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Earl Thomas is not a villain and showing up does not make you a hero

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NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Los Angeles Rams Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

On Wednesday, Seattle Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright talked with the media about the status of his contract. It’s a touchy subject this year — as it has been for most of the recent Seattle offseasons as they’ve become a more successful franchise with more gifted players than usual — and immediately you feel the hair on the back of your neck stand up and say, “Another one?”

Wright is entering the final year of a four-year extension that he signed in 2014. He will make a $7.2 million base salary and then if no new deal is signed, will enter free agency in 2019 at the age of 29. In fact, he’ll be 30 before the 2019 season starts, so you know that Wright is aware that the time for him to make big money on a long-term deal again is shrinking. And he was once making good coin for a 4-3 outside linebacker, but a lot has changed since 2014.

Wright’s APY on his four-year extension came out to $6.75 million, a fair sum at the time for a player in his position. He wasn’t in a 3-4, where he’d regularly rush the passer. And he wasn’t an inside linebacker like Bobby Wagner, where he might have more responsibilities. He had yet to make a Pro Bowl by 2014 and he has grown into an even more valuable player in the years since. Consider that Michael Bennett signed a new deal with the Seahawks in 2014 after winning the Super Bowl, then was immediately disgruntled by 2015 because Seattle had asked him to do more after signing a new deal than he had been doing during his original season in the defense as a backup to Chris Clemons and Red Bryant.

Wright has been quiet as he’s gotten better, and even as he’s dropped the 11th-highest paid 4-3 OLB in the league.

The Cleveland Browns pay two outside linebackers more money than Wright makes, with Jamie Collins getting an APY of $12.5m and Christian Kirksey at $9.5m. The consistently troubled Vontaze Burfict gets $11m per year with the Cincinnati Bengals. Even former teammate Bruce Irvin is now making more than him, $9.25m per year, with the Oakland Raiders. Where does Wright fall among the likes of Telvin Smith ($11m), Lavonte David ($10m), Dont’a Hightower ($8.875m), and Nigel Bradham ($8m)?

He definitely, without a doubt, has deserved more. But he has shown up and he keeps showing up and he never complains.

The reaction to this type of attitude towards a bad contract situation can be quite predictable in the wake of the notable absence of Earl Thomas at OTAs.

It is easy to endear yourself to fans by making the situation less complicated by showing up to team activities. I mean if we associate any team activity with being as important as a non-exhibition game, then we know that showing up is paramount. Wright is participating, Thomas is not. Wright is making things simple for the team, Thomas is putting them into decision mode.

But Wright is not a hero. And Thomas is not a villain.

Just ask Wright.

For one, Wright is one of hundreds of NFL players who are preparing to enter free agency in 2019. Only a small handful are holding out, including Thomas, Aaron Donald, Taylor Lewan, Le’Veon Bell (kind of), and Khalil Mack. Julio Jones is holding out, and he’s got three years left on his deal. But you aren’t seeing Duane Brown holding out, even though he’s older than Wright and also entering the last year of his deal. Hero?

Brown held out for almost half of the 2017 season. Not long ago was he the “unprofessional” one.

It’s nice that Wright isn’t holding out because it simplifies Seattle’s situation and lets us know as fans that no matter what happens, Wright will be available in Week 1 if he’s healthy, but we should also give some respect to the fact that he’s in a much different situation than Thomas is.

Number one being that Wright knows that he doesn’t have as much leverage as Thomas.

As good of a player as he is — and I do believe that in the last couple of years his presence has been immensely valuable in respect to opposing tight ends and running backs — nobody has ever called Wright the heart of the Seahawks’ dominant defenses. For most of the last seven seasons, that kind of title has gone to Thomas. Or Wagner. Or Richard Sherman. Or Kam Chancellor. Or Michael Bennett. Or Cliff Avril. Most of those guys are gone now, emphasizing the importance of Thomas, Wagner, and Wright, but especially Thomas and Wagner.

Wright may have more valid fears that holding out would simply lead to silence. Especially after seeing that the team was not willing to negotiate with Kam when Kam was 27.

