He is sleeping in front of his locker as repentance and prophylactic. Thomas was late to practice the day before. Thomas will not be late again even if it means sleeping beside his locker, and this anecdote opens and later is the culmination of Jayson Jenk's story about Thomas. It's a personal private detail sifted from some many facts and stories and quotes gathered in his reportage, the sort of definitive anecdote a reporter strives for, and if you're of my generation, you probably think it's corny, somewhat irrelevant and maybe not even true.
Maybe some other dedicated but ultimately failed football prospect slept in front of his locker, but in Akina's memory the identity migrated to Thomas after Thomas became an NFL star. Certainly other dedicated people have committed similarly cheesy stunts and never amounted to anything. One signal act does not make someone devoted. Henry VIII shared kisses and wine with Cath and Anne and Jane Seymour and of course Anne of Cleaves, and other Cath and other other Cath, too--if briefly.
"Hard work," "speed," and "size" are the pillar cliches of sports journalism, and especially football journalism. Presented with new or distinctive graphics, new or poignant anecdotes, awarded from the young, debited from the old, and debited from the young and awarded the old, hard work, speed and size may and have formed the basis for some millions upon millions of sports stories. Percy Harvin is fast. James Carpenter is big and strong. K.J. Wright is tall. Russell Wilson works hard, extra hard, but is not big, but is fast, ad nauseum.
I set out a week ago to discover for myself what exactly Earl Thomas was as player. I wanted to know more about him than that he's fast and hard working. I wanted to know if he's fast and hard working. I wanted to know everything I could know. What I learned ... well, let me share.
Is Thomas Good?
We take it for granted that Earl Thomas is a great safety, yet how exactly can we know? He doesn't have a true shooting percentage or wOBA. His expected points added for 2013, his perceived best season, was ranked 12th among safeties. I know Pro Football Focus has steadily grown in people's estimations, but PFF depends on a flawed method which converts scouting data into numbers. What does Russell Wilson earning a "5.2+" against the Redskins mean, for instance? The only function of the number I can tell is to obfuscate the analysis derived from supposed film study. If I say Wilson missed Aqib Talib breaking off his route and threw into double coverage, that can be checked against reality. If I say, Wilson earned a 5.2+, that could mean almost anything. It's a regressive step, away from transparency and understanding, and toward blind trust in the contents of some venerable black box. Toward that age old corruption: Trust me.
But apart from these flawed methods, what do we have? Click bait rankings, Madden ratings, Pro Bowl appearances--all different echoes of some indefinable reputation. It is I think the vacuum created by content that truly props up Pro Football Focus. If PFF may be undermined by a nonsense method, its writers as least produce more interesting rhetoric than your common mishmash of cliches, tautology and outright ambiguity.
Luckily, with some minor knowledge of scheme, and some few hours spent surveying Pro Football Reference, a simple, intuitive (if surely incomplete) metric can be developed to compare free safety to free safety. Lacking the time to do this with every player, I looked first at those free safeties who, by reputation, are considered best at their position. The metric? Attempts, completions, yards and touchdowns earned from passes targeting the "deep middle." The flaws with this method? I could name a few. But short of weeks of honest and intensive film study, it's the best I could devise.
Here, first are the supposed best of the best:
Jairus Byrd (2012)
I picked Byrd's 2012 because he missed time with injury in 2013, and 2012 was the season that prompted Pro Football Focus to remark "Jairus Byrd is the player everybody thinks Earl Thomas is — the game’s best single-high F.S."
Attempts targeting the deep middle: 23
Percentage of all pass attempts: 4.3%
This makes for a neat hierarchy of achievement. Best would be no targets, which means no chance of completions, yards or touchdowns. Next best would be an incomplete pass. Not as good as a non-target, because most attempts can be completed, and an incomplete could mean a receiver drop or an inaccurate pass. Finally, on completions, a free safety should limit yards and prevent touchdowns, forcing possible red zone downs--which favor the defense because of compactness. Chase Stuart formerly of Pro Football Reference and now of Pro Football Perspectives valuated breaking that infinitely thin threshold and scoring a touchdown at 20 yards, for your consideration.
Superficially, 4.3% of pass attempts targeting Byrd's primary responsibility on most downs seems good. Among the 27 quarterbacks who played in 10 or more games last season, 23 passed deep between 17.3% and 23.9%. The outliers being: Matt Ryan (12.1), Chad Henne (13.9), Russell Wilson (26.5%) and Nick Foles (27.4%). If deep passes were evenly distributed (they're not I am pretty sure but concentrated to the right), an average free safety should expect between 6-8% of pass attempts to be directed at the deep middle. But let's further expand our context.
