Before the 2010 season started, my buddy gave me a call. Said he and some co-workers had been hooked up with his boss's suite at (then) Qwest Field for the Seahawks' first pre-season game and he had an extra ticket. Then he told me that he was going to give that ticket to some girl he had just met at a bar in Fremont a couple of days ago and was calling me, his lifelong pal, who is a gigantic Seahawks fan, who taught him how to pronounce the "TH" sound when we were at Promise Daycare as little kids, to talk about it.
I told him how excited for him I was, and asked who the lucky girl was. Then I congenially ended the conversation, Facebook-stalked the chick, talked to my guy who knows things, got her number, texted her that the guy she was gonna go to the game with had broken both legs and was emotionally distant anyways, and then waited. My buddy never actually called me back to offer me the ticket instead (he took his brother), so in hindsight I guess I regret my actions somewhat, but a seed had been planted and my curiosity was piqued. I Craigslisted a ticket to the game and settled in to watch all the new kids.
The very first thing that caught my eye, besides that tacky Toyota truck next to the "12" flag, was the game speed of Seattle's new free safety, Earl Thomas. The beginning of the first exhibition game of one's rookie year is the time of a career where film study probably means as little as it ever will, leaving players to rely more on instinct and athleticism than team-specific preparation. And man, just... man. You know those ESPN replays where they freeze the play and then move the icon of a certain player to where he finishes the play at? That's what Thomas looked like the whole time he was in. He seemed to cover ground at twice the rate of the others and while I was determined to not get too excited about anyone based on their performance in that game, I couldn't shake the feeling that Seattle had gotten it right when they selected Thomas in the first round. Boy, did they ever.
As we all know, Thomas took almost no time at all to show he was for real and by the end of his rookie season I think most of us felt like Seattle had a star in the making. Thomas' second season has shown a continued progression from his impressive rookie year and on top of being a leader on an unforgiving defense, he's become a true fan favorite.
Yesterday, he took some time to give Field Gulls an interview.
For the sake of full disclosure, Thomas wasn't even on my radar leading up to the 2010 draft. I didn't think Seattle would take him at #6 and I didn't think he'd last until #14 and consequently, I hadn't really looked at his game much. I had heard that Dallas and Philadelphia were both in the market for a safety and after Eric Berry went to Kansas City, I figured one of them would snag Thomas in front of the 'Hawks. Turns out, Earl had been hearing a lot of the same things. "I'd heard a lot of people saying the Cowboys were looking at me," said Thomas. "You know, cuz of where I went to school and being from Texas, but I heard that Philly was interested too."
And the 'Hawks? "I talked to coach Carroll for a while at my pro day, and we kinda got to know each other, so I knew there was some interest there. And it only takes one team to fall in love with you." Carroll told Thomas he was selected as part of a plan, "to turn things around," and as the cornerstone of an emergent defensive unit, he's certainly done that. There's no question now that Thomas has the skills to play safety at an elite level, but widespread knowledge of those skills wasn't always the case.
Entering his redshirt sophomore year at Texas, Thomas says he had "no idea" that the NFL would be an option for him. "Going into the season I was just focusing on working hard, and as the games went on, the plays just kept coming. I started to hear some buzz as the season went on and by the time the national championship rolled around, I heard people calling me a top-ten pick. But at the beginning, I had no clue." The buzz continued into Thomas' first season in Seattle. Through his first two games, Thomas had more hits than Rihanna and was showing remarkable coverage skills to boot. Then his breakout game came.
Perhaps no game in the 2010 season greater displayed the Seahawks' new blueprint than the one at home against the San Diego Chargers in Week 3. In that game, the 'Hawks showed the power of the big play, as they won despite being out-gained 518 to 271. The game is noteworthy because of Leon Washington's ESPY-nominated kick returns, but also because that was the game that Earl Thomas intercepted two passes, including one in the endzone with no time left to close it out. It was a here-I-am-world moment for Thomas, "There was a lot of drama in that game, you know, everyone standing in their seats. It happened so fast, but getting that game-winning pick was a great experience. I was only 21 years old and to make that play was a great experience for me as a young player."
Youth is arguably the most dominant characteristic of this Seahawks team, and certainly in the secondary. Circumstance has dictated that two rookies, Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner, start at corner and be backed at safety by a couple of second-year guys in Thomas and Kam Chancellor. The group can't boast a ton of NFL experience and are actually the youngest secondary in the league, but Thomas says they don't use that as a crutch. "We young, but we hungry," he told me. "This is a great group. Brandon and Richard, I mean, they're great players. We got big cornerbacks and Kam is a banger and then we got me too. So yeah, we're young but we're getting better everyday."
So far this year, Sherman has shown himself to be a sticky cover man, Browner has developed into more than a curiously tall novelty corner, and Chancellor has captured our collective heart with his savage play. All three have helped to quilt a pretty cozy safety blanket behind Seattle's front seven and, while all have been varying degrees of impressive, perhaps no one has a bigger impact on their play as a unit than the dreadlocked former Longhorn. Just yesterday, our own Mr. Beekers wrote a piece on the positive impact Earl has had on the rest of the group. In it, Thomas is highlighted by some really smart football people as "incredibly dynamic" (Greg Cosell) and "the guy every opposing coach brings up first" (Doug Farrar). The common comparisons for Thomas are Baltimore's Ed Reed and Pittsburgh's Troy Polomalu; heady company to be sure, but for Thomas' part, he doesn't see it that way. "I don't really think my game is like anyone else's. I don't compare myself to any others, you know, I think I have a unique style."
Earl attributes that style to the conviction with which he plays his position. "I think playing free safety, my speed kind of separates me from a lot of others, but more importantly, I don't hesitate. I know what I'm supposed to do and when I see it, I go." That combination of intuition and quickness has been evident ever since Thomas joined the 'Hawks, but he feels that now, in his second year, he's seeing the game even more clearly. "The game has slowed down a lot since last year. I know where I need to be now, as a rookie it was tough but now I feel much more comfortable back there." Anticipation and acceleration are attributes now accompanied by acclimation, and the thought of Thomas' game maturing further as time goes on is an exciting one for Seahawks fans.
As far as the team is concerned, Thomas remarked on the number of really athletic players the Seahawks have* and says he's sensed the shift in direction that Carroll alluded to when he was drafted. "It's coming together," Thomas said. The landmark game, of course, was Seattle's improbable win over the New Orleans Saints in the playoffs last season, and Earl recognizes the value that big wins has for this group. "It's great to get a win like that. It's huge. You know, no one gave us a chance but we just believed and showed how far we've come."
The best part of it all isn't how far the Seahawks have come in such a short time, it's how far they can go, and no matter how far that is, we can be certain that Thomas will be a major lynchpin for the success.
*I asked him who the best overall athlete on the team is. His response: "Probably myself, or Kam. Sidney (Rice) and Golden (Tate), maybe, too." I vote for an all-Seahawks pentathlon. Somebody call Paul Allen.