RENTON, Wash. – Believe it or not, there was a time when Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll had to threaten Earl Thomas with a benching.
Thomas, who has developed into one of the best defensive players in the NFL, showed tremendous potential as a rookie in 2010, but he also occasionally focused more on making a big play than he did doing what was asked of him in Carroll’s defense.
“He won’t want to admit to this, but there was a time where I said, ‘You know what Earl, I’m going to have to sit you down, because it’s getting to the point where we don’t know what you’re going to do next,’ ” Carroll said. “Earl at the time thought that he needed to make plays, and I convinced him that we needed him to play the defense that we’re calling.”
Carroll is wrong with one part of that story. Thomas has no problem admitting he had a hard time balancing his desire to make things happen with doing what he knows he should be doing at the back end of the NFL’s best defense. The safety said he still struggles with that, even as he grown into being an All-Pro player widely considered one of the best, if not the best safety in the league.
“I still kind of battle with that,” Thomas said. “I just always want to be around the ball. I want to be around the ball, plain and simple. My rookie year, that would take me out of position, because I wanted to be at the point of attack at all times. I just had to get adjusted to my role.”
Thomas figured out how to be a playmaker while within his role, which has led to the most productive season of his young career – his 105 tackles are a career high, and five interceptions matches his rookie-season total – and is a big reason why the Seahawks finished the season giving up the fewest yards, passing yards and points in the NFL while also forcing the most turnovers.
As the best player on the league’s best defense, Thomas deserves to be the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year, even if he may well not get the award. His stats really don’t begin to paint a picture of how much he means to Seattle’s defense – behind Russell Wilson, Thomas is his team’s most irreplaceable player – or how much what he does creates opportunities for his teammates.
“One of the things that you don’t see, but that exists, is the factor that he plays just being back there,” Carroll said. “Think about over the last couple of years how many times you have seen a post route, which is one of the most common routes in football, thrown at our defense for a big play. It doesn’t happen very often. I can barely remember any of them.
“Any balls thrown down the seam or in the post it’s a rare occurrence when it happens, and that’s a factor that a guy plays because they know he’s back there.”
Carroll goes on to note that the Seahawks gave up fewer explosive plays in the NFL, which brings up one of the more remarkable stats about Seattle’s dominant defense, and one that perhaps best illustrates Thomas’ impact. The Seahawks led the NFL with 39 takeaways and 28 interceptions, while also allowing the fewest passing plays of 20 or more yards (30) and 40 or more (three) in the league.
“He’s a very discipline, very well-structured player now, and we can totally count on him in carrying out the schemes in the defense,” Carroll said.
That confidence in Thomas comes through on and off the field. He won’t hesitate to tell you that his goal isn’t just to be one of the best safeties in the NFL, but to be one of the best players in the NFL. Cornerback Richard Sherman has lauded Thomas as the league’s Defensive Player of the Year. Thomas isn’t going to return the favor.
“I’m going to have to say me,” Thomas said when asked who should win the award. “That’s all I have to say about that.”