Percentage of all pass targets: 2.9%
Percentage of all attempts: 3.8%
These results are similar, which might suggest quality of method. But to be sure, let's find some almost surely bad free safeties to compare stats against. I attempted to determine who was bad by looking for players on bad pass defenses, players since benched, released or not re-signed, and one old player possibly living on his reputation.
The Cowboys were a very bad pass defense last year. Church was moved to strong safety prior to this season.
Josh Evans, Dwight Lowery and Winston Guy
These three played the Earl Thomas position for poor, poor Gus Bradley's now but not future Jaguars. Personnel matters, old friend.
Completion percentage is something of a saving grace, but to a coach I imagine nearly every deep attempt against produces a wince.
Brandon Meriweather and Bacarri Rambo
Another free safety by committee, as one might expect among the worst functioning at their position.
Too many attempts, and some making it through for touchdowns--basic bad football.
Woodson is finishing out his career for the team that drafted him, the Oakland Raiders. Once great, it wasn't clear before he signed with Oakland whether Woodson would even get a chance to play in 2013. His numbers speak to an old, still savvy player that holds true to his assignment, but when targeted, fails.
So my hunch seems at least not preposterous. Good safeties prohibit targets, most bad safeties do not. Good safeties, when targeted, limit completions and yards, bad safeties do not. What then would Earl Thomas's numbers be?
I probed the game logs and found one of those five incomplete passes was an interception, and so opponents' adjusted yards per attempt on passes targeting the Seahawks deep middle was 3.7. Ryan Leaf's career AY/A: 3.6.
Seven foolish men targeted the Seahawks deep middle in 2013, two of whom were Matt Schaub at different stages of decay. Cumulatively, and with good blocking and a perceived-open deep target, those men performed like Ryan Leaf as coached by Norv Turner.
The deep middle by definition begins 15 yards down field and extends between the numbers. As broken down by the NFL's play-by-play data it is the largest single section by area, but in 2013, Thomas allowed only seven pass attempts. That's astounding. Two attempts were complete, twice as many as were intercepted.
Given what we know about Seattle's scheme and Thomas's duties within that scheme, the above data suggests Thomas was not just good but perhaps historically great.
Why is Thomas Good?
Thomas: Fast and Slow
It has been all but purged from the Internet but Earl Thomas did not run a blazing fast 40 at the 2010 NFL Combine. The time often credited to Thomas, a 4.43, was run by someday rush linebacker Taylor Mays. Thomas shows as a "top performer" in neither the safety nor cornerback rankings. Earl Thomas ran a 4.49 40 at the Combine, which placed him outside the top ten among defensive backs. Behind also: David Pender and Akwasi Owuso-Ansah, he of Combine hype and euphonious name.
Thomas is a very very fast human man who participated and excelled in track when he was young, much like so many receivers and defensive backs in the NFL. By the only standardized measure of speed available, Thomas is normal to slightly above average among his peers. If his peers are defensive backs, but if his peers are starting free safeties . . .
Players listed as primary starter at free safety, 2013
LaRon Landry: 4.35
Michael Griffin: 4.45
Brandon Meriweather: 4.47
Devin McCourty: 4.48
Reggie Nelson: 4.48
Eric Weddle: 4.48
Earl Thomas: 4.49
Louis Delmas: 4.50
Tyrann Mathieu: 4.50
Patrick Chung: 4.51
Eric Reid: 4.53
Chris Conte: 4.53
Matt Elam: 4.54
Harrison Smith: 4.57
Josh Evans: 4.58
Dashon Goldson: 4.60
Rahim Moore: 4.62
Barry Church: 4.69
Kendrick Lewis: 4.73
Shilo Keo: 4.75
Jairus Byrd: -
Tashuan Gipson: -
MD Jennings: -
Mike Mitchell: -
Ryan Mundy: -
Andrew Sendejo: -
Charles Woodson: -
Players marked with a hyphen either did not run a 40 at the NFL Combine, or ran it long enough ago that data is unavailable. I thought of searching newspaper archives to find that information, but what 40 Woodson ran in 1998, for instance, probably matters little in determining what 40 he would have run in 2013. Sprinting performance peaks at about 23. Which is a typical age for a Combine participant, but Thomas was unusually young, just 20 in February of 2010. It is possible he got incrementally faster. It is certain that he's retained a greater amount of speed than some of the older players on this list. Accounting for both that progression in speed and potential deterioration because of age, age-24 Earl Thomas was probably the fastest starting free safety in the NFL in 2013.
