Pete Carroll had no trouble identifying the appeal of Texas safety Earl Thomas. Every time they put on a film, the guy made things happen.
“We drafted him because he’s a playmaker,” Carroll said, adding that Thomas might be the best in the country at coming up with dramatic plays of high impact.
A dozen games into his rookie season, Thomas has lived up to that billing, leading the team with five interceptions while also adding a touchdown on a return of a blocked punt.
Although just 21 (he was born in 1989), and having played just two seasons at Texas, Thomas already has intercepted Drew Brees, Sam Bradford and Philip Rivers (twice, both in the fourth quarter of a win over San Diego).
And when the early results of fan voting for the Pro Bowl were released, Thomas was the only Seahawks position player in the top five. (Leon Washington was also fifth as a kick returner).
So the Seahawks knew all about Thomas’ instincts and athleticism. What he has taught them about in the past few months, though, has been at least equally important to his success: his attitude.
“He’s been a great studier; he stays late, he meets with the coaches afterward, he really cares. He’s really determined to be a great player,” Carroll said. “He’s got just the right mentality of a young guy who’s fighting to figure it out.”
Safety Lawyer Milloy, a veteran of 15 NFL seasons, has been a perfect mentor for Thomas. Playing at his side, he probably has the best view of Thomas’ performance.
“I’m very happy with his progress, starting with draft day,” Milloy said. “He’s got that frame of mind; he wants to be great. He’s a perfectionist, and he gets mad when he doesn’t do it the right way.
“A lot of what separates the great ones from the average is the mental approach, and he’s doing everything the right way.”
Thomas has sideline-to-sideline range and a center fielder’s instincts, but he’s also a very physical tackler and run-supporter, who plays the game unsparingly. Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley thinks that’s working in his favor as the season wears on.
“You see a lot of times where rookies go through that slump a little bit,” Bradley said. “But I mentioned to him last week in practice he goes the same speed all the time. I mean we can go through a walk-through, and he’s going full speed. So I think that’s more his mentality and it’s a credit to him.”
No, actually, Thomas hasn’t felt as if the length of the season or the quality of the competition is too much for him.
“I haven’t hit any wall; at Texas, we’re used to playing deep into the season, so I’m just having a lot of fun right now, focusing on every game, learning a lot every week,” he said. “We’ve got a real shot here, so I can’t hit any wall.”
Situations still pop up in the games that surprise him, he said, but his increasing understanding of the whole defense has helped his feel for his job. The biggest adjustment, he said, is pretty obvious: the quality of the quarterbacks he faces.
“This is a quarterbacks league, and if those guys see you make one false move, they can make you pay,” he said.
Carroll knows that the Seahawks placed weighty responsibility on Thomas’ shoulders, but he has proven up the task, despite still being somewhere on the steep incline of the learning curve.
“The thing that always shows up, and our players know it, he battles,” Carroll said. “He’s really a tough competitor. So, where he comes up short in experience, he tries to make up for it with toughness and speed and applying himself off the field.”
The quick cycling of games and game plans has left him with little time to think about anything but preparation, Thomas said. But then Sunday comes, and it all comes into focus.
“You spend so much time on the work you put in during the week,” Thomas said. “And then you get on the field on Sunday, that’s where the real joy of this is for me – that’s where it all pays off.”
And that’s where the investment in Thomas has been paying off for the Seahawks, too.