Another consideration is that Wright has not come face-to-face with the potential ending of his career like Thomas recently has. Thomas broke his leg in 2016 and seriously contemplated retirement. That first serious injury of Thomas’ football career clearly shook him and had him thinking about long-term consequences. Thomas has re-committed to football and wants security because he’s become more fully self-aware of his own gridiron mortality. Kam was in a similar position having had hip surgery in 2014 and he nearly missed that season’s Super Bowl with a knee injury, followed by being told he may need elbow surgery. He avoided that and started hyping himself up as healthy that June:

I think this is the strongest offseason I’ve had since I’ve been in the league,” said Chancellor, who entered in 2010. “I’ve been actually able to train in the offseason instead of having surgeries.”

Hip, knee, elbow, groin (he missed two games in 2014 with a groin injury) ... Kam was the picture that the NFL doesn’t want you to see: this game is brutal on the body and Kam was the most brutal player to most of those other bodies. But for every action, there is an equal and opposite bruise on Kam Chancellor’s body.

He knew that and he held out to give himself more insurance in a league that he felt he may not survive in for much longer. The Seahawks did not give in during his 2015 holdout, but they did give in during his 2017 non-holdout, and sure enough, his career may have ended nine games later.

Wright has missed one game in the last four years — a concussion last season that he was very mature about handling:

“As you get older you get a new perspective of life, you start having kids, you get a wife and at the end of the day it’s just a game. It’s a really important game, but it’s still just a game,” Wright said.

Wright knows how quickly a season or a career can end. He knows that if you get hurt and miss work, it won’t hurt to miss work. (Aflac). Because of that you might assume that he would want that insurance beyond 2018, but like thousands and thousands of players before him he’s deciding to just play out the final year of his deal and see what happens. If he can get through one more healthy year, Wright may also get an even better contract than he could sign today because he’ll have more leverage.

Thomas simply has a different strategy. Perhaps it’s a football strategy. Perhaps it’s a life strategy. Far be it from me to start judging other people on the way they want to run their lives. Far be it from me to call someone “unprofessional” based on the ways they choose to run their own personal businesses, and make no mistake that every individual athlete is basically an LLC; you are an independent contractor signing deals and at best you likely have a 10-year window to sign those deals. And what makes it even worse to be an LLC in this “profession” is that the organization that hired you to do a job can — and almost certainly will — end that pact before it was originally intended to end, costing you millions and millions of expected dollars.

How can you dare call a person “unprofessional” for refusing services when the profession itself has not only set a baseline that contracts should be non-guaranteed, but will fight tooth and nail to keep it that way during every collective bargain agreement negotiation? The non-guaranteed contracts are the heart of the football business and what separates it from the NBA and MLB. Perhaps this is also a part of what makes football more competitive than baseball and basketball (assuming it is, I haven’t done that research lately and the New England Patriots might disagree) and I’m not saying it’s wrong, but we can’t just pick one side of those pacts and say, “You should honor the deal. They don’t have to honor the deal.”

It’s easy to call Thomas the “bad guy” because at the end of the day, you (the fan) wants to see the Seattle Seahawks win games and you know that Thomas will help them win games. The evidence is in the clear splits in pass defense over the last couple of years when Earl has missed games and much like his safety brother Kam, he sees this as perhaps his final chance to get paid before the football gods cash him out.

When you get cut: “It’s a business.”

When you want to get paid: “It’s a brotherhood.”

No. I refuse that logic. I buy into the fandom and hoopla and joy around the Seahawks winning football games as anyone who wants that sort of thing, but I refuse to turn off the parts of the brain that remind you that a year contains 8,760 hours and an NFL season is 16 of those hours on the field with the clock running.

That’s .001% of a year.

In that .001%, you can break your leg. You can get a concussion that you never recover from. You can suffer a neck or spinal injury like Ricardo Lockette, Kam Chancellor, and Cliff Avril have all had frightening interactions with in the last two seasons alone. So excuse me for not getting mad at Earl Thomas, a businessman and a business, man, for using the other 99.99% of the year on making sure that he’s protected when “the profession“ opts to forget about him if he ever gets seriously injured again.

That’s his choice. K.J. Wright is also making a choice. No one is right, and no one is wrong. This is what the league has asked for and pushed for so that they can break contracts whenever necessary. So why are we getting mad or taking sides with or against the players?