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Earl Thomas and the Seahawks' punt returner competition: Safety first?

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The arguments for, and against, Earl Thomas as punt returner, but mostly for, with the scary stuff right out there in the open, so you can shove way back behind your subconscious wall when you're done.

Always wear a helmet?
Always wear a helmet?

First, let's establish that it's perfectly fine to dislike the idea of Earl Thomas returning punts for the 2014 Seattle Seahawks. There can be no shame if the idea makes you queasy.

But I like it. So, before the comment section gets filled with entries straight from the Encyclopaedia Apocalyptica, there are five points I'd like to make. Think of this as a tl;dr in advance!

1. There are pros to Earl Thomas, Punt Returner. More explosive plays translate to more wins.

2. There are cons too. He could die. That's bad, probably.

3. My .02, which is why not let him do it if he earns it... but in the end,

4. Pete Carroll's opaque opinion is all that matters.

5. And finally, some free, educated speculation: Evidence and hunches lead me to believe that Earl will start Week 1 as the starting PR.

If you choose to read points 1 through 5 of John's post, please turn to page 29. If you choose to skip ahead to the poll and comments, please turn to page 5050.

PAGE 29

1. The Pros

In the moving image category, consider this pro:

Original_medium

And then, digest a few indisputable Earl Thomas Facts:

Earl Thomas is so fast, he strikes lightning.

Earl Thomas is so fast, he actually moves at half speed on purpose just so our human eyes can observe him.

Earl Thomas is so fast, he ran a minus-4.41 at the NFL combine.

At any moment, #29 the safety can appear out of nowhere to make a play. (Yes you do want to click here, just trust me.) At any moment, #29 the ball carrier can dodge the entire phalanx of men out to get him and finish by high-stepping into the end zone. He's an explosive play waiting to happen, and as we've discovered, making explosive plays is one of the greatest predictors of team success.

"Toxic Differential" is a stat that's been around the NFL for a while. It's calculated by adding two differentials: a team's turnover margin and its big play margin. The higher a toxic differential gets, the better.

Hey, guess which teams in 2013 came out on top?

Rank, Team Turnover margin Big play margin Toxic Differential
1, Seahawks 20 46 66
2, Eagles 12 48 60
3, 49ers 12 30 42
4, Panthers 11 14 25
5, Broncos 0 17 17

Oh look, four division winners, plus the consensus second-best team in the NFL. Oh look, both Super Bowl participants. All in the league's top 5.

(Find the full table here, by the way. Numbers 6, 7 and 8 are also playoff teams.)

So, any move that increases your chance for a big play has out-sized importance in getting you to a championship situation.

There's one last pro on my list: the whole prospect just sounds plain damn entertaining.

Without devolving into the obvious Gladiator quote, isn't the purpose of watching sports to be entertained? To feel one's jaw succumb to gravity by an athletic play? Earl Thomas is capable of taking us to that place, over and over again.

Sure, winning is satisfying. Winning it all is the best. But this team isn't going to capture a Lombardi every year. Along the way, I'd like to witness some plays that I'll take to my grave.

And nobody is coercing E.T. into harm's way. Back in May, he said, "I want to show everybody who I am. I want to be able to impact the game as much as possible. This is a great opportunity for me. I just need to capitalize on it."

Selfishly, I want to see that.

2. Ah, But The Cons Are A Real "Con"cern

Kenny Easley, twice an All-Pro safety, the Seahawk who garnered this praise from Ronnie Lott --

"I look up to Kenny. When I look at Kenny and I look at myself, the only thing that separates us is Kenny didn't get a chance to do it as long. That's the only thing."


Read more here: http://blog.thenewstribune.com/seahawks/2014/01/25/ronnie-lott-says-kam-chancellor-heading-toward-kenny-easleys-level/#storylink=cpy

-- once had the following happen to him, while, gulp, returning punts. Scroll to 1:40 in the video, if you want:


Easley then missed the last three games of the 1985 season. The ankle eventually required surgery.

He retired in 1987, never again managing to regain his All-Pro form. For sure, other unrelated injuries helped derail Easley from a Hall of Fame path. But nasty tackles are the kind of things that happen on kick returns. Easley's is a cautionary tale, which deserves to be paired with this scene from a Hawks game just last year:

Tumblr_myr5qoid581r8hdg0o1_500_medium

Since I'm scaring the living piss out of myself you us in this section, another:

Lamichael-james-gets-hit_medium

And that's just one fringe roster guy doing that level of damage, in just one season. So swiftly, let's close the wincing section with this freak injury suffered by Ravens return man Jacoby Jones, in September 2013:

Yeah, his own teammate did the deed that time. Not super reassuring.

So, to recap, punt returners get hit. On every return, Earl would be risking his health, and the fate of the team, for some slivers or chunks of positive win probability. If he misses two weeks for a concussion, maybe it costs the Hawks a postseason home game. If he misses eight weeks for a separated shoulder, maybe there is no postseason for Seattle, period. If he misses the whole season with a ligament tear, maybe his career takes a nosedive.

