While rookie safety Earl Thomas introduced himself to the NFL — and Brett Favre — last Saturday night with his eye-opening 86-yard interception return in Minnesota, an equally important thing was happening at the Seahawks’ other safety spot.
It wouldn’t be right to say Lawyer Milloy quietly went about his business alongside Thomas in Seattle’s secondary, given there was nothing silent about a couple of the booming hits the veteran laid on the Vikings.
While Thomas made his highlight-reel touchdown run, Milloy merely reminded those who were watching what he still has to offer as a 36-year-old strong safety.
After coming off the bench in 2009 for the first time since his rookie season in 1996 and contributing only minimally with 29 tackles in limited playing time, there were natural doubts as to what Milloy had left for a 15th NFL season.
Thomas was in second grade when Milloy began playing pro ball. So while it’s reasonable to wonder how the rookie will fare in his inaugural campaign, it’s equally fair to question how Milloy might hold up in the closing stages of his own four-time Pro Bowl career.
Judging by some of the licks the former Husky standout laid on the Vikings, he’s intent on showing he remains a quality NFL safety. While it appeared Milloy turned up the intensity a couple notches with the regular-season approaching, he insisted it was just business as usual … now that he’s back in business.
“This is what I do. This is what I’ve done my whole career,” he said when asked about Saturday’s aggressive play. “I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t able to still play the way I want to play. The reason for me not playing last year wasn’t because I wasn’t physical. I was still able. I’m just picking up where I left off in Atlanta, really.”
From the first day of camp this summer, Milloy has carried himself with a swagger that wasn’t always visible last year, however. He was signed late by the Seahawks in 2009, reuniting with hjs former Falcons coach Jim Mora just a week before the first regular-season game, viewed more as a veteran leader than a starting safety.
But Pete Carroll, who coached Milloy in New England in his early years, immediately moved him ahead of Jordan Babineaux as the starting strong safety and paired him with the rookie Thomas as an on-field teacher, something of a Mutt-and-Jeff combo in cleats.
But Milloy has far too much pride to consider himself as merely a mentor. He learned a few things about himself last season as well, the biggest being he doesn’t want to watch from the sidelines any more.
“Last year was very humbling, knowing I was able and willing,” he said. “To be put on the bench, I came in kind of understanding the situation, but seeing the team underachieve with me being on the side it just felt helpless.
“But I never gave up hope in myself. I believed in myself. Every time I got on the field last year I showed what I could do. I was lucky I did that. I had the right attitude so when the new coaching staff came in, they gave me another opportunity. And at the age of 36, I still have enough left in the tank not only to compete for a spot on this team, but to still go out there when my number is called and be productive.”
Milloy is a muscular 6 foot, 211 pounds, capable of punishing people in surprising fashion for a guy who isn’t the biggest — and certainly isn’t the youngest — safety running around the NFL.
He delivered a big hit on Vikings tight end Visanthe Shiancoe on Saturday, knocked pulling guard Steve Hutchinson backward on a goal-line stop by the defense and finished with five tackles in one half of action.
“He’s had an excellent preseason,” Carroll said. “He’s been all over the place. He’s shown the kind of hitting that we love to see on defense, the toughness that he brings. He’s been very, very studious as far as his alignments and calls and all that kind of stuff. It doesn’t matter how old he is, he’s a good football player and we’re lucky to have him.”
No one might be luckier than Thomas and fellow rookie Kam Chancellor, who have gone to school under Milloy’s tutelage.
Milloy appreciates Thomas’ natural abilities, calling him “a special player” and noting, “I never had that kind of speed at all. That’s something you can’t coach. He’s definitely blessed with some legs.”
But Milloy also understanding the game is about more than raw athleticism. It’s a chess match at times, a mental game against opposing quarterbacks. Knowing where to be ahead of time is more important than having the speed to get there a step late.
So he works in tandem with Thomas, knowing the youngster literally has his back while roaming center field as Milloy plays closer to the line of scrimmage.
“I’m happy in the direction we’re going, but we still have some work to do,” Milloy said. “It’s been a process where obviously they want him on the field, so it’s trying to get him up to speed while I’m trying to just compete for a spot on the team.”
The Tacoma native said he’s gradually discovered the balance between teaching and doing his own job.
“For me, some areas were cloudy,” he said. “(How much) do I help this guy? I don’t want to take away from what I’m trying to accomplish, but I found out how to make it work and it’s been good so far.”
“Lawyer has been through it all,” Carroll said. “He was a hot-headed rookie in the first couple years when I saw him. He was a handful back then. But he’s grown tremendously. Now he’s two handfuls.
“But he brings it,” said Carroll. “And he stands for so much good stuff about the game. It’s so important to him to play at the level that he plays at. The messages come out in all different ways, but I’m thrilled to have him in any kind of a mentoring position for Earl. He likes it and he’s having a good time watching the kid grow.
“He reminds him about (being in the league) 15 years every now and then if Earl isn’t listening. But they have a great relationship going right now and it’s very important to us.”
Milloy even advised Thomas on how to talk to the media after his standout showing Saturday. He knows the quiet youngster from Texas is going to face the same things he worked through himself many seasons ago.
“We have our lockers right next to each other,” Milloy said. “That’s what I’m here for. I’m here for not only him, but everybody that wants to listen. That’s one good thing about Pete. He has a few veterans mixed around the locker room to help get the message to some of these young guys when he’s not available.
“But he’s the one who needs to speak. You guys don’t want to hear me. You want to hear him. He’s the up-and-coming star. I’ve had my days …”
Maybe so. But judging from his preseason play, Milloy has a little more tread on the tires, a few more hits in the tank.
As he says, “This is what I do.” And he intends to keep doing it until they tell him to stop.