Will you cheer or boo Earl Thomas in his Seattle return? Seahawks leaders have an opinion

A year after flipping off his Seahawks coach—if not Seattle’s entire franchise—Earl Thomas is wondering how you feel about him.

The former Seahawks All-Pro safety and “Legion of Boom”-er is staying up nights wondering how you will receive him Sunday. It’s his return to Seattle as a Seahawks opponent for the first time with his new Baltimore Ravens.

“Yes, I’ve thought about it at night,” Thomas said to reporters in Maryland Wednesday. “Hopefully, they respect what I’ve done and I’ll get a couple cheers, not too many boos. And whatever happens, happens.

“But hopefully, it’s love.”

Up until last year, it was all love between Thomas and Seattle, its fans, the city.

The three-time All-Pro free safety started on the ground floor of coach Pete Carroll’s and general manager John Schneider’s franchise restoration. He was a first-round pick in their first draft leading the Seahawks. Thomas became the sport’s best player at his position, a game-wrecking, sideline-to-sideline hawk. His fiendish intensity matched his other-worldly skill.

He likely someday will enter the Seahawks’ Ring of Honor.

Now, on the eve of the game that jumped off Seattle’s schedule when the NFL announced it in April, some in the Pacific Northwest are conflicted. Cheer Thomas on Sunday for all he did as an integral part of the best run of success in Seahawks history? Or boo him for how he went out?

“The way he left, you know, was probably the worst way imaginable. Just everything he’d been through and how the situation unfolded, really, how he handled it, that’s definitely not how you want to handle those situations,” Bradley McDougald, Thomas’ safety partner his last two seasons in Seattle, said in the Seahawks locker room before practice Wednesday.

“But he’s done a lot for this program, this organization. And the 12s should be happy that he’s back.”

Bobby Wagner was Thomas’ All-Pro teammate who played in front of him in the middle of the Seahawks’ defense from 2012-18 and won a ring with him. Wagner has a direct answer to how fans will receive Thomas at CenturyLink Field in his return.

“It should be appreciation,” he said. “He did so much for this organization. He did so much for this team.

“He’s a legend here. I would expect him to be well received. It’s a guy whose jersey will probably be retired, and there should be a lot of respect for him.”

Thomas, Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor were the original “Legion of Boom” secondary behind a Seattle defense that became the first one since the 1950s Cleveland Browns to lead the NFL in fewest points allowed four consecutive seasons through 2016. His excellence is a large reason why the Seahawks won their first Super Bowl, played in another, and became the NFC’s best team in the mid-2010s.

Then he wanted a third contract, again as the highest-paid safety in the league. He was nearing 30, and the Seahawks had already moved on from Sherman, Chancellor and Pro Bowl defensive end Michael Bennett. They decided they weren’t going to pay Thomas what he was demanding beyond 2018.

Those still ticked at Thomas won’t forget him going to the coach of the Dallas Cowboys after a Seahawks win in his home state on Christmas Eve 2017 and telling Jason Garrett, “come get me when Seattle kicks me to the curb.”

“I think he made a mistake at the time,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said Wednesday. “At least, that’s what he said. I sat right with him in the training room (in Arlington, Texas, that night), and he was still sweating. I said, ‘Hey, I just heard about something you said.’ He said, ‘I didn’t mean for that to happen or be perceived that way.’

“I trusted that he meant what he said.”

He held out all the next spring and summer, last year, until days before the 2018 opener. He said he returned only to collect the game checks, that that was too much money to blow.

Upon his return, he skipped practices. Four games into his contract year, he broke the same leg he’d broken two years earlier. On the back of a motorized cart leaving the field in Arizona, knowing he was done for last season and his Seahawks career, Thomas flipped a middle finger at Carroll and his team’s sideline.

Thomas told reporters in Baltimore Wednesday that at the time he thought he was heading to Dallas in free agency after the 2018 season, near his east-Texas hometown of Orange.

“I thought maybe the Cowboys, to be totally honest,” Thomas said. “That’s what the story was looking like—until the money got funny.”

Sunday’s game will be about the first time he’s been in front of Carroll and the Seahawks since the finger.

“I haven’t seen him much since then,” Carroll said.

Thomas signed a $55 million, four-year contract with Baltimore instead of Dallas in March. He got $32 million fully guaranteed and a $20 million signing bonus.

Thomas didn’t have a problem with his teammates when he left—though he did rip into them for inattention at practices over his years with the Seahawks, and for lax behavior such as chewing sunflower seeds during walkthroughs.

His problem was with Carroll, and with Schneider, for not giving him the money he wanted. Hence, his finger at the boss in Arizona.