The reward might be great, but the risk is too.

3. Still, I Say Let Earl Do The Job.

The problem is that data on injuries stemming directly from punt return duties isn't readily available. There are big hits, there are collisions, there are concussions that happen on kick returns.

Those things also happen on other football plays. The more important question to ask is, "Is the returner going to have enough awareness to protect himself when necessary, and take off when called for?" All indications are that Earl is savvy enough to know the difference.

Plus, consider that Chip Kelly let DeSean Jackson return punts all last year; Bruce Arians let Patrick Peterson do the same. Hell, Golden was the Hawks' No. 1 receiver and Pete Carroll had no problem giving him the PR job. Those guys were all crucial contributors to their teams. Not on the level of Thomas, but still. If there's data indicating that punt returners are at greater risk than the general NFL population, it doesn't seem to faze those top coaches. And they would know.

I'm comfortable, then, in making a small appeal to authority here, and asserting that in general, punt returns aren't that much more dangerous than regular plays. If at all.

And Earl already plays special teams. In 2012, he took 88 ST snaps; about the same in 2013, with 89.

Meanwhile, only two guys in 2013 handled more than 40 punts -- Dexter McCluster with 58 and Tate with 51. You could argue that exchanging his KR coverage duties for PR work would actually reduce the amount of snaps Thomas would play in a season.

Yes, he'd get exposed to malicious or accidental headhunters like Lockette every week. But the risk might not be as great as it appears, and the reward is much easier to quantify.

Golden flipped the field on punt returns multiple times last season. A 71-yarder vs Tampa Bay in the third quarter of a game the Hawks could well have lost otherwise. In the Hawks' epic Week 4 overtime comeback against Houston, the winning drive started with a 32-yard return from Tate. A 38-yarder in the fourth quarter at San Fran led to a go-ahead field goal. There were more plays, too. But you know that.

If Earl can do half as well as Golden, then he's probably good for influencing the outcome of one close game. Last season, one more win meant HFA -- there's no reason to think things will be any different this season. The value of the win that takes you from 11 to 12 (bye) or 12 to 13 (HFA) is much greater than the value of a win that takes you from 8 (no playoffs) to 9 (fringe playoff team).

4. As If This Post Even Matters

My arguments, while convincing to some and off-putting to others, mean nothing in the real world, which is largely overseen and governed by Pete Carroll. And Pete has had Earl's punt return skills on the mind for quite some time now.

"I'm anxious to see how Bryan Walters fits into that," Carroll said. "He's got experience in his background. Percy is out there vying for it. Sherm will tell you he's the best one, and he catches the ball really well. He and Earl would take it right now."

That was on May 27. Earl was winning, as he appears to be now.

I feel reasonably confident saying that Pete's unlikely to give the job to a Hawk who performs less well than Earl at the given task. The message being sent would be far too dissonant a sound in Carroll's Always Compete Symphony No. 2. (Symphony No. 1 being his body of work at USC.)

If Thomas wins the competition, I do not believe Carroll will go against his own principles. If Pete wasn't fully prepared to let Earl be the returner, he probably wouldn't have allowed him to enter the competition in the first place.

To wit, another Carroll quote: "The first thing you want in a punt returner is a guy that wants to do it real bad because it's a difficult challenge job and both Earl and Percy are that way. It's a good side competition that's going on that we'll watch all the way through camp."

To be sure, I could very well see Pete quickly removing #29 from return duty, temporarily or permanently, if he suffers a minor injury during the course of a regular-season game. At that point, preservation of the team's most valuable defensive asset trumps all other arguments, I'd think.

5. So It's Probably Going To Be E.T.

But I can hear the retort already: "preservation of the team's most valuable defensive asset ALREADY trumps all other arguments!"

A fair point. However... you might not like it, but Pete made it clear in the spring that Earl was the top dog, and then he kept him there all summer, and unless you are Earl, or possibly ST coach Brian Schneider, Pete is not interested in your personal opinion.

Sure, Percy Harvin is learning the job too, but even he said, "every coach I've always had wanted me to put that in my toolbox." If Harvin were going to master the skill enough to do it in live games, shouldn't he have arrived by now? There's something preventing him from excelling at PR the way he excels at KR, I'd presume.

In the absence of a rival emerging and supplanting Earl as the front-runner, it seems to me then, that the team is perfectly fine with the status quo. Carroll followed through: on Friday, in preseason Game 1, Earl returned the first punt of the game, gaining zero yards (rats). There were no other punt returns (re-rats).

Rats and re-rats because now there's not a lot of game data to crunch. But that just means we can place extra importance on camp updates, which confirm Earl's No. 1 status. And Pete hasn't made a habit of misleading us when it comes to open competitions. Wilson vs. Flynn, Turbin vs. Michael, Sweezy vs. Random Dogshit -- all examples of this. PC lets us know who's ahead in key competitions as they develop.

So tomorrow's game will tell us something... if there are enough kick returns to go around. But my money's on E.T., which is thrilling. And maybe not as scary as it sounds at first glance.

PAGE 5050

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