Listed at five feet, 10 inches with cleats on, it’s easy to overlook Earl Thomas. The trademark dreadlocks that threatened to cover the name on the back of his jersey are gone. He speaks confidently, but his voice is so soft that reporters inch their recorders closer.
“Don’t be stepping on my rug,” he told a reporter of the mat in front of his space in the Seahawks’ locker room at the VMAC.
He sounded serious, but then smiled.
Such is the laid-back demeanor of the free safety who has quietly become the leader of the Seahawks’ Legion of Boom. In his fourth year with coach Pete Carroll, Thomas, 24, is the type of young veteran the fourth-youngest team (average age of 25) in the NFL will lean on to lead them to a Super Bowl. The journey commences at 10 a.m. Sunday in Charlotte against the Carolina Panthers.
“We definitely set the bar on this team with the idea that everybody’s watching us,” he said.
Thomas was 20 when Seattle ignored doubts about his size and durability at the University of Texas, selecting him No. 14 in the first round of the 2010 NFL draft. He made Carroll and GM John Schneider look like talent wizards when he intercepted five passes during his rookie season.
Thomas isn’t the oldest player in the starting secondary — that distinction goes to 29-year-old Brandon Browner, listed as questionable for game — but he is the only player in that unit to start every game the past three seasons. In a team famous for making transactions, his presence has been constant.
“He’s played a lot of football for us,” said secondary coach Kris Richard. “He walked in here and he’s been a starter from Day 1. Out of everybody, he’s seen the most NFL football.”
Thomas can be seen in practices and games slowly pacing back and forth pre-snap, like an animal waiting to escape his cage. His 4.37 speed in the 40-yard dash allows him to cover as much ground as any free safety in the NFL. It enables him to make hits like this.
“It’s pretty rare to have an athlete of that caliber get to spots on the field that he can get to,” Richard said. “That’s what we count on him for. To just be the umbrella.”
Last season, Thomas made 61 tackles and intercepted three passes en route to his second consecutive Pro Bowl selection. He picked off a pass in Seattle’s road playoff win against the Redskins and had a momentum-swinging second-half interception off Atlanta QB Matt Ryan in the NFC Divisional round.
He rivals QB Russell Wilson’s dedication to watching film and is a leader in the locker room, though he speaks little.
“I’m more behind doors,” Thomas said. “We got Big Red (Bryant) as a motivational speaker, but I’m more lead-by-example. Guys appreciate that also.”
Thomas didn’t like being the last player to run out of tunnel during introductions at home games, so he came up with a different idea — one that brought unity to a Legion of Boom comprised of Thomas, Sherman, Browner and SS Kam Chancellor. From now on, the quartet will run out together from CenturyLink Field tunnel during introductions.
“I’m going to take credit for that one. I’m always the last one they call out on Sundays,” Thomas said. “It’s not about me. It’s not about anybody. It’s about the collective group and what we have going, and what we’re set out to do.”
There are some in the world of advanced football analysis that continue to doubt what Thomas can do. Pro Football Focus, a respected website that tracks every snap during the NFL season, said Thomas last year missed 20 tackles, including the playoffs. What they couldn’t track was how many of those potential tackles Thomas was able to position himself for because of his quickness.
During the preseason, Thomas expressed a desire to improve that part of his game, tackling, that some view as a weakness. Seahawks WR Doug Baldwin, one of many on the roster who felt dismissed at one time or another, thinks the criticism could wind up helping him.
Maybe Thomas isn’t so different from the rest of the Seahawks, after all.
“Teams told him that he wasn’t big enough or wasn’t smart enough, or whatever it may be,” said Baldwin. “He’s going to prove to whoever doubted him that he’s good enough to be a Hall of Fame player.”