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Matt Calkins: Pete Carroll bets on himself while letting Seahawks great Earl Thomas walk

UPDATED: Wed., March 13, 2019

Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll, left, talks with free safety Earl Thomas during the first half  against the Dallas Cowboys  on Sept. 23, 2018, in Seattle. (Elaine Thompson / AP)
Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll, left, talks with free safety Earl Thomas during the first half against the Dallas Cowboys on Sept. 23, 2018, in Seattle. (Elaine Thompson / AP)
By Matt Calkins The Spokesman-Review

SEATTLE – Forget about the holdout for a second. Forget about the perceived lack of respect or that infamous middle digit he aimed at the sideline.

All the wild quotes and wacky episodes amplified the drama of the Earl Thomas saga, but that’s not why he isn’t a Seahawk.

Seattle was likely never going to offer the free safety the four-year, $55 million deal the Ravens did Wednesday, and it boils down to one reason: Seahawks coach Pete Carroll bet on himself.

Would you bet on Pete, too?

If you believe in Carroll, Thomas’ time in Seattle officially coming to an end is a good thing for this team. As much as some fantasized about his unlikely return to the Seahawks, his moving on is a boon.

Not because of his ego or any perceived character flaws (he wouldn’t have been a distraction once he got paid), but because of the cap space he opens and Carroll’s history of building from scratch.

About a year ago, former Seahawk Richard Sherman told a radio host that Carroll’s coaching philosophy was more suited for college football, where nobody plays for more than four years. It came off as a dig – one suggesting that Pete’s message grows stale with players over time – but it may have been an accidental compliment.

The truth is, whether it was at USC or in Seattle, Carroll has a track record of molding fresh faces into a collective tour de force. Who’s to say he won’t continue to do the same?

The Seahawks’ historic defense in the middle part of the decade wasn’t an assortment of first-round blue chips and pricey free agents. There were fifth-rounders such as Sherman and Kam Chancellor. There was fourth-rounder K.J. Wright and undrafted Michael Bennett. Cliff Avril signed for a modest $15 million over two years, and yet, all of these guys would make multiple Pro Bowls.

No doubt much of this had to do with natural talent. But Carroll (along with general manager John Schneider) saw qualities in these players that nobody else did and coached them to elite status.

We saw similar reclamation projects on both sides of the ball last year. Carroll isn’t nearly as hands-on on offense as he is on defense, but he still oversaw a revamped running game that led the NFL in rushing. There wasn’t much indication this was possible based on personnel (although then-rookie running back Chris Carson was injured four games into the previous season), but it was an integral component in launching Seattle back to the playoffs.

On defense, the Seahawks lost pretty much everybody but middle linebacker Bobby Wagner. Sherman and Bennett found new teams, Chancellor and Avril essentially retired, and Wright and Thomas missed a combined 23 games due to injury. Even so, the Seahawks had the 11th-best scoring defense in the NFL.

Defensive end Frank Clark had a career year with 13 sacks. Safety Bradley McDougald was a Pro Bowl alternate. Among cornerbacks, rookie Tre Flowers was the third-best run defender in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus. Wagner, who missed just one tackle all season, had another first-team All-Pro year.

Obviously, the Seahawks aren’t afraid to spend cash on prized possessions. At one point, they made Thomas the highest-paid safety in the league, Sherman the highest-paid cornerback and Chancellor the highest-paid strong safety. But they’ve also proven to be prudent with their money, never extending anybody with more than one year left on his contract.

Retaining quarterback Russell Wilson is going to be a priority for Seattle, and that could cost upward of $35 million per year. Keeping a proven pass rusher such as Clark will also be vital to their long-term success, and that won’t be cheap, either.

But the salary relief Thomas provides will allow the Seahawks to make said financial commitments if need be. Offering him the type of contract the Ravens did would have made it exponentially more difficult.

Thomas is an all-time great Seahawk whose litany of highlights will almost surely send him to the Hall of Fame. As the likes of Ed Reed and Eric Weddle have proven, safeties can have All-Pro seasons well into their 30s.

It’s possible the Seahawks goofed by not extending him, but not likely. Thomas hasn’t yet shown he can deliver late in his career. Carroll has repeatedly.

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