After dominating rookie minicamp in 2012, the first step on the way to winning the starting quarterback job, Russell Wilson returned to Seahawks headquarters later that spring for his first full-team workout. And before Wilson could become Seattle's starter, let alone a Pro Bowler and a Super Bowl champion, he had to learn a lesson about facing Earl Thomas.
The first time he faced Seattle's starting defense, Wilson noticed Thomas shaded to one side of the field, so he took a shot deep to the other side, only to have Thomas break it up anyway. Thomas covered so much ground, Wilson wondered if he had somehow missed a second deep safety present on that play.
"I've never seen a safety like Earl Thomas move from sideline to sideline," Wilson said. "… I think I threw a go ball to the left, and Earl was playing on the right hash, and I looked up and next thing I know he was breaking up the play on the left sideline. I was like, 'Was that Cover-2? Did I miss something?' Sure enough, go watch the film and Earl is just charging as fast as he can to get to that ball. He's got great explosiveness, he's got great ability. He studies like crazy. He's the best safety in the league for a reason, he can make a lot of plays. He's physical, he's fast, he's really smart and he's passionate about the game."
The lesson Wilson learned the first time he went against Thomas is one that the rest of the NFL has been learning over the past seven seasons as Thomas has established himself as one of the NFL's best defensive players. After a slightly subpar—by his lofty standards—2015 season, which was at least in part the result of the shoulder injury that caused him to miss training camp and the preseason, Thomas is looking again like his All-Pro self, which was never more evident than in last week's win over the Falcons in which he was arguably the most dominant player on the field.
"He looks as good as he has ever looked," said Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, who has shared a secondary with Thomas since 2011. "I think last year it was just one of those odd years for everybody, it was just an off year for us as a team. I think everybody is kind of firing on all cylinders and Earl is playing confidently, he's trusting himself, he's playing instinctually, he's hitting well and tackling. He's doing everything we need him to do, and it's showing… He's everywhere you need him to be and everywhere quarterbacks wish he wasn't. As you can see, anywhere the ball goes up in the air, there's not a place he can't get to it."
"It's enormous. It's an extraordinarily significant role."
The beauty in Thomas' game—what was fully on display in his performance last week—is the line he walks between dynamic playmaker and last line of defense. One of the single most important things for any Pete Carroll-coached team is preventing big plays, and no player is more important to that than Thomas. But while Thomas could be good at his job by just playing a deep free safety and minimizing big plays, what makes him great is the way he is able to pick his moment and make big plays, whether it's jumping a route to intercept a pass or coming into the middle of the field to lay a big hit on a receiver or using his speed to pressure a quarterback.
"He's a very confident player and he believes in what he sees in and he goes for it," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "He's willing to go for it. You can play back there and play pretty cautious and just make sure you're on top of everything; he's not a cautious player. If you remember back to his first year and a half or so here, I was always trying to reel him in from trying to do too much. Well he's found the balance of when to take his shots and when not to, through good discipline and good coaching and learning and all. He's a playmaker, and he's got a great burst. When he sees things he takes off and he flashes. You can't help but notice him when he's making his plays. He has really been on it the last couple weeks, he has been pretty good."
Yet for all the plays Thomas makes, Carroll sounds most impressed with his free safety when he talks about the plays that never happen because Thomas is on the field.
"It's enormous," Carroll said of the role Thomas has in the defense. "It's an extraordinarily significant role. Post routes and seam routes, those happen in football a lot and, you don't see it happen much over the years. You can probably count them on one hand if there's that many. That's because he's been so disciplined and so strict about it. (Defensive coordinator Kris Richard) has done a great job of making sense of about how much of a factor that is, and he's been really phenomenal. It's very subtle because you don't get any points for that, but when they just don't happen and they don't happen, it's a big deal."
And despite all he has accomplished in his career, winning one Super Bowl and playing in another, earning first-team All-Pro honors three times, Pro Bowl honors five times, all while being one of the most important pieces of a historically great defense, Thomas knows there is room for growth. He sees it in the occasional struggles, such as his performance in the season opener against Miami, and also in how he is able to respond with games like last week's against the Falcons.
"I'm just going to keep pushing myself," Thomas said. "Keep seeing how disciplined I can be, keep seeing how well I can see different situations and formations. The main thing is to keep pushing myself."
"He was just trying too hard."
