Jayson Jenks-Seattle Times
The Orange Leader
SEATTLE, WA. —
His upbringing has led him here, to this season, where he will watch over Seattle’s defense as a 24-year-old free safety. And it has led him to a pivotal intersection: His natural athletic ability has always been there, but he’s pairing it with a mind that only now has caught up.
Of all the scouting reports filed on Earl Thomas during his final year at Texas, here’s one nugget that may have been omitted: He fought alarm clocks.
“I tried and I tried,” Thomas says, shaking his head, “but I always found some way to screw it up.”
Every Tuesday during the season, Texas’ defense met at 6 a.m. to prepare for the coming game. The third week of the season was no different.
Except in one way.
Thomas overslept that morning and walked into the crowded meeting room late. Duane Akina, Texas’ veteran defensive backs coach, didn’t rip Thomas, a redshirt sophomore. He didn’t need to. Thomas was already ashamed.
“Remind you, he’s the best player on our team,” Akina says. “He could have overslept and still started.”
The next Tuesday, Akina pulled up to the team’s facility around 4 a.m. and headed inside. He quickly walked through the cavernous locker room but stopped when he noticed something strange. There, asleep on the floor, right in front of his locker, was Earl Thomas.
He wouldn’t be late again.
Thomas is one of Seattle’s fiercest practice players. He stalks around the field coiled, like he just heard bad news. Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn compares Thomas’ intensity in practice to Bryant Young and Junior Seau.
Seething inside of him is this: A ferocious drive to not only be accepted as one of the game’s best players, but also redefine his position.
“Why can’t I be that guy who changes the way everybody looks at safety?” he says. “You watch NFL Network and hear about these great guys. I think I’m all about trying to leave a legacy.”
Thomas gets so locked in meditating before practice that he doesn’t like teammates to talk to him. Even fellow members of the Legion of Boom, his closest friends on the team, know not to bother him. Before practice.
He’s a quiet guy who likes playing music, but he’s also Seattle’s most underrated trash talker. “I think me and Sherm are a lot alike on the field,” Thomas says of teammate and notorious trash-talker Richard Sherman, “but Sherm just does it off the field so he gets a little more recognition. But when it’s time to be a competitor, that’s what you want. I like fiery guys. I like guys that have a little dog in them.”
Much of that goes back to his childhood in Orange, Texas, a 19,000-person town neighboring the Louisiana border. “You’ve got to be competitive if you want to survive as far as life and sports,” Thomas says. “We have a lot of great athletes, but you have to stand out. And you have to do the extra to stand out. I just never lost that.”
That has led him here, to this season, where he will watch over Seattle’s defense as a 24-year-old free safety already entering his fourth pro season. And it has led him to a pivotal intersection: His natural athletic ability has always been there, but he’s pairing it with a mind that only now has caught up.
“I feel so confident,” he says. “I hold it all in because you have to. But I feel real confident. I’m just ready for any test. Right now I feel like it’s my time.
The laptop sits on a table just a few steps away. Queued up on the screen are three of Thomas’ interceptions from last year. The idea is to have him watch each play and explain his thinking.
Only one thing: The computer isn’t necessary.
Thomas’ mind is a vault of good and bad plays. He watches so much film that he can recall such intimate details as how many steps he backpedaled or which way his rear end was facing.
When presented with this clumsy description of a random play — It was a young running back last year. They go out of shotgun, hand it to him and you come flying up the middle and wrangle him down by his feet with a four-yard dive — Thomas doesn’t hesitate.
“Buffalo, probably,” he says. “It was Buffalo.”
He’s right. It was on a handoff to C.J. Spiller that Thomas lunged forward and dropped him in the backfield.
Quinn, Seattle’s first-year defensive coordinator, is familiar with Thomas. As an assistant with the Seahawks, he joined coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider to watch Thomas’ pro day at Texas in 2010. Many people advised Thomas not to participate because he’d already helped his stock at the NFL combine.
Thomas amazed everyone at the pro day, including Carroll and Schneider, when he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.37 seconds.
Quinn coached Seattle’s defensive line during Thomas’ rookie season and returns after two years away. Thomas always had the speed and instincts, but the most striking change to Quinn is his thorough grasp of the game. He hears Thomas on the field more, barking out what the offense might be doing and anticipating routes.
