The Seahawks could really have used Earl Thomas this week.
They’re facing the sort of dangerous and multifaceted quarterback in Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson for which Thomas’s instincts, experience and speed at free safety would have been invaluable.
Of course, Thomas will instead be on the other side of the field, making his return to CenturyLink Field on Sunday as a Raven. And that fraught circumstance has brought pouring forth all sorts of emotions and questions, as has been the case whenever the Seahawks are confronted in any fashion by one of their recently departed icons.
Pete Carroll answered one such question immediately, and it was totally and predictably in character. There would be no bitterness toward Thomas, no snappy retort about the middle finger he flipped the coach, no pointed commentary about Earl’s holdout or his unseemly post-game plea to Cowboys coach Jason Garrett to “come and get me when they kick me to the curb.”
Instead, it has been nothing but love and appreciation emanating from Carroll, who is constitutionally incapable of holding a grudge. Or at least revealing one.
About the closest Carroll has come to snapping back at any of the ex-Seahawk royalty was after Richard Sherman and Michael Bennett both intimated that the coach had lost his hold on the team. This occurred when the two of them had been, well, kicked to the curb by Seattle. Bennett talked of taking a book into meetings to combat his boredom; Sherman spoke of how the players tuned Carroll out because they’d heard all his stories.
After those quotes made the rounds, Carroll told reporters, “Sometimes, guys can’t hang with what’s expected, for one reason or another — their growth, their development, and all of that. And the best I can tell you is that they’re not here.”
For him, that qualifies as a rebuke. But mostly, Carroll has been steadfastly effusive in his praise of Sherman, Bennett, Marshawn Lynch, and now Thomas, of whom he said on Wednesday, “I loved the way he was and all that. Whatever happens isn’t going to change what I think about him.”
I suspect that will be the case on Sunday with the vast majority of Seahawks’ fans. Thomas admitted to Baltimore reporters this week that the question of his reception has crossed his mind, late at night.
Pointedly, when Thomas talked about playing the Seahawks at CenturyLink, he referred to it as “going back home to Seattle.” That, on top of previous comments that he hopes to eventually make the Seahawks’ Ring of Honor, perhaps even sign a one-day contract to retire a Seahawk, is proof that he hasn’t burned any bridges in his mind.
“Hopefully, they respect what I’ve done, and I’ll get a couple cheers, not too many boos,’’ he said on Wednesday. “And whatever happens, happens, but hopefully it’s love.”
I hope it is, too. Oh, at the time Seattle fans might have chafed at how Thomas handled his contract impasse — and you can trace all of his discontent, at its core, to money. But I would be shocked if Thomas was met with anything but overwhelming affection and gratitude. He meant too much to a golden era of Seahawks football, the only one to produce a Super Bowl title.
It’s valid to ask if the Seahawks were correct in letting Thomas leave, on the heels of the forced departures of Sherman and Bennett and intertwined with the health-related retirements of Kam Chancellor, Cliff Avril and Doug Baldwin.
That’s an awful lot of transcendent talent and institutional knowledge walking out the door. It’s a good share of the unique and charismatic characters that marked the Seahawks during the Legion of Boom era. It’s much of the leadership core of a team that dominated the league for a span.
Yet it’s more complicated than that, of course. There’s only so much money to go around in the salary-cap NFL and the Seahawks had been burned with some third contracts. By not giving Thomas the huge multiyear extension he was seeking (and which the Ravens obliged at four years, $55 million, with $32 million of it guaranteed), it allowed them to tweak the roster in other ways.
So far, so good. With a 5-1 record, the Seahawks appear playoff-bound in 2019. And they’ve done it — by design, pretty clearly — without the sort of disruptions and controversy that marked the previous iteration of the ballclub.
That’s part of what made them so compelling, and ultimately legendary. The energy, whether it be positive or negative, was something the team fed off. And self-expression in all its forms was always embraced by Carroll; that was at the heart of his leadership, and continues to be.
But now the Seahawks are trying to show they can win in quieter fashion. A new leadership core has coalesced around the three Super Bowl-winning veterans who stayed: Russell Wilson, Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright. None of them are the sort to cause a fuss, though all have earned complete respect in the locker room.
“I think that as a collective group, we’re really, really close,’’ Wilson said of this year’s Seattle team. “I think that’s the key. It doesn’t matter if you’re a rookie. It doesn’t matter if you’re one of the oldest guys on the team or not. It’s about each other. It’s about helping each other find a way to help each other win and do whatever it takes on and off the field.”
I guess we’ll find out how it works out in the end. The Seahawks got a Lombardi Trophy and a million indelible memories out of the creative tension that those departed players engendered. Earl Thomas was at the heart of it all, and brought a presence to the safety position that hasn’t yet been replicated. We might see just how much it’s missed against the dynamic Jackson.
When Thomas ended his holdout last season just before the opener, he tweeted, “ … the disrespect has been well noted and will not be forgotten. Father Time may have an undefeated record but best believe I plan on taking him into triple overtime when it comes to my career.”
Thomas will never be forgotten, either. His reappearance in Seattle on Sunday is a poignant reminder of a wondrous time in Seahawks history — and how much the essence of the team has been transformed.