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Larry Stone: Earl Thomas shows he’s still a difference maker

UPDATED: Sun., Sept. 9, 2018, 10:23 p.m.

Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas intercepts a pass during the first half of an NFL football game against the Denver Broncos Sunday, Sept. 9, 2018, in Denver. (Jack Dempsey / Associated Press)
Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas intercepts a pass during the first half of an NFL football game against the Denver Broncos Sunday, Sept. 9, 2018, in Denver. (Jack Dempsey / Associated Press)

DENVER – The Seahawks had much to lament Sunday in a 27-24 loss to the Broncos that saw many of their latent fears come to life.

But they also had things to savor, and perhaps nothing more than this: Earl Thomas playing with fervor and impact, the three hours or so of game action serving as a sanctuary from all the distractions and recent turmoil.

“During the game, I’m not thinking about it,’’ Thomas said. “I’m out there having fun with B-Mac (strong safety Bradley McDougald) and the guys. I’m not thinking about it in the game. But when I get asked about it constantly, it definitely crosses my mind.”

The “it,” of course, is Thomas’s rancorous holdout, which abruptly and unexpectedly ended last Wednesday, at a point when the Seahawks were girding themselves to play much or all of the season without him.

But now they have Thomas for the duration (or until he’s traded, always a lurking possibility), and he immediately showed just how valuable that can be for a team in transition, one still trying to find its way.

On Denver’s second possession, Thomas read the eyes of Broncos quarterback Case Keenum, baited him to throw in the direction of Demaryius Thomas, then darted in front for the easy interception. It was vintage Thomas, an homage to the old Legion of Boom, of which he is the last remaining founding member.

“Obviously, I have confidence in myself,” Thomas said, “but it felt good to actually see myself go through the process and make that play. I thought I had a pick-six. It felt good.”

After a mystery over how much Thomas would play in his season debut without the benefit of a training camp, save for three practices, he missed just 10 plays. And the Broncos gained 119 yards while he was out (compared to 360 yards in their other 62 plays, about half the average per play) and did heavy damage on two touchdown drives in his absence.

Afterward, Thomas broke his public silence, speaking to reporters for the first time since the final game of the 2017 season. Thomas had pushed for either a contract extension or a trade and got neither, but said he was lured back by the stark financial reality of continuing his holdout.

“Me and my agent talked about it,’’ he said. “We understood I had a lot of money on the line. I couldn’t just throw it away. So basically I decided to come back. I’m glad I did.”

Indeed, Thomas appears by all accounts to have been embraced by the Seahawks players, and to have thrown himself back into his old job as their free safety, despite whatever distaste he might still have over his contract status.

Asked if he can put the acrimony behind him – which included the “disrespect” he noted in an Instagram message announcing his return — he replied: “I’m going to try to do the best I can, try to work my way through it. I’ve got a great team behind me.”

Does he want to stay in Seattle? “If they want me, yeah.”

After his return, Thomas said, “guys welcomed me back with open arms. It was a smooth process. The coaching staff gave me my space to get through it. It was just a learning curve, trying to pick up on the new stuff.”

Yes, even Thomas, the senior member of the Seahawks’ roster, was not immune to the challenges of picking up the changes to Seattle’s defense under new coordinator Ken Norton Jr., while also learning to communicate with a new set of players.

“It’s a new team,’’ defensive end Frank Clark said. “So when you’ve got a guy like Earl who’s just getting back in the building, he’s going to do what he’s going to do. That’s Earl. That’s a legend here. He’s been through the storm here, the ups and downs in Seattle.

“But even him as a veteran, you have him having to come in and learn, this is where this safety is going to be, this is where my corners are going to be. These are my linebackers. He’s feeling out the energy. He gets in there and does what Earl does: He makes plays.”

“It was crazy, just seeing him at practice – how he practices, how he prepares,’’ rookie cornerback Tre Flowers said. “In the game it looks so easy to him.”

Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said of Thomas, “He handled the return and our players handled the return perfectly, and he worked real hard, and they embraced him coming back in. We knew we couldn’t play him the whole game, but we wanted to give him chance to contribute and he did immediately. It’s terrific having him back. He’s a terrific football player.”

It all went so smoothly – “I had a great time out there, man,’’ Thomas said enthusiastically afterward — that you couldn’t help but wonder if perhaps there’s a glimmer of an opening for a resolution to this dispute. One, specifically, that results in Thomas staying in Seattle beyond this year, when his contract runs out.

Thomas shrugged when asked if that bridge is burned.

“I have no clue,’’ he said. “I have no clue. All I can do is put the best product out there as possible, protect myself until I do get paid.”

That sounds vaguely ominous, but Thomas showed Sunday that when the whistle blows, he can still be the same disruptive force – in a positive way – that the Seahawks have thrived upon for so long. And were prepared to do without in 2018, but now don’t have to.


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