Carroll says he holds no hard feelings over that. He says he loves Thomas, and always will.

“Obviously, he was upset,” Carroll said. “My heart is pretty big, pretty wide open to these guys from the time we spend together and all the stuff that we do. It’s way more important than something that happens, some gesture or some statement. There’s a lot of chances I could’ve come back to stuff guys have said when they leave. I kind of have space for them to be themselves and how they do it and how they handled it.

“I’m going to love him anyway.”

Asked how he thinks Seahawks players will treat Thomas on the field before, during and after Sunday’s game, Carroll said: “We know we like playing against him. He’s got relationships and it’s fun to see him out there. It’s fun to go against him.

“There’s nothing we like more than beating the guys that we love.”

Back in Baltimore, Thomas said Seahawks remain in touch with him, the Raven.

“Yes, guys have been checking on me throughout the season, especially guys on defense, some of my old coaches, some of my old strength and conditioning staff,” he said. “They’ve checked on me. But I’m sure like during pregame, once I go through my warm-ups if I see some guys (then) we start a conversation.

“I’m not going to go out there and not talk to anybody.”

Thomas had some particular words of love for Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson.

“Yes, I’m always going to have nothing but positivity when talking about Russ,” Thomas said, “because Russ has always been good to me and my family. My kids and his kids are close. My wife and his wife are close.

“And when you think about all the games we played together, there have been some times when we struggled, but there’s been more times when he came through for us when we needed him.”

The Ravens are using Thomas differently than Carroll and the Seahawks did in their single-high safety defense, which was Thomas as a roving, deep center fielder with a lot of freedom.

Wagner still remembers his favorite play of Thomas’ from a game at Arizona a few years ago when Thomas freelanced from where he was supposed to be, 15 yards or so off the ball, to behind the line of scrimmage to drop he thinks it was Larry Fitzgerald on an outside screen pass.

“It was amazing to me,” Wagner said. “He had no business making that play.”

Thomas has said he’s been adjusting to his varied roles with Baltimore. He has one interception and two passes defensed in six games. His most noticeable play was his helmet hit that knocked Pittsburgh quarterback Mason Rudolph out of the Ravens’ 26-23 win there Oct. 6.

Thomas got fined $21,000 for that.

He said Wednesday he could see Seattle’s scheme changing from one centered on its once-famed secondary to Wagner and fellow linebackers K.J. Wright and Mychal Kendricks. Thomas feels that was another reason Carroll and Schneider wouldn’t pay him beyond 2018.

“Yes, I feel like they were kind of trying to phase me out,” he said. “They were thinking more linebackers that you see. They’ve got the three-headed monster with K.J., Bobby and Kendricks. And obviously, Coach (Ken) Norton is the ‘D’ coordinator. He’s a linebacker at heart.

“So, I understood what was going on.”

The Ravens understand that isn’t any other game for the 30-year-old Thomas. Coach John Harbaugh said they have already named him a team captain for Sunday.

Oh, yes, Thomas hinted he will have extra emotion for this one. An emotion the Seahawks will recognize from him.

“If there’s any emotion at all, it’s always fire,” he said. “I love when I feel that fire because I know what’s going to happen.

“Some games you just don’t feel it, but you still go out there and compete. But you know it’s on when you feel it. I just try to keep my same routine and just build up and simmer right now, and then hopefully, once I get out there, I’ll be ready to go.”

That fire is one of the things Carroll appreciates most from Thomas. The coach also appreciates the talent he saw in the pre-draft process of 2010, before he made Thomas a cornerstone for a Seattle champion.

“Absolutely. Absolutely I do,” Carroll said. “Really, from the time we first saw him and watched him play and watched him work out at Texas—running, in the weight room—the way he was competing in that session there, all of the messages started to come through of the kind of character he was, he was a very, very unique player and a very unique person to have on the club. And I totally embraced that. I loved the way he was and all that.

“Whatever happens isn’t going to change what I think about him. I don’t care what’s said or what’s done. I don’t care; he can do what he wants. He’s his own man.

“But I know what the relationship means to me, and I’ll always be there for him. If he needs me, I’ll be there.”

Gregg Bell is the Seahawks and NFL writer for The News Tribune. In January 2019 he was named the Washington state sportswriter of the year by the National Sports Media Association. He started covering the NFL in 2002 as the Oakland Raiders beat writer for The Sacramento Bee. The Ohio native began covering the Seahawks in their first Super Bowl season of 2005. In a prior life he graduated from West Point and served as a tactical intelligence officer in the U.S. Army, so he may ask you to drop and give him 10.
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