Doug Farrar did a good job of explaining how that foot speed translates into field speed. But foot speed, as Doug pointed out, is wasted without control. This excerpt details a different kind of speed, speed of recognition and reaction, which quality is under-recognized in Thomas, and under-recognized in the NFL. It's a kind of smartness, a mastery or technique won through hard work but not equally attainable by all.
"The speed has always been there," defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said Thursday when asked how Thomas has grown as a player. "You felt how fast he practiced. The experience of seeing the routes and now being able to play the technique, where before he might have just reacted when the play happened to now, he understands. You’ll hear him talking on the field in terms of a split or an alignment or a formation, that’s the biggest thing I see. Because the intensity, the desire, the will has always been there with him. You saw that at Texas, and then it carried into his first year, how hard he practiced and played. Now, the added factor of experience and the recognition ... that’s the biggest difference."
The panic of speed, disorder, consequences without clear antecedents--athletes often describe mastery of their sport as "the game slowing down." Thomas is fast. Thomas acts fast. Because to him NFL football is a slow, orderly progression with a predictable outcome.
Hard Work and Will
Is Earl Thomas an especially hard worker, especially dedicated not just to performing in games, but in his preparation? and maximizing that preparation to maximize his performance? So many thousands of words of copy insist "yes," and I see no reason to argue. But many have the will to work. How many have the will to greatness?
It's an odd question. Not one nearly so easy to deduce as whether Thomas is a hard worker. Hard work is performed. It can be measured in weights lifted and hours studying tape.
Hard work is an expression of will. Will ... will is a difficult subject.
It is an irony typical of human nature that the philosopher most responsible for reviving analysis of will after the Dark Ages, thought will a malignant force. Arthur Schopenhauer said: "All the cruelty and torment of which the world is full is in fact merely the necessary result of the totality of the forms under which the will to live is objectified." Which invites an unkindly fact not often discussed: For Earl Thomas to succeed, someone else must fail. And a person of Thomas's success leaves a trail of failures, many perhaps hard working, most good, aspiring, decent, committed, each feeling, and all harmed by Thomas's actions.
The men Thomas has broken, the men Thomas has hurt, the dreams and aspirations Thomas has helped destroy, must not be suffered by Thomas, but rejoiced in. In the words of Friedrich Nietzsche, "I test the power of a will according to the amount of resistance it can offer and the amount of pain and torture it can endure and know how to turn it to its own advantage; I do not point to the evil and pain of existence with the finger of reproach, but rather entertain the hope that life may one day life may become more evil and more full of suffering that it has ever been." Nietzsche calls this "the enormous energy of greatness."
We may quibble with whether what Thomas is doing is "evil," but it is selfish, self-interested and certain to hurt others in its execution.
The world is thick with people who aspire to greatness. It is almost equally thick with people who work hard. Rare is the person who needs greatness, who works as if in mortal fear of failure, and who wrests greatness from others, even if he must steal it--twice.
... Montee Ball is a patient back with good vision but not much in the way of open field moves. Crease: Open field: Greater explosiveness cutting back would have cleared Ball of Earl Thomas's swipe. Instead Thomas looks to actually grab the ball by its point and, despite Ball's three points of contact, twist it from his grasp. While its loose, Chancellor punches it completely free. Or not. Despite Thomas's effort, the loose ball bounces right back to Ball. So what is the best defensive player to do after being robbed of a forced fumble like he was robbed of Defensive Player of the Year last season? Re-force the fumble, of course. Not a camera angle available shows exactly what Thomas does, but some split second later the ball is wrested from Ball's grasp again and knocked clear to Wright. The play though occurring on the fourth play from scrimmage in the game is worth a full 13% win probability.
In football, the oblong spheroid, the ball, is greatness made tangible. Montee Ball works hard. Montee Ball wishes himself to be great. But at the crucible moment of this play, Thomas did not just want greatness more, he battled the very fringes of the possible to seize greatness, lose it and seize it again.
Thomas the Tackler
Earl Thomas is not and never has been nor ever will be a great tackler. Nothing I wrote about Thomas and tackling in May of 2010 seems out of place now:
Since I'm getting all the garbage out of the way, Thomas isn't a particularly sound tackler, either. He doesn't always take good angles. He doesn't wrap particularly well. Mike Mayock said something to the effect that in the modern NFL, he would trade some run-stopping for some cover ability, but tackling matters in pass coverage too. A safety must be able to secure, because by definition he is often the last line of defense. It's going to happen. Thomas is going to botch tackles. He's small, he struggled with it in college and pros are bigger, stronger, faster and more evasive.
