This is what the Seahawks had to replace on Dec. 4 when they lost Earl Thomas for the season: a player so respected, feared and simply so good that he could impact a game by reputation alone. The results without him in the lineup are striking.
My favorite Earl Thomas play was a play Earl Thomas didn’t even make.
It was 2013, and the Seahawks were in another slugfest with the Rams. In the third quarter, Rams quarterback Kellen Clemens saw open field, scrambled and got drilled 6 yards later. It sounds unremarkable until you consider that Thomas covered 23 yards to reach Clemens and, once he got there, he hit Clemens so hard that Clemens wore a welt after the game.
“As Kellen came over to the sideline, he said, ‘Holy cow, man. Did you see how fast he closed?’ ” former Rams quarterback Brady Quinn said. “I mean, Kellen is a tough dude, but you could tell he was a little bit shook.”
That was the play Thomas made. The play he didn’t make was in the fourth quarter.
The Rams had the ball at the 3-yard line. Clemens rolled to his left and had he bolted for the end zone he had a chance to score.
But Clemens didn’t bolt for the end zone. He drifted laterally and eventually threw an incompletion, and the Seahawks won.
After the game, when talking about that play, Clemens brought up the Thomas hit in the third quarter and the speed with which Thomas had closed the distance between them. It was still in the back of his mind.
Thomas didn’t come within 10 yards of Clemens near the end zone, but it was as if he was a ghost in that moment, something Clemens projected that wasn’t actually there.
“That’s the kind of impact great players have, meaning that even though they’re not there, their opponent might think they are,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said later, invoking NBA Hall of Famer Bill Russell. “That’s what great players do. They have a presence that extends beyond maybe even their own physical range.”
That’s also what the Seahawks had to replace on Dec. 4 when they lost Thomas for the season: a player so respected, feared and simply so good that he could impact a game by reputation alone.
The Seahawks have downplayed the impact of Thomas’ absence, but the results without him are striking.
With Thomas, teams had 391 dropbacks and attempted 42 passes of at least 20 yards, according to Pro Football Focus. Teams had a 61.6 passer rating on those deep targets and threw two touchdowns and two interceptions.
Without Thomas, teams are more effective by just about every measure: Offenses have attempted 32 passes of at least 20 yards in 202 dropbacks. They’ve thrown four touchdowns, just one interception and have a passer rating of 112.
Thomas’ replacement, Steven Terrell, is a solid backup and role player. But Thomas’ absence is problematic because he is irreplaceable, a safety who has entered the revered territory of Troy Polamalu, Sean Taylor and Ed Reed.
“Earl needs to be in that discussion because not only his talent but how he impacts everyone else around him,” said Matt Bowen, a former NFL safety and ESPN analyst. “What you can do with Earl Thomas is you can build a defense around him. … In terms of how they play as a defense and how they built that scheme to work, in my opinion he’s the most important part of that defense.”
That is not a new or isolated opinion.
“Just ask them this: Rate the players on how hard they would be to replace,” former Bears general manager Jerry Angelo said in 2013. “See where Earl comes up. If you told (former defensive coordinator) Dan Quinn, what one guy could you ill afford to lose, it’s Earl Thomas.”
A safety for the Seahawks can’t give up post routes or seam routes — the most vulnerable spots in their cover-three defense are deep down the middle of the field. With his speed, instincts and understanding, Thomas all but eliminated those big plays.
It is the most fundamental and crucial part of his job: to take away explosive plays. Thomas created hidden yards, advantages that added up in games and over seasons. He kept big gains from turning into touchdowns. He kept intermediate gains from turning into big ones. It was often the plays that could go unnoticed.
“Think about the last couple years when you’ve seen a post route, which is one of the most common routes in football, thrown at our defense for a big play,” Carroll said a few years ago. “Doesn’t happen. I can barely remember any.”
Bowen, the former NFL safety, posted a short clip from the Seahawks’ win against the Vikings in last year’s playoffs. In the video, Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater threw a pass down the seam — the exact area where the Seahawks can get gashed.
But Thomas appeared out of the screen like a blur and separated the receiver from the ball. It was a play that left Bowen gushing.
“You always hear the term great ball skills,” he said. “Earl Thomas does have great ball skills. But how does he get there? That’s the point that matters. How does he get there? Why is he there so early? Why is he always in the proper position?
“That play I posted today on Twitter, how did he make that play that 99 percent of safeties in the NFL cannot? It’s because he knew where the ball was going. It all comes back to the start, before the ball is even snapped or as the route is starting to develop.”
Thomas’ work ethic and intensity are almost mythic by now. He once overslept and missed a meeting in college so the next week he slept on the floor of the locker room. After the Seahawks received their Super Bowl rings in 2014, he returned to the team’s facility to watch film. Teammates often see him alone, in the defensive backs’ meeting room or with his iPad, late into the night.
But there is a very practical reason for what he does. Thomas does not make plays and eliminate plays because of his speed alone. He does those things because he can pick up tendencies through film study, and he can anticipate what’s coming on the field, and he can react quickly because he trusts the work he has done.
His instincts carry him, and he trusts them fully. But those instincts are backed by a reservoir of knowledge, both learned and experienced, that allows him to break on plays other safeties wouldn’t get near. It’s why he looks so fearless and so fast.
“You talk about shortening the field, that’s the best thing I can give you: It’s almost like playing in the red zone against him because you have to be quicker,” Bowen said.
Brady Quinn, who played against Thomas during the Seahawks’ training camp in 2013, said Thomas’ speed and decision-making forces quarterbacks to change the trajectory of their deep ball.
“You have to be more perfect and throw it more on a line,” he said. “You’re already talking about the lowest-percentage throw anyway, and you’re making it even more low percentage.”
With Thomas as the Seahawks’ last line of defense, Seattle’s corners could take more chances and gamble. Bowen said the Seahawks’ skilled corners could sometimes undercut intermediate routes over the middle because Thomas lurked behind them.
“They could funnel those guys to the middle of the field because the window shrinks even more with Earl Thomas there,” Bowen said. “When Earl Thomas is not there, the window gets a little wider. It puts more stress on the cornerbacks.”
Thomas’ impact isn’t limited to big passing plays, although those are the most costly.
Thomas can fly forward in the run game and shut off a big gain. An opposing offensive coach said it was amazing — and frustrating — how many 25-yard gains Thomas flipped to 8 or 10 yards.
In the passing game, he can be a menace across the middle of the field; twice against Atlanta he flew forward and jarred the ball loose from receivers coming across the shallow middle.
Players and coaches marvel at the angles Thomas takes; he’s the type of player football people love watching on film. His position is about geometry, and if he takes the wrong angle, he can give up game-changing plays. But Thomas is an angle expert, and taking proper angles allows him to be more involved.
“There’s no question he has speed,” Bowen said. “But he plays even faster than his stopwatch time because of the angles he takes.”
In four games without Thomas, the Seahawks have had issues. They gave up an 80-yard touchdown to the Cardinals when Terrell read the play wrong. Another play in that game went for 41 yards on a pass across the middle; defensive coordinator Kris Richard later admitted that Terrell should have been in position to stop the bleeding.
That’s the challenge the Seahawks have faced without Thomas and the one they will face again in the playoffs: How to replace a player whose influence spreads to the whole defense, whose skill set is singular.