Seahawks' talented Earl Thomas, in his second year, is determined not to make the mistakes he made as a rookie.
RENTON — For a player with Earl Thomas’ talent, the football field must seem like an open highway without a speed limit. He can do anything out there. He puts the “elect” in electric; thrills are always on his ballot.
It’s his greatest gift.
And it’s his biggest flaw.
In organized team sports, unrestrained talent presents a paradox. Every team wants the most skilled athletes on the planet, but can those players fit neatly into a system? Can they be satisfied with letting all of their ability out only some of the time, and folding into what seems like a boring role for long stretches? Can they conform without feeling harnessed?
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The Seahawks have only one Earl Thomas. You don’t measure his ceiling. You just look to the heavens and imagine the possibilities. On a team that has spent the past 19 months shuffling its roster to amass better talent, Thomas is the Seahawks’ only safe bet to vie for Pro Bowl or All-Pro consideration. With Thomas, a second-year free safety, the question isn’t how good he’s going to be. It’s how he’s going to manage his overflowing talent.
The concern isn’t whether he can be a star in the NFL. It’s whether he will dim his glow on occasion and accept that being a great playmaker involves both making great plays and making ordinary ones that prevent the other team from gaining huge chunks of yardage.
As a rookie, Thomas couldn’t always find the balance. He intercepted five passes last season. But he also took unnecessary gambles at times. He chased the big play and left the middle third of the field wide open.
The position is called safety for a reason. When Thomas played it wrong, he created a new role — risky.
But it wasn’t out of knuckleheaded arrogance. He just wanted to test the limits of his athletic superpowers. Fortunately, Thomas is a humble young man. He’s just 22 years old. He has some maturation left, and he’s learning.
“I’m focusing on being more disciplined this year,” Thomas said. “Last year, I wanted to prove myself to my teammates that I could make plays, and I got myself out of position a lot of times. My aggressiveness worked against me.”
Despite the mistakes, Thomas was a Pro Bowl alternate as a rookie. If he were stubborn, he would declare that his way got him quite far and refuse to change. But Thomas sounds intent on becoming a more complete safety.
“I think I had an up-and-down rookie season,” he said. “I think I helped the team, and sometimes I hurt the team.”
Thomas spent the offseason making adjustments. The Seahawks sent him video of his performances before the lockout, and mostly, he studied his mistakes. Then he returned to the University of Texas and worked with the strength and conditioning coaches to improve on his weaknesses.
He practiced at noon under the hot sun in Austin, going through drill after drill. He worked dropping into coverage mostly, trying to create the muscle memory to protect the middle third of the field. He trained so much in the Texas heat that he likens Seahawks training camp, in the much cooler Pacific Northwest, to “practicing with the air conditioning on.”
His methods are working. Thomas has been a standout in camp. He still makes highlight-reel plays, using his video-game speed. But just as impressive is the fact that the coaches aren’t on him that much about being in the wrong place. Thomas is learning when to be aggressive and when to simply be there for his teammates. If he combines his natural instincts with better football savvy, then perhaps he will live up to those comparisons to all-everything Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed.
“With me, I never second-guess myself,” Thomas said. “If I see something, I go and make the play. But if it’s my job to protect the middle third, I’ve got to protect the middle third. No extracurricular stuff. Just stay with the scheme.”
Thomas realizes now that he can have it both ways. He’s brimming with confidence. He playfully talks trash on the practice field, which belies his quiet persona off the field. He’s embracing the idea that he can become a leader, not with his voice but by doing the right thing consistently.
A year ago, no one could follow Thomas because only he could get away with the dangerous things he did on the field. But he’s improving.
He’ll flirt with danger, but he’s done playing risky. Play by simple play, he’s earning the title of safety.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @Jerry_Brewer