In several ways, Earl Thomas is a unique player — the best combination of speed and strength at the free safety position, enhanced by a commitment to study that makes him even more formidable on the field. His nine seasons of intense achievement as a Seattle Seahawk have made him, when the day comes, a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Also: He has no filter.
Thomas often says (and gestures) what he thinks without regard to, or awareness of, consequences.
How much that has played into his imminent departure from Seattle when NFL free agency commences next Wednesday is unclear. But the more I think about Thomas’ “come get me” episode after a December 2017 defeat of the Cowboys at the Clink, the more I think he crossed a line of incorrigibility for coach Pete Carroll, somewhat in the manner of Richard Sherman.
Carroll likely will never say how frosted he was by Thomas’ foolishness. Postgame, he talked around it.
As usual, Thomas didn’t talk around it.
“I went to the locker room to talk to Dez (Bryant), and I saw coach Garrett, and you know, I’ve always been a Cowboys fan growing up,” said Thomas, a native of Orange, TX. “The biggest thing when I say, ‘come get me,’ is I don’t literally mean ‘come get me now,’ you know? I’m still in the prime of my career — I still want to be (in Seattle).
“But when Seattle kicks me to the curb, please, Cowboys, come get me. That’s the only place I would rather be if I get kicked to the curb. That’s what I meant by it … And, you know, people take life too serious. Me, that’s just who I am.”
Asked whether the Seahawks had done something to indicate he was done in Seattle, he said, “I don’t know, but if they don’t, please come get me.”
I don’t recall seeing a similar move from a pro athlete in any team sport — lobbying publicly, in uniform, to the coach of the team he just helped beat, to hire him.
Granted, he didn’t mean “now.” And while I salute any athlete’s honesty and candor, Thomas needed to be a businessman instead of “just who I am.” The episode was the first in a series of unfortunate events that have helped to compromise his pending free agency.
Subsequently, Thomas took the futile action in his contract year of holding out of offseason drills, training camp and the preseason despite having zero leverage.
He ignored the lesson from the same decision made by teammate Kam Chancellor, who got nothing from his 2015 holdout, as well as the lesson from Sherman’s confrontations with the coaching staff that led to a willingness by Carroll in 2017 to trade Sherman at the apex of his career.
After being fined for his contractual absence (it’s unknown whether the Seahawks enforced the penalties), Thomas returned to the Seahawks for the start of the 2018 season to avoid missing the game checks from his $8.5 million salary. But his season lasted just four games until the worst thing happened than can happen to a player in his contract year — a season-ending injury.
But the broken leg, his second, isn’t career-threatening, as far as is known. What is a threat to his desire to be the highest-paid safety in the game is a mass of quality veteran safeties populating the marketplace, and the changing nature of NFL defenses responding to the heavier use of the short-pass game.
Joining Thomas in free agency are premier talents such as Landon Collins, Tyrann Mathieu, Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix and Eric Weddle, all let go primarily because they were too expensive.
But if a tweet by The Athletic’s Calvin Watkins is accurate, the safeties market is shrinking:
“Let’s clear this up now. A source tells @TheAthleticDFW Cowboys have no interest in Earl Thomas or Landon Collins. The financial price is too steep. This isn’t new news. Now Cowboys also have no interest in Eric Weddle either. Price is everything.”
The change isn’t only because of price. College-style spread offenses are creeping into NFL playbooks. The NFC West is likely to see the boldest encroachment yet when the Arizona Cardinals’ new coach, Kliff Kingsbury, an Air Raid quarterback for three years under coach Mike Leach at Texas Tech, brings the full circus. Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray is speculated to be Klingsbury’s choice for the Cardinals’ No. 1 overall pick.
The countermeasure on defense is the increasing use of six or seven defensive backs at a time. That means secondaries need more roster spots dedicated to talent that is younger and cheaper than the quality veterans.
Former Sportspress Northwest colleague Doug Farrar, now with USA Today (and author of the must-read new football book, The Genius of Desperation) talked to Carroll at the combine in Indianapolis last week about how defenses are adapting.
“We’re seeing defensive backs all over the field,” he said. “The linebacker spot for sure, you can see it. That’s because of the nature of the offenses they’re facing in college. The field is spread out. This is nothing new, we’ve been talking this way for years, but more than ever, defenses are making the decisions to play guys that are more like defensive backs.
“Even the linebackers are getting smaller, they’re quicker, niftier and can match up differently than they have in the past. The game is changing in that regard without question. It’s pretty obvious.”
If that market-changer isn’t enough, the group of safeties entering the draft is considered by many scouts to be the best in years.
Having said all that, some team is going to hire Thomas. Hey, he won’t be 30 until May. But in the 14 months since he forecasted, correctly, that Seattle was going to kick him to the curb — an outcome he helped induce — the curb isn’t in the same ritzy neighborhood. Nor is it as heavily trafficked.
The marketplace, and the cruel fates of the ruthless NFL, change quickly. When choosing options, it is best to avoid the option signaled by the middle finger.
Art Thiel is a co-founder of sportspressnw.com.