Seahawks free safety Earl Thomas had already come back from one major injury when he broke his leg last December.
He tore up his shoulder in the NFC Championship Game against Green Bay, played through the injury in the Super Bowl then made it back from offseason surgery in time for the start of 2015.
But the cracked tibia that cut his 2016 season short was more trying for Thomas not only because he had never missed an extended amount of time before that, but also because his initial fear was that he wouldn’t be able to play again. Thomas revealed as much Tuesday to Brock Huard and Danny O’Neil on 710 ESPN Seattle.
“It’s very different,” he said. “It’s my foundation, my legs. I’m a speedster, so when I initially broke it, I was like, ‘Dang, my career’s over with.’ That’s why I sent the tweet out. Obviously, I was very disappointed. I felt like I was having the best year of my career. As you go through it you learn, you understand that you can bounce back, and that’s where I’m at at this point.”
By all accounts, Thomas is on track to be ready by Week 1. The best indication of that came when he took most of the reps during one of the Seahawks’ early Organized Team Activity practices before taking it easy for the three sessions that were open to the media. Coach Pete Carroll has said that Thomas is ahead of schedule in his recovery.
All of that is excellent news for a Seahawks defense that was not the same once Thomas went down last season, especially against the pass. According to ESPN Stats & Information via Sheil Kapadia, Seattle played 657 snaps with Thomas and 480 without him in 2016, taking into account the five-plus quarters he missed because of a hamstring injury just before he broke his leg. The difference was staggering. Without Thomas, the Seahawks allowed 7.77 yards per attempt with a 100.3 passer rating against and only one interception compared to 7.01 YPA, 10 interceptions and a 77.8 rating with him.
Thomas’ importance to Seattle’s defense was always understood. But it wasn’t until he missed a stretch of games for the first time in his career that it was statistically proven.
“When you go through trying times, situations like that, all it can do is make you stronger,” Thomas said. “That’s the way I look at it. Especially if you had a vision prior, and as you was going through that vision you knew that vision was correct, and then all of the sudden something happens like that, you just never lose sight of that vision. Even though you’re going through this, you just can’t lose sight of it. And then when you get your next opportunity, you just unleash it again.”
Thomas said he’s learned that he has to be ready to cut it loose when he starts playing again. He regrets not being in the right frame of mind to do so when he came back from his shoulder injury in Week 1 of the 2015 season, when he was still wearing a protective harness and didn’t feel that he was playing the same mentality.
“I remember the first game I came back, I played so timid,” he said. “We played the Rams. Obviously, we was a better team but they ended up beating us, and I left a lot on the football field. So that’s been on my mind. When I step back on the football field, I have to play with the same courage, take the same power in my steps, take the same alignments and have that same mental edge that I bring to the game normally.”
Here’s a bit more of what Thomas said Tuesday:
• Thomas recorded a career-high 10 passes defended in 11 games last season but only had two interceptions. Those numbers alone suggest that he missed out on some opportunities for picks. He said as much when asked about the area of his game that he wants to improve. Said Thomas: “When I look at my film, my point of attack tape, there’s so much I can get better at. It’s just the little details, even in my steps, my alignments, it’ll put me in that better position to make these interceptions instead of almost catching them. I had plenty of chances to change the game for us and I missed interceptions. Those are the plays that I want to make and close for us.”
• Asked if the bond is as solid with this Seahawks team as it has been in years past, Thomas responded: “I think so, especially on defense. Obviously, us and the offense, we’ve kind of been separated. They go to their meeting rooms, we go to ours. But I think the brotherhood is very, very strong in our defensive room.”
• One comment from Thomas supported something I noticed during OTAs, which was that the Seahawks are doing everything they can to avoid another violation of the league’s offseason contact rules. Asked how intense practices have been, Thomas said, “We can’t do nothing right now,” referring to contact being prohibited at this stage of of the offseason. “But we still have guys that we’ve got to sit out a couple plays because they’re going very, very hard, which is expected. They’ve been doing that their whole career.”
• Thomas volunteered an interesting name as someone who has stood out this offseason: fourth-year linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis. “We’ve got guys like KPL, you can see the growth in him,” Thomas said. “The whole linebacker group period. And since Mike (Bennett) and Cliff Avril haven’t been here, a lot of guys have been getting reps. Even with me and Kam (Chancellor) being out, a lot of younger DBs have been getting reps also. So that’s just going to help the whole group.”