“The values to which people cling most stubbornly under inappropriate conditions are those values that were previously the source of their greatest triumphs.”
Pete Carroll and his staff aren’t the first and won’t be the last sports coaches to speak from both sides of their mouths when it comes to special treatment for superstar athletes. Practice is important, they say, but there’s Earl Thomas, helmetless, vowing to stay out of physical contact in practice if he, in his own words, has so much as a headache.
His stubbornness, his righteous belief that he is as good as ever and will be for several more years, is part of the warrior makeup that has taken him to the pinnacle of the NFL — one of the best of the best.
But it runs up against the changed conditions of the Seahawks — through personnel misjudgments and bad health luck, they have become a mediocre team that has and will have needs at so many positions that management is unwilling to take another risk extending a contract of a player in his age-30 year.
Thomas not only won’t see it that way — he can’t. Thomas views the team’s reluctance to make a deal beyond this season as a sign of disrespect, which is how nearly all players think.
It’s almost impossible to not take it personally. Just as it needs to be nearly impossible for a franchise to look at the proposition as anything other than business.
So the friction will spark weekly for the rest of the season, unless it gets untenable and/or the league-wide casualty rate at Thomas’s position forces a contending team to meet Seattle’s high price by the Oct. 30 trade deadline.
Specifically, where the drama is most likely to play out is not on the practice field or in the locker room. Believe it or not, Thomas is old enough to be a legend to most of the younger players, who were in high school when the Legion of Boom became one of pop culture’s hottest items. How they didn’t get to host Saturday Night Live is one of Lorne Michaels’s biggest career mistakes.
The respect, even awe, for Thomas will overwhelm any notion of dismay over the double standard.
Where it will play out is if and when Thomas in a game crosses the line between his personal world of violent collisions and makes a “business decision” to avoid one.
That’s player code for self-preservation — pulling back from the chance of maximum impact.
Nearly everyone who has seen Thomas’s play or listened to his words thinks that is highly unlikely. Even among players, Thomas is on the level of Russell Crowe’s Maximus in Gladiator.
Yet after the 24-13 win over the Cowboys Sunday, Thomas opened the door to doubt.
“Practice is a big deal,” he said. “In my younger days, it made me who I am. I always practiced hard. But I understand now — especially because I’m going to be careful.”
Thomas said he expected to be fined and shrugged it off, apparently figuring it would be a lot less than the $500,000 game checks he would miss if his holdout had continued into the regular season.
But what does “careful” mean in a game? Thomas will claim it won’t happen, but how does he know? He’s never been in this position before.
I don’t think Thomas will avoid a tackle. But what if he fails to wrap up? Or sidesteps a block when the guy needed to be occupied? Or fails to block on someone else’s interception return?
Without mentioning Thomas specifically, I asked Carroll this week about the notion of players making business decisions.
“There have been times when coaches and players have made comments about that,” he said. “I’ve always been pretty strong about that — it’s not OK to let (an opponent) go, or don’t take a shot at making a block or something, trying to save yourself.
“You’re playing for your teammates, and you have to do everything you can to help them win. It’s not been a direct issue for a long time. I don’t have a whole lot of tolerance for that.”
Yet Thomas has made a point about looking out for himself too, and now he’s 13 games from potential free agency (in the absence of a trade, it seems unlikely the Seahawks will expend a one-year franchise tag on him).
Nothing so far in his play has indicated a fall-off. Pro Football Focus has graded him through three games as the NFL’s top free safety. Even Friday afternoon, Carroll managed to say something nice about Thomas’s non-practice practice.
“Excellent — he really did (have a good week),” Carroll said. “He looked great.”
That’s the sort of public silliness into which the situation has devolved. Carroll earlier in the week said there would be “consequences” if Thomas didn’t practice, but any punishment would be kept private.
“Truly, there’s consequences with your actions and that’s just the way it is,” he said. “Because (media members) don’t know about it, doesn’t mean that something’s not going on. We don’t share that stuff with you because we don’t have to and there’s no need to. We just do our work on the inside and take care of business.
“There’s a lot of trust (in the building) that we’re doing right things, and we’re doing things for the right reasons. We’re not overlooking things which (media) may be suggesting and letting things go.”
Everyone is earnest in maintaining the appearance of order, including defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr.
“Earl’s not practicing — he’s certainly taking a lot of mental reps,” he said. “He’s very in-tune to the mental side of the game. Once your mind is right, it takes care of what’s going on physically.”
But when the body gets broken, the mind has no chance.