“Now the football intelligence and IQ has matched everything else he’s got,” Quinn says. “That’s why you see this really rare guy. He’s matching the football part with the mental part. That’s it. He just captured it.”
For everything Thomas has accomplished at 24 — two Pro Bowls, two trips to the playoffs — the perceptions of him still vary.
Pro Football Focus ranked him the 34th-best safety in the league last year and tweeted, “Jairus Byrd is the player everybody thinks Earl Thomas is — the game’s best single-high F’S.” Six Seahawks made Pro Football Focus’ top 101 players of 2012. Five safeties cracked the list. Thomas wasn’t among them.
The site’s biggest critique centers on missed tackles. Pro Football Focus said Thomas whiffed on 20 of 81 tackles, and Pro Football Outsiders reported that he missed the fourth-most tackles of any safety in the league.
Unprompted, Thomas addressed two areas he wants to get better in. One is zone defensive schemes. “And I want to be a great tackler this year,” he adds. “I’ve been taking pride in that, and I just want to show it.”
Maragos doesn’t agree that Thomas is a shoddy tackler.
While Thomas may not bring down the ball carrier, Maragos argues, he’s often forcing him to cut inside where another defender can tackle him. Or he’s getting a piece of him and allowing teammates to finish the job.
“He’s a fire extinguisher,” Maragos says. “From an outsider you can look at that and say it’s a missed tackle. But I believe that there are good missed tackles.”
NFL Network analyst Charles Davis, a former defensive back, agrees.
“It sounds like an excuse to a lot of people, like it’s a way to excuse a missed tackle,” Davis says. “But a lot of guys don’t miss tackles because they never even get to the play.”
The other argument: Thomas’ real value is the vast ground he covers from his perch deep in the secondary. Much of Seattle’s defense revolves around cornerbacks Sherman and Brandon Browner using their size and strength at the line of scrimmage. That works largely because Thomas can protect them if they get beat.
“You can’t play the way Seattle plays without him being able to do that,” Davis says.
On each of the team’s practice fields in Renton, two vertical red lines stretch from end zone to end zone. They’re painted six yards in from each sideline, and they give safeties a sense of the ground they should patrol.
“We always talk about getting red line to red line,” Maragos said, “but he goes sideline to sideline.”
Carroll called Thomas “as good as any” safety he has ever coached, a list that includes Troy Polamalu and Lawyer Milloy. Thomas is a center fielder whose biggest value isn’t tied to numbers but the way he allows the Seahawks to play.
“His great plays outweigh the bad,” safety Winston Guy said. “You might see Earl miss one or two tackles, but he’ll probably have two or three pass breakups and an interception. When the game’s over, ain’t nobody going to say he missed one or two tackles.”
Browner calls to mind a particular play. It happened against Minnesota and Adrian Peterson last year.
“That’s a big ol’ boy,” Browner says. “Adrian Peterson is probably the best running back I’ve ever played against. He’s coming at Earl 100 miles an hour, and I see Earl coming at him 100 miles an hour. He’s smaller than that dude, and he flipped him. Stopped him in his place. He’s an intense football player, man.”
Thomas looks at those plays as a message, not just to opponents but to teammates. “If a little guy like me sticks his head in there,” he says, “I expect anybody to stick their head in there, too.”
That seeps into the rest of Seattle’s defense. “He won’t back down from nothing,” Quinn says. “And you feel that in his play. We feel that.”
And yet there’s a feeling among some that Thomas is underrated. Most of the national attention falls on Sherman, and fellow safety Kam Chancellor has developed a reputation and following for his jarring hits.
“Earl’s name doesn’t really roll off the tongue with other top safeties,” Davis said, “but I’d put him up there with anyone.”
That’s Thomas’ pursuit. He wants his name to ring out. He wants to stand at the pinnacle of his sport. He wants his highlights to flash on NFL Network long after he’s done playing.
Because it will mean everything he has worked for will have netted him the very thing he sought when he slept in the Texas locker room instead of risking being late to another meeting.
“He wants to be the best defensive back in the NFL,” Akina said. “He wants to be mentioned with the greatest players who have ever lined up.”