RENTON, Wash. -- Earl Thomas has made his name in the NFL on his closing speed. But on Tuesday morning, the Seahawks' safety found that his closing speed of a different sort can delay a very important press conference. Thomas was on his way to the team's headquarters to officially announce the four-year, $40 million contract extension that will ostensibly keep him in the Emerald City through the 2018 season.
But as he approached 12 Seahawks Way, Thomas saw flashing lights in his rear view, and the local police did something that few NFL opponents have been able to do -- slow him down. Thomas was pulled over for exceeding the 25 mile-per-hour speed limit, but as he said near the beginning of the presser that started about 20 minutes late, he was let off with a warning.
"I take the mental side of football very seriously," Thomas said when he finally hit the stage. "And I don't like distractions. Like today, being late to this meeting. I was kind of upset... it was kind of a whirlwind trying to get here. But everything happens for a reason, and this is a great moment, even with the bad. I didn't try to bulldog [the officer] and say, 'My name is Earl Thomas,' because then he'd think I was cocky, and give me a ticket. He let me off, that's the moral of the story."
Head coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider didn't seem to mind; they're well aware of what Thomas' physical speed and dominant mindset have meant to the team that selected him 14th overall in the 2010 draft.
"This program has always been based on competition, and when we look to coaches and players to add to a club, we're always looking for great competitors," Carroll said. "When we had the chance to take Earl, I don't know that I appreciated as much as I do now, the great competitor that he is. He has, throughout the time he's been with us as a very young man, played at the very highest level he could possibly generate. Every single day. He has been one of the pillars of the mentality that has become championship for us."
As to Thomas' value to the team, it's tough to think of a current player in the NFL who could do what he currently does. Carroll said as much when I asked him how difficult it would be for Seattle's top-ranked defense to do what it does without Thomas.
"It would be different. We would adapt to whatever out players do, but Earl gives us this tremendous range and versatility -- he can cover slot receivers, he can cover wide receivers, and he takes great pride in that. He fits the run beautifully. We can fit him in wherever we want him to, in all kinds of special personnel packages. So, he's just extraordinarily well-rounded, and he gives us a variety of things we can do. However, we play to his strengths, and his strength is that tremendous range he has on the deep end. There's really nobody like him."
Thomas' coaches and teammates will testify to his effect on them as well -- that's why defensive coordinator Dan Quinn and other members of the coaching staff were seated in the facility's auditorium along with Thomas' family and teammates Kam Chancellor and Richard Sherman. Drafted when he was 20 years old, and now not yet 25, Thomas has become the benchmark for excellence on a team that has been known for the relentless pursuit of it. Thomas has always played the game clean, but his style of play -- fast just this side of reckless -- reminds Carroll of Troy Polamalu, who Carroll coached at USC in 2001 and 2002. Polamalu, of course, went on to a great NFL career, and Carroll sees the same kind of lasting impact in his current free safety.
"Earl was really much in the image of Troy," Carroll told me. "They're the same stature, kind of the same speed, running 4.3s. A relentless attitude about playing the game, and they're very similar in that way. Earl is at the very top of his game, and I know he's watched Troy a bunch, and learned from him as he has from many players. What they bring on game day, and as a team member, is very similar. You get everything these guys have."
And what the Seahawks gave Thomas makes him the highest-paid safety in the NFL. The money's nice, Thomas said, but it's as much about the respect of the organization.
“I don’t think it’s a label. It’s something that I’ve earned. Bad stuff just doesn’t fuel me anymore. This definitely fueled me and gave me a boost. I’m just excited to prove who I am again and see if I can get better. It’s just a process, so I’m focusing on the process, and the destination is going to take care of itself."
Just travel at appropriate speed, Mr. Thomas. When you're on the road, at least.