If you've ever worked customer service, and most of us who lack the bust to sell Snorg Tees have, you know that you're paid for a few minutes each day where you tolerate a raging jagoff, charm a needy and none-too-subtle suitor or remind some unsuspecting stranger about common human decency. The job itself is simple, slow and often moronic. It's a lot of waiting. A lot of watching. A lot of anticipation for that moment when your job rises above what can be accomplished by a machine.
If you ever played outfield, it's much the same. There's so little work, coaches often stress hustle. Did you backup the infielder? Were you alert? Did you keep up the chatter? Keep up the chatter. Keep up the chatter.
Playing safety in the NFL is like that. Football is a weird sport in that there are specific and obvious goals, a customary way of accomplishing those goals; few requirements and yet a relatively narrow way those goals are accomplished. Some designated players will rush the ball carrier. Others are assigned a player or space on the field. Safeties stand back and await that crucial moment in which they matter.
Because of that, the classic requirements for safety are vision, awareness, discipline and open-field tackling. All skills that contribute to a safety not making a play but limiting a play that's already successful. Spread style systems and an overall emphasis on the passing game has forced the modern safety to become something much different. It's not about the deep pass. The deep pass has not changed dramatically in decades. It's about the high rate of success on short patterns and how easily a team can sustain a drive. A modern safety is more like a generalist defensive back: A utilitarian player that can flex and adjust depending on what's thrown at him. A modern safety is more like Earl Thomas.
Thomas is not measured just by how often he's burned. He can burn back. He can flip possession, field position and win probability. Thomas is more Ed Reed than Brian Russell, not just in ability, but in profile. He doesn't just cap or cleanup or be valued for his anonymity, he takes your breath away.
We left off with Thomas brushing off the cinders.
1. 1st and 10 at OKLA 27 Chris Brown rush for 3 yards to the Okla 30.
Thomas is nine deep over right slot. Sooners run an inside hand off. Thomas does not factor.
Thomas is again nine deep over right slot, and the Sooners rush to the line and run an identical formation. Pass right. Thomas DNF.
3. 3rd and 3 at OKLA 34 Sam Bradford pass intercepted by Earl Thomas at the Texas 33, returned for no gain to the Texas 33.
Sooners split three wide left, wide receiver right, running back left, shotgun. Longhorns are in a 4-2. Thomas's versatility allows Texas to stay in more base and balanced formations and not have to resort to nickel, dime and quarter as much. Thomas is playing deep center. Ryan Palmer is playing over Ryan Broyles in the left slot. Snap. Broyles streaks. Palmer flips and attempts to run with Broyles but a slight limp from the last play worsens and he's running hurt. He's beat. Bradford locks on. The Sooners pocket rolls left. Sergio Kindle is untouched off right end, but Bradford seems unaware of coming pressure. Thomas has broken from center towards Broyles. Bradford launches. Kindle arrives and pounds Bradford into the dirt, throwing shoulder first. It's overthrown, slightly. Thomas cuts in front of Broyles and snags an interception by his fingertips, rolling, jostling and securing the ball before hitting the turf.