The Decline Of Earl Thomas: What Did The Texans Know?

Mike Fisher

A year ago, it was the assessment of none other than Earl Thomas himself that the Houston Texans' evaluation of him was that "he didn't want to play football.''

Thomas made the Pro Bowl following his 2019 campaign with the Baltimore Ravens, so if that was truly coach/GM Bill O'Brien's post-phone-call impression of the then-free-agent Thomas, it wasn't exactly right.

But maybe O'Brien knew something else about Thomas ... something beyond on-field will ... something the Ravens are now painfully dealing with.

For those who know him, it is a sad observation to acknowledge, but Thomas has very rapidly devolved from "the solution'' into "the problem.'' He is suddenly but maybe not permanently the latter for the Ravens, who thought a year ago they were adding a team leader and future Hall-of-Famer ... and are now scratching their heads over all the things that have turned sour.

Should other teams be scratching around here as well? Or was O'Brien and his Texans view ahead of the curve?

Thomas' history of football heroics as a member of the Seattle Seahawks? Legendary stuff, until his money dispute with the club caused him to trot into the home-team locker room at AT&T Stadium, openly flaunting his desire to somehow, someday, join his home-state Dallas Cowboys.

Dallas, of course, flirted with the idea multiple times, with 2018 trade proposals and then 2019 touch-base talks, before the Ravens blew Thomas away with the four-year, $55-million deal with $32 million guaranteed.

Did it work in 2019 in Baltimore? Seemingly. Though he conflicted with teammates, he did make the Pro Bowl.

Did it work this offseason? Not so much. Thomas’s wife Nina was arrested for pointing a gun at Thomas on the early morning of April 13. Nina had tracked down Thomas at a short-term rental home in Austin, where she found the safety and his brother, Seth, in bed with two women, according to a police affidavit. Thomas told the police he had been “romantically involved” with one of the women in bed for 3-4 months.

Is it working now? Thomas was sent home from training camp this weekend following an altercation with fellow safety Chuck Clark, which started with Clark barking at Thomas for blowing a coverage, turned to near-fisticuffs, and then was accelerated when Thomas posted since-removed video of the play meant to clear his name.

And now he's in job danger, with reports that his fellow locker-room leaders are tired of his presence.

ProFootballTalk.com wrote, "Regardless of the opinions of the other players, Thomas is going nowhere. His 2019 contract includes a fully-guaranteed $10 million salary in 2020, along with $15 million in signing-bonus money that has yet to hit the cap.''

But that's not exactly how this works. As our Sports Illustrated colleague on the Ravens beat, Todd Karpovich, notes, "Thomas is often viewed as an aloof teammate and there has been talk that he has been late or missed meetings this season. If that is true, then the Ravens could build a case that his conduct is detrimental to the team and they could void his contract.''

Baltimore would still have to eat some money, and as Karpovich writes, "The best-case scenario is the two sides can put this incident behind them and get ready for the Browns for the regular-season opener on Sept. 13.''

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But that would require Thomas to make some major alterations in the direction he's headed. There are those who care personally about Thomas, the Texas native and University of Texas product, who believe his erratic behavior suggests he needs help. He's slid from "colorful'' to "controversial'' and while he's just 31, and therefore theoretically completely capable of helping the Ravens or any future team ... 

There are those who care about Earl Thomas who believe he needs guidance in helping himself.

And maybe that's what the Texans saw a year ago, despite the urging of QB Deshaun Watson (with whom Thomas shares an agent, the Texas-based David Mulugheta, who deserves credit for building a familial bond with his players). It's not that Earl Thomas is unable to still cope on a football field; rather, as the Texans may have foreseen,  he seems to be struggling to cope in other areas.

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