But short of lengthening his arms, little could be added to Thomas's tackling ability that wouldn't debit from some other more important ability. His read and quickness allows him to be places and make tackle attempts few others could. That quickness is essential to his ability to make plays on passes in flight, and that ability is much more valuable than whatever is lost in being the tackle that slows versus the tackle that stops.
If football were a video game, Thomas could be all things great in one body. In life, that which makes you weak in one may often makes you strong in another. Perhaps as Thomas slows, he will have a little less momentum approaching a ball carrier, and be able to better square and wrap and tackle. And in this way, he will appear to be a better tackler by having fewer tackle attempts and a higher average of tackle attempts converted into tackles. But will he be better? I doubt it very much.
Earl Thomas, Defined
"Is it not curious, that so vast a being as the whale should see the world through so small an eye, and hear the thunder through an ear which is smaller than a hare's? But if his eyes were broad as the lens of Herschel's great telescope; and his ears capacious as the porches of cathedrals; would that make him any longer of sight, or sharper of hearing? Not at all.—Why then do you try to 'enlarge' your mind? Subtilize it." --Herman Melville
To his right, the big corner, and to his left, foil and friend Richard Sherman. Before Earl Thomas is Kam Chancellor, his opposite and complement, a player of extraordinary size for a safety, but who is slower, can be beat deep, cannot cover nearly so much ground. Each are in some ways specialists. But in whatever way they are too slow, too slow out of breaks, not always clear of their coverage assignments, Thomas fixes.
Thomas is not the prototypical safety of the past. He is the prototype as envisioned by Pete Carroll and his coaches, and not to be everything, to do everything, to take over a game as only happens in the mouth's of color commentators, but to seep into every weakness of the secondary and make it strong. 1.3% of all pass attempts against Seattle targeted the deep middle, and only 15.8% of all pass attempts targeted the Seahawks deep. Since that data has been kept, 34 quarterback seasons have ended with an equal or smaller percentage of throws deep.
2013: Chad Henne and Matt Ryan
2012: John Skelton, Kevin Kolb and Alex Smith
2011: Donovan McNabb, Colt McCoy, Josh Freeman, Dan Orlovsky
2010: Tony Romo, Tom Brady, Sam Bradford, Trent Edwards
2009: Carson Palmer, Kyle Orton, Jason Campbell, Keith Null
2008: Trent Edwards, Matt Schaub, Kurt Warner, Jeff Garcia, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jason Campbell, Carson Palmer, Jake Losman
2007: Drew Brees, Trent Edwards
2006: Bruce Gradkowski, Derek Anderson, Drew Bledsoe, Damon Huard, Steve McNair, Derek Carr, Trent Green
Current retirees, career backups, players run from the league, the washed up, the near washed up, and six players of continued relevance (Ryan, Smith, Romo, Brady, Palmer and Brees). Palmer in 2008 and Romo missed most of their respective dink-and-dunk seasons due to injury. Injury rocked Matt Ryan's team in 2013. 2012 is the season that ended Smith's career in San Francisco. Jim Harbaugh correctly decided Colin Kaepernick gave his team its best chance of winning. And coincidentally, incidentally, of damning significance or of no significance at all, Colin Kaepernick threw it deep (29.9%) more than twice as frequently as Smith (13.8). Brady ... well Brady was pretty good, actually. But that was the season Rob Gronkowski (3rd among tight ends) and Aaron Hernandez (6th) combined for 76.8 Extra Points Added (context: in 2013 the EPA leaders were: Tony Gonzalez 51.6, Julius Thomas 50.9 and Jimmy Graham 41.8). Brees I have no explanation for.
It is a silly thing football, abstract impressionism, lyric poetry--rules, ideas, beliefs handed down and challenged, defied but never destroyed. Carroll picked a small safety with suspect tackling ability and entrusted him to be his defense's glue, his arch playmaker but also his last line of defense. Thomas was hard working, passionate, sure, but Carroll saw something else in him. A fanaticism for greatness, maybe. Not one that propels him to kill like Raskolnikov, but one that nevertheless transcends compassion, functions in a way quintessentially human but not humane.
He is a climber, a striver, he slept beside his locker, even Jon Gruden says so, but more he is a man who believes from DNA to skeletal system, from neuron to neuron to neuron, firing, who believes with his head his heart his spine and his stomach, in not just the possibility of his own greatness, but his duty to himself, his family, his friends, and mankind to be great at all costs. His legs are quick, yes, but his mind is yet quicker. His anticipation is to be marveled at; his intelligence as a football player, to be feared.
He is of a kind but like no other. Earl Thomas is Earl Thomas. Watch and witness.