The Seahawks took to the practice field Wednesday to prepare for their season opener at Denver, and for the first time since the end of the 2017 season, All-Pro free safety Earl Thomas was on the field with his teammates.
Thomas, who had previously not reported to the team while seeking a new contract, rejoined the team Wednesday, giving Seattle's defense an instant boost just before the start of the season.
"It's really good to have him back," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "He's been with us for so long, he's just been part of the fabric of what we've been about.
With Thomas missing all of camp and the preseason, Carroll admits there will be "an adjustment period as he jumps in with us now," and Carroll said they do not know yet if Thomas will be ready to play Sunday. But from a big-picture standpoint, Thomas' return is an obvious positive for a defense he has helped anchor since arriving in Seattle in 2010.
"Right now because we have to just see how he does and how he feels and all that kind of stuff, but it's great to have him back," Carroll said. "Our guys will welcome him back. They're excited to see him, and we'll move forward with that."
Carroll said he doesn't anticipate there being any off-field issues with Thomas despite the holdout, and said Thomas' return had everything to do with his passion for the game.
"This is a guy that's been as dedicated to this game as anybody we've ever seen," Carroll said. "He wants to play football. We had to deal with some business issues, and that's what he was dealing with, and it came back down to the love of the game. His love of the game is undying. We're back at it."
Whether Thomas is back on the field this weekend or a bit later, the Seahawks will be getting back a six-time Pro-Bowler and five-time All-Pro, a player who was a key piece of a historical run that saw the Seahawks lead the NFL in scoring defense for four straight seasons from 2013-2016.
"He's one of the best players that plays the game," Carroll said. "He's been a marvelous part of our program for a long time. That's why we never wavered in the thought that he wasn't going to be with us. It was just a matter of time to try to make sense or do what we could do and fortunately, we're back at it. We'd like him to be a Seahawk for the rest of his career. That's how we've always thought about it. The rest of it, we'll take care of it when the time's right."
Perhaps no one is more excited about adding an All-Pro on defense than the person in charge of that unit, defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr.
"Oh my goodness, really good to see Earl back," Norton said before joking, "I became a better coach today. Really good to see him, you know how much he has been a part of this program and how awesome he has been from the day he arrived here. He's part of this family. It's like having a family member back who hadn't been around, so everybody was really happy to see him."
Norton echoed Carroll's comments that the Seahawks don't have to make a call on Thomas playing until late in the week—they have a roster exemption for him for up to two weeks that allows him to practice without taking up a spot on the 53-man roster, but a move would have to be made by Saturday for him to play at Denver—but Norton also expects that Thomas won't take long to get up to speed.
"If you know Earl, he's ready," Norton said. "He's never not ready. We understand what his work ethic has been since he's been here, the things that have made him be one of the top players in the league. So I think if you know anything about Earl, you know he's ready.
"Earl is special. He makes plays that no one else can make. He has a great instinct about him, his motor is really solid, he tackles people all over the place, and he raises the standard of everyone around him. He's very focused, and to be on his team, you have to be pretty focused to play at his level, so he raises the level of expectations of this group."
As Carroll suggested, Seahawks players are welcoming Thomas back with open arms.
"Ecstatic," receiver Doug Baldwin said when asked about Thomas being back. "When I saw him sitting down in the meeting room, I couldn't help but go give him a big hug. That's my boy, love him to death. You grow with somebody, you see somebody work for so long, how they operate, the type of person they are, and it's really hard to come by guys who think out of this stratosphere, so it's really exciting to have him back, extremely excited to have him back. I can't wait to spend more time with him."
Middle linebacker Bobby Wagner, who earlier this week was voted captain of Seattle's defense, said, "it feels good man. It was pretty cool to see him walking into the meeting room. To get a guy like that back, I know he's probably been going through a lot, so I just felt like it was important for us to just kind of embrace him and let him know he was on our hearts while he wasn't here and just welcome him back.
Asked if it would be difficult fitting Thomas back in just before the start of the season, Wagner said, "No, he's Earl. He has been in the program for quite a long time, we've been playing together for quite a long time. It's kind of like if a guy was injured and missed a couple of weeks and came back—we just embrace him and he steps into his spot. He's a once-in-a-generation player."