Earl Thomas could be following in Kenny Easley’s footsteps

Posted May 28, 2014

When coach Pete Carroll said that All-Pro free safety Earl Thomas “would be the first guy back there” as a punt-return replacement for Golden Tate, it invoked memories of another All-Pro safety turned punt returner.

What can the Seahawks possibly be thinking when it comes to Earl Thomas returning punts?

The same things that went into Kenny Easley stepping in as the punt returner in 1984, and also being the situational returner in 1985.

Easley, as the bemoaning that accompanied the handwringing went, was far too valuable to be offered up as a target on punt returns. The Seahawks’ strong safety was having a season in 1984 that would see him voted NFL Defensive Player of the Year, as well as to a third consecutive Pro Bowl berth and All-Pro honors for the second season in a row.

Easley’s reaction? He didn’t care. He just wanted to do whatever he could to help the team win in a season where the Seahawks won more games (12-4) than any team in franchise history would until the 2005 and 2013 teams went 13-3. In fact, Easley lobbied coach Chuck Knox to allow him to step in as the punt returner after wide receiver Paul Johns was lost of the season – and his career, as it turned out – because of a neck injury.

All Easley did was average 12.1 yards on 16 punt returns, to go along with his club-record and AFC-leading 10 interceptions, 75 tackles and three forced fumbles. In 1985, Easley averaged 10.9 yards on eight punt returns. In 1986, the Seahawks selected Bobby Joe Edmonds in the fifth round of the NFL Draft and he ended up going to the Pro Bowl that season as the AFC return man.

But Easley was there when his team needed him.

“I’d have to think a long time before I could come up with the name of another starter who ever volunteered to run back punts,” Knox said at the time. “But that’s the kind of guy Kenny is.

“People ask why I risk such a valuable player that way. But the point is he wants to do it, and it’s kind of the attitude this team thrives on.”

Flash forward almost 30 years, insert Earl Thomas for Kenny Easley and Pete Carroll for Chuck Knox and it’s pretty much the same story. Thomas is there, if needed, as the replacement punt returner after Golden Tate signed with the Detroit Lions in free agency. And Thomas, a two-time All-Pro and three-time Pro Bowl free safety, also has been lobbying for the job – although Carroll said All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman, kickoff returner Percy Harvin and wide receiver Bryan Walters also are in the competition.

“I’ve been trying to tell coach Carroll to put me back there for the longest,” Thomas said Tuesday after the first of the team’s 10 OTA sessions in Phase 3 of the offseason program. “I always go back there during walkthroughs. Just try to sneak a punt return, just to show them who I am. I want to score a touchdown. So this is my perfect opportunity.”

Thomas was asked about the fans’ reaction to having such a valuable player thrust into such a risky role. His response almost echoed that of Easley.

“I don’t care what they think, you know?” Thomas said. “This is my future. I can help this team and I know I can.”

That was Easley’s take. A player who already was doing so much wanted a chance to do even more, and did. Included among Easley’s 10 interceptions in 1984 were two scoring returns. Included among Easley’s 16 punt returns was a 42-yarder.

“I just have a lot of confidence in what I’m doing,” Easley said at the time – or was that Thomas on Tuesday afternoon? “Some people have to go through a ritual to get ready to play, but I don’t. The game itself turns me on.”

Included in the move that was Easley as punt returner came the angst that accompanies having an All-Pro safety returning punts, and the concern came to fruition when Easley missed the final three games of the 1985 season after injuring his left ankle returning a punt – an injury that eventually needed surgery.

But injuries are a part of the game, whether playing on defense, offense or special teams – where Thomas has been a gunner on the kickoff coverage unit.

“It’s just like Earl picking it off to me,” special teams coach Brian Schneider said Wednesday after the second of the Seahawks’ OTA sessions, aware that Thomas has returned his 15 career interceptions for an 11.7-yard average and scored on a 57-yarder.

“I don’t think this is any different. You just have to make good decisions on when to fair catch (the punt).”

Schneider then connected the dots between Easley the punt returner and Thomas the possible punt returner.

“With Earl being just really a leader, a vocal guy that does everything by example and works so hard and cares so much, it’s pretty cool,” he said. “That kind of sets the tempo for our team in general.”

Just like Easley did, all those seasons ago.