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Earl Thomas: The Total Package

Posted Jan 15, 2014

Most of the candidates for NFL Defensive Player of the Year are one-dimensional when it comes to their statistics. Then there’s Earl Thomas, who had five interceptions and 100 tackles for the league’s No. 1-ranked defense.


Five interceptions and 100 tackles.

The last time a Seahawk player hit or exceeded those numbers was in 1993, when free safety Eugene Robinson had nine interceptions and 111 tackles. And Earl Thomas was 4-years old.

The tie that binds these seemingly loose ends this is the fact that Thomas had exactly five interceptions and 100 tackles this season for the Seahawks’ No. 1-ranked defense to bridge that 20-season gap.

AND THE NFL DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR IS…

The votes already have been cast for NFL Defensive Player of the Year, but the winner won’t be announced until Feb. 1 in a primetime special on FOX. Here, in alphabetical order, are seven players who deserve consideration, including two members of the Seahawks’ Legion of Boom secondary:

ILB NaVorro Bowman, 49ers –118 tackles, 5 sacks, 2 interceptions, 9 passes defensed, 5 QB hits, 4 forced fumbles. All-Pro and Pro Bowl selection.

OLB Lavonte David, Buccaneers – 143 tackles, 6 sacks, 5 interceptions, 10 passes defensed, 12 QB hits, 2 forced fumbles. All-Pro selection.

ILB Luke Kuechly, Panthers – 156 tackles, 2 sacks, 4 interceptions, 7 passes defensed, 2 QB hits, 0 forced fumbles. All-Pro and Pro Bowl selection.

OLB Robert Mathis, Colts – 59 tackles, 19.5 sacks, 0 interceptions, 1 pass defensed, 21 QB hits, 8 forced fumbles. All-Pro and Pro Bowl selection.

DE Robert Quinn, Rams – 57 tackles, 19 sacks, 0 interceptions, 1 pass defensed, 33 QB hits, 7 forced fumbles. All-Pro and Pro Bowl selection.

CB Richard Sherman, Seahawks – 49 tackles, 8 interceptions, 16 passes defensed, 1 QB hit, 0 forced fumbles. All-Pro and Pro Bowl selection.

FS Earl Thomas, Seahawks – 100 tackles, 5 interceptions, 8 passes defensed, 0 QB hits, 2 forced fumbles. All-Pro and Pro Bowl selection.

Note: The Seahawks played against Bowman, David, Kuechly, Mathis and Quinn this season.

Five interceptions and 100 tackles, in the same season. Dave Brown, the franchise leader in career interceptions, never did it. Neither did Marcus Trufant, nor Shawn Springs. Those three were voted the cornerbacks on the Seahawks’ 35th Anniversary team and, until this season, they were the only Seahawk cornerbacks ever voted to the Pro Bowl (Brandon Browner went in 2011 as an injury-replacement alternate). Now, Richard Sherman has joined that group.

In fact, Thomas is only the sixth player in club history to hit five and 100 in the same season, joining strong safety Autry Beamon (six and 128 in 1977); cornerback Cornell Webster (five and 113 in 1978); free safety John Harris (six and 119 in 1980); strong safety Kenny Easley (10 and 107 in 1981); and Robinson (five and 102 in 1989 to go with his nine and 111 in ’93).

The obvious questions as Thomas and his teammates prepare for Sunday’s NFC Championship game against the San Francisco 49ers at CenturyLink Field: Why? And how? And what is it about Thomas that has allowed him to go where so few players in franchise history have? And was his career-best season good enough to earn Thomas NFL Defensive Player of the Year?

Let’s tackle that last question first, and give Sherman the honors.

“I would have to give it to Earl,” said Sherman, also a Defensive Player of the Year candidate after leading the league with eight interceptions. “I think Earl is having a fantastic year. He’s flying around, tackling everywhere, forcing fumbles, getting interceptions. I don’t think there’s anybody out there playing better defense.

“So usually the best quarterback with the best receivers isn’t punished for that, so don’t punish one of the best players on the best defense. So I think he should get it.”

And if it’s not Thomas, it just might be Sherman.

“If there’s anywhere the Defensive Player of the Year should be it should be in Seattle,” Sherman said. “Whether it’s myself or Earl.”

Which brings us back to the how and why of all this when it comes to Thomas, the 14th pick in the 2010 NFL Draft who has been voted to three consecutive Pro Bowls and also selected All-Pro the past two seasons.

