons became a third-down specialist and special teams player for the Redskins.

“One of the older guys told me a long time ago, find your niche and be good at it,” Clemons said. “And so that’s what I did. I find a way to get to the quarterback on third down. And I’ve tried to find a way to stay consistent at it.”

Clemons totaled five sacks in three seasons with the Redskins, while figuring out a new position. After suffering an injury during an exhibition game, the Redskins waived Clemons and gave him an injury settlement in 2006.

HUNTING WITH THE ‘QB KILLA’

Looking for a new home, Clemons signed a one-year, prove-it deal with the Raiders.

Oakland gave him the opportunity to be a regular rotational player for the first time.

Greeting Clemons in Oakland was grizzled veteran Warren Sapp, a future Hall of Famer looking for a pass-rushing partner.

“Chris was just raw, but he loved the game and he loved to work,” said Sapp, now an analyst for the NFL Network who talks with Clemons regularly. “You have to have the desire to want to rush the passer because it’s one of the hardest jobs in the NFL. You almost have to have a perfect move to get off the blocker, and then the quarterback can’t take a three-step drop. And then you still have to take him down, and he don’t want to go down.

“There’s an art to rushing the passer, and Chris always wanted to learn it. The thing about Chris is he knew how to run a game. It takes a unit to take down the quarterback. You have to pound his butt for four quarters.”

While Clemons showed an ability to get after the passer at Washington, Sapp and other veterans in Oakland such as Derrick Burgess helped him perfect the craft.

“Warren Sapp was one of the best 3-techs you’re ever going to find in the league,” Clemons said. “And he ran games perfectly, and that’s the way we worked there. A majority of my sacks came off of working with him.”

DOWN AND OUT IN PHILLY

Clemons parlayed the success of an eight-sack season in Oakland into a five-year, $13.585 million contract with the Eagles.

But Clemons says he never got a chance to play regularly for Philadelphia.

“Initially when I got to Philly, I had been promised that I would have an opportunity to play and compete for a starting job,” he said. “That first year when I got to training camp, I knew at that point that I wouldn’t be competing for a starting job. And at that particular point I knew I had to just compete for playing time, and even try to make the team.”

Clemons was in the NFL netherworld. The team was winning, including an appearance in the NFC title game in 2008, but he wasn’t getting the playing time he wanted or thought he deserved.

Clemons said he and his agent asked the Eagles to let him move on during the middle of the 2009 season.

He finished with 15 tackles and seven sacks during his two seasons in Philadelphia.

“We went to him (Philadelphia coach Andy Reid) and told him, ‘If you don’t have a place for me to play here, then let me go or trade me, do something,’ ” he said.

The Eagles obliged. Philadelphia liked Tapp, and traded Clemons and a fourth-round pick to Seattle to acquire him in March 2010.

“Pete and I sat to down and watched all of his stuff, and it was very interesting because they moved him around a lot, and he seemed like a perfect fit for the Leo (pass-rushing linebacker),” Schneider said.

Clemons said he remembers receiving a call from Carroll on St. Patrick’s Day.

“Pete called me, and he told me that we’re bringing you out to Seattle,” Clemons said. “And we want you to come out here and play. And I told him, ‘Hey, Coach, I love the fact that you’re giving me an opportunity, but I want to know if I have a chance to play.’ And he said, ‘Chance to play? You’ve got a chance to start.’ ”

REDEMPTION IN SEATTLE

Carroll was true to his word, and Clemons earned a starting job at defensive end out of training camp in 2010. He has been the team’s main pass rusher ever since.

“He’s great to have in our room, great to have on our team,” Seahawks defensive line coach Todd Wash said. “He’s 31 years old, and he’s playing like he’s 25 still. And a lot of that is because he didn’t play a lot before he got to Seattle. So he’s taking advantage of all that, and hopefully we can continue to have a couple more good years out of him.”

Seattle fullback Mike Robinson said Clemons’ intensity rubs off on the rest of the defense.

“Some guys talk a good game, but you don’t know what you’re going to get out of them,” Robinson said. “Clem is one of those dudes, regardless how you feel about him, you’ll take him down a dark alley with you. And that’s all you can really ask for in this league.”

Like most players on Seattle’s roster, Clemons has a chip on his shoulder.

A native of Griffin, Ga., a small town a half-hour drive south of Atlanta, Clemons says he developed a desire to be successful after his grandmother Evelyn Clemons died after being hit by a car when he was in seventh grade.

Clemons and older brother Nic were raised by a single mother, Mattie Clemons.

Clemons has NFL bloodlines. Nic Clemons played defensive end for the Broncos and the Redskins. Uncle Charlie Clemons had a seven-year NFL career as a linebacker. And cousin Jessie Tuggle was an All-Pro linebacker for 14 seasons for Atlanta.

His grandmother remains a source of inspiration.

“I never really got a chance to say goodbye to her,” Clemons said. “I know my grandmother is watching over me now. And that’s what fuels me. I know if I come in and I don’t feel like doing something, I know my grandmother will be like, ‘Boy, take your butt to work.’

“That’s the way she was. She wasn’t a mean woman. She was the sweetest woman in the world. But she understood what hard work was. And she understood that if you work hard, you’ll get what you want.”

Clemons has turned that work ethic into a thriving NFL career, and his teammates are glad to have him around.

“Clem has been an unbelievable acquisition for the Seahawks since he got here,” Seattle defensive end Red Bryant said. “He gives us everything he’s got. I can’t tell you how proud we are to be his teammates. And we expect that from him.”

Eric D. Williams: 253-597-8437 eric.williams@ thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/seahawks @eric_d_williams

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