That Thomas mentions discipline is hardly by accident. For all of his incredible playmaking ability, he knows his first responsibility is taking away big plays, something he does so well now, but something that was at times a problem during his rookie season, so much so that Carroll threatened to bench the first-round pick.
"It was telling him that he was going to get sat down," Carroll said of what it took to get Thomas to rein in his desire to make big plays at the expense of doing his job. "We said, 'See that seat right there? You might be there for game time if you don't get going.' I had to be really firm with him and hammer it because he was just trying too hard. He gave up tons of yards his rookie season just running out of his areas and stuff like that. He was just trying to make plays. I'll always remember that meeting, it was pretty classic. He really changed and really turned and let us reel him back in a little bit. The rest has been a tremendous career."
Looking back, Thomas says his biggest problem when he arrive in Seattle was that "I came in here trying to impress everybody. That stuck with me way too long."
It took Thomas some time, but eventually he understood that doing what was best for the team wasn't always going to give him a chance to shine, but that in the long run doing so would benefit both him and the defense.
"I've been playing ball my whole life, and I was doing for an audience of one, which is me, I love the game," Thomas said. "I kind of got caught up in that. I've shaken that off now. The older you get, you start to know yourself more, you start to understand your game more. Plus I've been in this system for so long, so I really understand it."
Yet as important as that discipline is, Thomas does have some freedom to improvise, within certain constraints. When Thomas pressured Matt Ryan on Atlanta's final possession, forcing a rushed and incomplete pass, that wasn't how things were drawn up, but he recognized in that moment that he could make that play without giving anything big up behind him, and then he committed to the play, using his incredible speed to close down on Ryan.
"Sometimes the coaches leave me alone, but they know when to come and talk to me," Thomas said "It's just a give and take. Me personally, I'd rather go out there and be free and be myself, but I know I have to take coaching as well."
"What makes him unique is just his unwavering focus, day in and day out."
As physically gifted as Thomas is—Wilson's welcome-to-the-NFL moment in 2012 is one of countless examples of the incredible range that makes Thomas such a rare player—and as fearless as he is on the field, willing to lay hard, Kam Chancellor-esque hits on receivers despite his 5-foot-10, 202-pound frame, what might set Thomas apart the most in a level of intensity that even other elite athletes find hard to comprehend.
"I've been actually really paying attention to Earl the past two weeks, just kind of studying him on the practice field," receiver Doug Baldwin said. "What makes him unique is just his unwavering focus, day in and day out. Whether it be in the meeting room, on the practice field and obviously in the game, he has an unwavering focus. I try to distract him sometimes in practice to see where he's at, but he's always got his laser focus locked on. That obviously contributes to him having the success that he does in games, because he's always prepared, he sees everything before it already happens. That's why he played so big for us last Sunday."
Baldwin says when he first encountered Thomas in 2011, "I thought something was wrong with him. He always has this intensity about him, and just recently he has begun to open up and show more of his personality in the locker room and to us privately, so it has been a good transition for him. He's so passionate about the game of football, he loves it with all of his heart, so he puts everything he has into it, and you can tell on a day-to-day basis."
Thomas has always been unusually intense when it comes to sports. When he was in fourth grade, he broke down in tears after losing a relay race because he fell during the anchor leg. He arrived in Seattle playing with so much passion and intensity that Carroll, Mr. "Always Compete" himself, once said of Thomas, "He was more fiercely competitive than I could have anticipated. Just extremely competitive, high-strung personality, just driven. … Honestly, I wish I was as competitive as him."
But while that intensity comes naturally, it's always something Thomas knows he constantly has to keep an eye on to make sure it's helping him and not limiting him.
"I think I've always had it, but every level calls for a different level of that," Thomas said. "When I got here, man, I'm playing like I played at Texas, but when you get in the jungle environment like this, you're confidence has got to go away, especially coming in as a rookie, I was dealing with older vets, so I kind of lost my way for a second."
It took a near-benching, but Thomas found his way, and seven seasons into a decorated career, he's playing as well as ever and is in the middle of everything the Seahawks are doing on defense.
"Earl has really been hot lately, he has been making a lot of plays, a lot of great breaks, he's utilizing the calls really well," Carroll said. "He has been in the right spot a bunch, so he's been doing some really good things."
The Seahawks and Cardinals have matched up 35 times throughout their history, with an even split of 17 victories each as well as a tie that came earlier this season. The two teams face off again this Saturday at CenturyLink Field to see who will lead the all-time series.