Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor hoped to change Seahawks football.
They may end up changing the game.
Have a pair of safeties ever more perfectly reflected their position names? One so free, the other so strong … as if designed specifically for their purposes.
Thomas roams sideline-to-sideline, a dervish of a free safety. Chancellor, the intimidating strong safety, causes receivers to scan the field pre-snap, in an attempt to avoid the peril wearing the No. 31 jersey.
“The best safety tandem in the league,” Hall of Fame and Gold Standard defensive back Ronnie Lott said of Thomas and Chancellor.
Given their combined 22 interceptions and five Pro Bowl honors in just four seasons together, few would debate Lott’s assertion of their positional primacy at the moment.
A more relevant question is how long, if they sustain this pace, before the Seahawks tandem is the best ever?
They’re certainly off to a quick start, as Thomas is 24 and Chancellor 25. But the precocious pair had this in their sights from the first day.
“Yeah, we always have talked about changing Seattle,” Thomas said. “We came in as competitors, young and probably dumb, but at the same time, we understood that we could make a change and it’s definitely panned out for us.”
Back in the early days of their partnership, they committed to excelling together, from regular early morning film studies all the way to their offseason gym-rat basketball sessions, when they insisted on being on the same team so they could always work to be athletically in sync.
“We have prepared ourselves for this,” Chancellor said. “We’re never complacent. We want to be great, we want to separate ourselves That’s been part of our mindset from the start. You don’t say that unless you believe it, and if you’re dedicated and determined about it, it can happen.”
The two speak as they play. Thomas is all burst and flashes, Chancellor more controlled, but with enormous force.
Chancellor described Thomas: “He’s here one second and then, poof! he’s gone. He’s like the Tasmanian Devil, you know, when he starts spinning. That’s what Earl’s like.”
Chancellor’s leadership is quieter but no less valuable. When yet another league suspension for performance-enhancers hit the Hawks last spring, Chancellor was one who stood up and said, in essence, it’s time everybody grows up. And when Chancellor speaks, teammates listen.
“He plays with so much passion, he just loves the game of football,” quarterback Russell Wilson said. “You really respect that about Kam – he does this the right way.”
They didn’t become a true duo, though, until Thomas was ready to accept Chancellor, a fifth-round draft pick, into the partnership.
Thomas had been a first-rounder from Texas (14th pick), while Chancellor was a bit of a tweener at Virginia Tech. At 6-3, 232 pounds, he was the size of some linebackers, and some scouting reports ranked him as the 27thsafety prospect in the draft – eight places below Wisconsin’s Chris Maragos, who is now a backup safety for the Hawks.
Thomas explained the root connection: “I think it all started when I put my pride to the side and said, ‘This guy is just as good as me.’ So why not open up to him and tell him all of me? Tell him, ‘Man, if you see me doing this, please let me know. Please let me know because on game day, I definitely don’t want to be in that position to hurt the team.’ ”
Chancellor had to earn it, playing behind veteran Lawyer Milloy as a rookie, but growing into the job when Milloy retired.
“When you really are humble about the situation, and really let guys into your world, good stuff like that happens,” Thomas said of his relationship with Chancellor. “It’s a respect factor.”
The pair is on the threshold of the greatest opportunity to earn that league-wide respect, going against one of the NFL great quarterbacks, Denver’s Peyton Manning, on Sunday in Super Bowl XLVIII.
Thomas and Chancellor, as a subset of the noted secondary dubbed the Legion of Boom, have dominated particularly in the last four games. Chancellor has 45 tackles, two interceptions and six passes defensed in that time. Thomas, meanwhile, has generated momentum as a candidate for league-wide defensive player of the year.
“Our safety position is one that you could really see the feature players and the different things they bring to our team,” defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said. “What Kam Chancellor puts out on tape … the contact and the hits that he delivers, he’s one of the most physical players that we have. That helps our entire team. With Earl Thomas, it’s the speed that he brings to our game. He plays at such a fast pace (with such) instincts and knowledge of the game.”
While Thomas, with three All-Pro honors, is viewed as the senior partner, Chancellor has recently won the high regard of observers like Lott, who played 15 seasons in the NFL. Lott gave Chancellor the ultimate compliment for a safety in Seattle, by comparing him to Kenny Easley, a five-time Pro Bowl selection for the Hawks in the 1980s.
“(Chancellor) is getting close to being in that community of greatness,” Lott said. “And that is hard for me to say that because I have the utmost respect for Kenny Easley.”
The Thomas-Chancellor duo, Lott says, is so effective because their aggressiveness.
“Those two are playing at that level (and) will be playing a role in this game because they attack people,” Lott said.
Longevity will be a part of their ultimate rankings. Durability has not been an issue. Since they came in together in 2010, the Seahawks have played 64 regular season and six postseason games, a combined 140 opportunities for Thomas and Chancellor. They’ve only missed one game, when Chancellor was sidelined against Atlanta in 2011 with a deep thigh bruise.
“What people don’t see is the work we put in, and that’s the key,” Chancellor said. “If you prepare well and practice well, it will show up in the game. That’s what we do, watching film, talking, so we know what the other is doing.”
They communicate so well, Chancellor said, but they also challenge and push each other in different ways.
“We silently push each other,” Chancellor said. “When you see your best friend practicing so hard, then, shoot, you’ve got to step it up, too. Yeah, we’re partners, but we’re competitors, too.”
And neither is satisfied.
“There’s plays we’ve left out there,” Chancellor said. “You can strive for perfection, and nobody reaches that, but the striving for it is what can make you great.”