The 5-foot-10, 202-pound Thomas arrived with the prerequisite-plus physical skills after spending only two seasons at the University of Texas. It starts with his speed (4.37 seconds in the 40-yard dash), which allows him to make plays sideline to sideline and goal line to goal line. Then there are his fluid hips, which allow him to turn and run with any receiver; and 32-inch vertical leap, which allows him to challenge taller receivers at the point of attack (although he seemed to get much higher on the pass he almost intercepted in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s win over the New Orleans Saints in divisional playoff game).

But in the first line of his NFL Combine overview is the slight that continues to fuel Thomas’ inner fire: “Thomas is an undersized safety …” Later, it says, “Thomas is a very good football player who lacks ideal size …”

“I’ve been hearing that I’m too short to play this game since the first day I stepped on the field to play this game,” Thomas said, his nostrils flaring as he repeated that knock that he has heard so often.

It’s a chip that remains on Thomas’ shoulder pad, despite everything that he has achieved, and drives him to continually take his game to a higher and higher level.

“It’s Earl’s commitment to wanting to be great,” said Kris Richard, who played cornerback for the Seahawks from 2002-04 and is now in his fourth season as the team’s defensive backs coach. “He absolutely does his best to take full advantage of each and every single opportunity that he has.

“Earl is a very-focused individual. And, for the most part, he’s been doing a fantastic job of eliminating distractions.”

It’s been part of the maturation process for a player who was only 20 when the Seahawks drafted him, and a player who now admits he overreacted to plays earlier in his career.

“Here, inside the building, he’s really captured the idea of investing your time wisely, rather than spending your time,” Richard said. “It’s the old adage, ‘Either you’re a spender, or you’re an investor.’ It’s how you utilize your time, and I think he’s really done a fantastic job of utilizing his time well – film study, practice, everything.

“He’s just a committed individual. And really, that’s what makes Earl very special.”

Dan Quinn noticed it right away when he returned a year ago to be the defensive coordinator. Quinn was the Seahawks’ defensive line coach during Thomas’ rookie season, before leaving to become the defensive coordinator at the University of Florida in 2011-12.

“One of the things that makes Earl as good as he is, is his mindset,” Quinn said. “His strength is his mindset, in terms of the way that he comes out and prepares. He’s one of the hardest-working players I’ve ever coached, in terms of the way he gets ready to play.”

That isn’t always the case for players who are as physically gifted as Thomas.“The guys who go to the next level in their game and their thinking and their intensity, are the ones like him who have this mindset to be great,” Quinn said. “And it’s not just on game day. It’s in walkthrough. It’s in the offseason. It’s staying late for film study. It’s the communication that he has on the field now. Those are all the things that, to me, make him great.

“His skillset is there, but then he takes his skillset and adds another whole layer onto it.”

Back to that communication factor, it’s gotten to the point where he can convey the needed pre-snap information – especially in the din generated by the 12th Man crowd at CenturyLink Field – to strong safety Kam Chancellor; or to Sherman and right cornerback Byron Maxwell.

“It’s just the chemistry they’ve developed back there,” director of pro personnel Trent Kirchner said. “Earl knows what guys are going to be doing back there. You take his instincts, his range, his toughness and just his love of football and put it with that communication, it’s special back there and he and Kam just complement each other so well.

“Earl has always been the athlete that he is, so the thing I’ve really noticed is him honing in on film study. You can tell he’s studying a lot more, whether it’s formations or alignments.”

Like Kirchner, assistant director of pro personnel Dan Morgan studies every player in the league, and what he’s seen from Thomas that sets him apart is his approach to the game – and not just during the game.

“What makes Earl so good is, first of all, it’s very important to Earl to be the best player,” said Morgan, a Pro Bowl linebacker for the Carolina Panthers during his career. “He’s always the first one in and last one to leave. He’s just a very smart player and he practices the way that he plays. And I think that’s an important part of his game. He’s just always in that mindset, that game mindset.

“That’s what makes him so special. And he’s just fun to watch every day, because you know he’s going to be the same guy every day. He’s reliable. He’s durable. He really has the total package.”

As for Thomas’ ability to have a fine focus on the task at hand, Quinn offered, “He knows what it feels like, looks like and he’s captured it. It’s an awesome thing when you see a guy who’s captured it. And being around him and seeing what he stands for and how he prepares and how he plays, he’s captured it.”

Not bad for a guy who’s been considered too short to measure at every level during his career.

“Earl is going to prove you wrong,” Richard said, “every chance he gets.”

 
Game Rewind: Seattle Seahawks