The Seahawks are built on the creative tension that crackles between Doug Baldwin and Earl Thomas. Team chemistry is important, but so are the little rivalries that unfold on the practice field, during film study, in the minds of teammates. Baldwin and Thomas embody that dynamic.
RENTON — Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin saw safety Earl Thomas talking, but what he really saw was opportunity.
Baldwin rested his hand on Thomas’ shoulder and reminded him how he’d smoked him at practice the day before. Thomas just stared until Baldwin left.
“I never had a rep against him yesterday,” Thomas said. And then he laughed. “Doug being Doug.”
It was a brief peek inside one of the most dynamic and evolved relationships on the Seahawks. Thomas: always staring like a predator is going to leap out of the bushes. And Baldwin: always creating the tension he thrives inside.
Given a choice between surrender and certain annihilation, both Thomas and Baldwin would ready their swords.
The Seahawks are built on the creative tension that crackles between Baldwin and Thomas. Team chemistry is important, but so are the hundreds of little rivalries that unfold each day on the practice field, during film study, even in the minds of teammates. Baldwin and Thomas embody that dynamic.
They aren’t usually viewed as a pair. In fact, they rarely match up at practice. But together they represent the atmosphere the Seahawks strive for.
Earlier in their careers, they were rivals as much as teammates. “Before it was more like, ‘I’m trying to embarrass you,’” Baldwin said.
They’re still capable of intense matchups and trash talk, but they originate from a different place. A mutual appreciation, if not a total ceasefire. They’re both 27 and either married or soon-to-be married.
“Over the years, as many games as we’ve played, the meetings we’ve had together, the practice field battles, I think all that combined with each other for me to feel, ‘Man, this guy is the real deal,’” Thomas said. “The respect factor and that love is there.”
“He wanted every challenge,” Baldwin said, “and I admired that.”
Their relationship may seem like a paradox, but it gets to the heart of the Seahawks’ identity: collaborators and competitors, all at once.
Not willing to back down
Where Thomas and Baldwin are, most obviously, similar: in their intensity, their diligence, their desires.
The night the Seahawks received their Super Bowl rings, Thomas left the team’s downtown party to watch film. On a recent flight from Kansas City, Seahawks receivers coach Dave Canales noticed Thomas silently rewinding and watching a routine play — from a preseason game.
“If you ever want to watch someone watch a play a million times, watch Earl,” Canales said. “We do that a lot as coaches, and it was even a lot for our standards.”
Baldwin shares that obsessiveness. He, like Thomas, can remember details from a play long after it happened. He once said he had to sacrifice personal relationships, friendships and free time to be successful.
Both players admit their ambitions are pursued on lonely roads.
Just as interesting are their differences. Thomas was a first-round pick, a starter his first season, a Pro Bowler his second season and first-team All-Pro by year three.
Baldwin, famously, went undrafted. The day before final cuts his rookie season, he called Dropbox, a company he’d had conversations with, to make sure he could interview if he didn’t make the NFL.
That difference in pedigree clouded their early years. Baldwin saw Thomas as a symbol to war against.
“I’ll be honest,” Baldwin said. “When I was younger, I took everything seriously, and I still do to some degree. Earl has always been a great teammate, a great leader. But coming in, I wasn’t a first-round draft pick so everything that was said to me I took seriously and to heart. He probably had a hard time with me in my younger years.”
Most publicly, the two were at the center of an offense vs. defense fight in June 2014. Thomas went to the ground with receiver Bryan Walters and offensive players took verbal (and later physical) exception to Thomas’ aggressiveness during limited-contact practice. Baldwin led the pack.
They have talked about it and moved on, but it highlighted the testiness of their relationship. Neither was willing to back down.
If Thomas made a big play, Baldwin wanted to answer. And if Baldwin cracked the Seahawks’ secondary, Thomas wanted to shut him down. But that tension made them better.
Their relationship could tilt toward the edge, but because it was so competitive, it was also highly collaborative.
“Sometimes it’s not easy having that self motivation all the time,” Baldwin said. “Yes, I have it, but it’s so much easier when I can look to Earl and he can become my motivation.”
Baldwin and Thomas are illustrations of what Penn professor Angela Duckworth calls “deliberate practice.”
Duckworth, the brain behind the Seahawks’ obsession with grit, says experts practice differently than everyone else. They pick a small detail to improve and drill in. They put themselves in uncomfortable situations, testing the edge of their ability, to expand their talent.
And they do it over and over and over again. What Duckworth calls “repetitive mastery.” The more advanced someone gets at their craft, the smaller the rewards — and the harder the gains are to notice. That leads many people to stop. But people like Thomas and Baldwin slowly inch forward, looking to get just a little bit better.
This is where Baldwin and Thomas’ relationship has developed and also where it has changed. It’s no longer just about beating the other guy so you can say you beat him. It’s about trying to beat the other guy so he gets better.
Baldwin might get Thomas with a move one day and Thomas will come back and stop it. And so Baldwin has to figure out something new; he has to keep climbing up the ladder.
“He feeds my competitive desire,” Baldwin said. “If I’m being bluntly honest, there’s just not a lot of competition that’s at a consistent basis. Usually if somebody gets me, they won’t get me a second time. I’ll figure them out where they won’t have a chance next time.
“But with Earl, Earl’s constantly battling to be the best at everything, which fuels my fire.”
Deep sense of commitment
Baldwin likes to study film late at night when the team’s facility is quiet. He often sees Thomas with his iPad — in the sauna, in the hot tub, in the defensive backs’ room — doing the same.
“Think of it like this,” Baldwin said. “Let’s say you’re working your ass off, and you’re at the office at 6 in the morning and then you see people trickle in around 8. In you’re head, you’re like, ‘I’m (freaking) busting my ass, and you aren’t on the same level. You want somebody so badly to get on the same level as you, especially in a team organization. I need these guys. They have to be putting in as much work as I am because we’re on the same road together.
“And so when I see Earl, it’s not like I feel like I have to keep doing this; I’m going to do it regardless. But it’s a sense of accountability to Earl. It makes me happy to see Earl because I know that he’s taking it seriously, and then in my head, it’s like, ‘OK, I’m not alone in this.’ And then I feel more accountable when I’m watching film. I’ll watch 10 more minutes of film because I know Earl probably did the same thing.”
That’s what the business world calls “co-opetition”: the idea being that businesses, employees, what have you, get better not just by collaborating but also by competing.
When receivers and defensive backs square off in one-on-one drills, Thomas insists on covering Baldwin. If Baldwin beats him, he lets Thomas hear it.
“If I route him up,” Baldwin said, “I might say, ‘You better (freaking) get on your horse Earl! I’m over here by myself!’”
And if Thomas stumps Baldwin that day, he usually doesn’t say anything; a notorious trash-talker, Thomas rarely engages anymore. But he might walk past Baldwin after a film session and say, “Hey, don’t paint me in a box, bro. I’m a DB. I can cover. I’m not just a safety.”
The tension will always crackle, but both understand what one means for the other.
“He’s probably the quickest person I ever guarded,” Thomas said. “It makes me try to reach my ultimate goal, which is to try to be complete.”
“He’s like an enigma,” Baldwin said. “You don’t necessarily have to go against him every play to get that competitive juice flowing. You just watch him.”
The relationship changes once more on game days. Thomas and Baldwin find each other on the field and give each other a nod and tap, so subtle the moment passes in seconds.
“I get goose bumps from it,” Baldwin said. “Everything we put in culminates in this one day. I look at him, he looks at me, no words are said, we dap each other up and go about our business. But we know.”