Baltimore Ravens' Earl Thomas talks about facing his former team, the Seahawks in Seattle this weekend
A proud man had reached his point of no return.
As Earl Thomas III sat on a cold metal cart, his broken leg stretched out before him, he raised a gloved right hand and extended his middle finger toward the only professional head coach he’d ever known, Pete Carroll.
Thomas knew he’d never play another down for the Seattle Seahawks, and after all he’d given the franchise — mind and body — he did not feel his devotion had been reciprocated. So he put his own period on an eight-year chapter that had mostly been cloaked in glory.
The six-time Pro Bowl safety turned a page in March, when he signed a four-year deal with the Ravens. But on Sunday, Thomas will return to Seattle’s CenturyLink Field, where he built a potential Hall of Fame legacy as one cornerstone of the renowned “Legion of Boom” secondary.
Thomas showed little emotion Wednesday as he looked ahead to his Seattle homecoming, which will double as a marquee matchup between the 5-1 Seahawks and 4-2 Ravens. He said little about his bitter ending with Carroll.
But in his usual direct manner, eyes staring darts from underneath a gray hood, Thomas described the significance of his time in Seattle.
“It kind of brings me to the point where I started,” he said. “They gave me my first shot. I won so many games there. I grew up as a young man there, starting when I was 20 years old.”
Carroll doesn’t know if he’ll speak with his former player before Sunday’s game but said he feels no sadness about the way Thomas’ tenure in Seattle ended.
“I wish he could’ve played with us and we could have stayed together forever. That was kind of always the thought, but it didn’t work out that way,” Carroll said on a Wednesday conference call with Baltimore reporters. “We had a great time here doing the things we did, and that’s it. It’s sad whenever our guys leave. We spent a lot of time together, and I care a lot about him. I hope the best for him always, so there’s definitely a connection.”
As aerial offenses have overtaken the NFL, fewer defenses have made permanent marks on the collective fan consciousness. The era of Purple People Eaters in Minnesota, the Steel Curtain in Pittsburgh and Buddy Ryan’s 46 in Chicago has receded.
But the Legion of Boom — Seattle’s secondary consisting of Thomas and Kam Chancellor at safety with Richard Sherman, Brandon Browner and Byron Maxwell at cornerback — transcended this movement toward anonymity.
“We left our mark,” Thomas said. “That’s all you want to do when you set out to play any sport. … Everybody’s going to know what we did and who we were.”
That magnificent unit achieved its pinnacle in 2013, when the Seahawks led the NFL in total defense, scoring defense, pass defense and interceptions before embarrassing the Peyton Manning-led Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. Chancellor, Thomas and Sherman all made the Pro Bowl that season and again the next.
Thomas described the group as “four kings just balling out.” They watched other teams try to re-create their mojo only to fail for lack of equivalent personnel.
“Those guys were extraordinary,” Carroll said. “And we all kind of grew up together with the Seahawks. Everybody was young when we started it, and we developed a mentality, an approach, a relationship, and they had a blast with it.”
It could not last.
In 2015, the five members of the “Legion of Boom” appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated ahead of Super Bowl XLIX. Three years later, the magazine published a behind-the-scenes account of how the great defense had come apart, complete with quotes from unnamed defenders who perceived a bias toward quarterback Russell Wilson among Seattle’s coaches.
The Seahawks cut Sherman after an injury-marred 2017 season. Chancellor retired because of a nerve injury in his neck. Supporting players from the Legion went their separate ways.
Thomas was the last man standing amid the burning embers. And he was none too happy either, holding out for months as the Seahawks refused to negotiate a contract extension.
“I feel like they was trying to phase me out,” he said. “They were thinking more linebackerish. … I understood what was going on.”
When Thomas did report for the start of last season, he made his feelings toward Seahawks management clear, writing on Instagram: “I’ve never let [my] teammates, city or fans down as long as I’ve lived and don’t plan on starting this weekend. With that being said, the disrespect has been well noted and will not be forgotten. Father Time may have an undefeated record but best believe I plan on taking him into triple overtime when it comes to my career.”
That was the backdrop against which Thomas raised his middle finger to Carroll as he was carted off the field with a broken leg in Week 4.
Nine months later, after he’d signed with the Ravens, he made it clear he felt no remorse, telling ESPN: “I don't regret my decision. If my teammates felt like it was towards them, then I regret that part, but I don't regret doing it to Pete.”
Carroll steered away from any negativity when talking about Thomas’ last year in Seattle.
“We parted ways,” he said. “That’s it. He went on and pursued another opportunity and got a great shot with the Ravens. We lose out on a terrific player. … Guys deal with it in different ways, and that’s totally understandable. I get it, and I’m fine about whatever happens as it happens. I know that when we were together, we did everything we could to be great.”
As free agency approached last winter, Thomas thought he’d probably end up in Dallas. But he couldn’t agree on financial terms with the Cowboys, so he and the Ravens paired up in a marriage neither side expected.
The 30-year-old Thomas has been candid about his struggles adapting to a new defensive system in Baltimore. He still grades as one of the top-10 cover safeties in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus, but he hasn’t intercepted a pass since Week 1 and said he’s bothered by several plays he has not made.
“The locker room part is easier than the terminology of the defense and trying to remember the calls,” he said. “The more and more I watch myself on tape and get to know my game self and see my instincts … it’s coming together. I’ve just got to stay intact with it.”
The Ravens seem content with the early payoff from their $55 million investment. As injuries have mounted in the team’s acclaimed secondary, he’s played almost every defensive snap, and opponents have often avoided throwing to his area.
“He’s played well,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “He’s getting healthier. He had a broken leg last year, and coming back from that is not something you should really take lightly. And so, I think he gets stronger every week and faster every week and looks good. But he has taken to the whole thing. He’s been a leader. He believes in what we’re doing and how we’re doing it, culture-wise and football-wise. I love being around him. I love his demeanor. I love his desire to be great, and I think it’s rubbing off on the guys.”
Thomas is a regular, but rarely loud, presence in his new team’s locker room. Young players sometimes treat him like a superhero who has stepped out of their childhood highlight reels and into daily reality.
Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson came up watching Seattle’s “crazy” defense, with its rare blend of hitting and ball hawking. After seven months observing Thomas up close, he’s most struck by the veteran safety’s lack of frivolous energy.
“I feel he’s always business,” Jackson said. “He’s strictly business.”
The Ravens will rely on Thomas to channel his intensity into a battle of wits Sunday with his former teammate, Wilson, who’s playing at an MVP level. For all the reports of tension between Wilson and the “Legion of Boom,” Thomas maintained a respectful friendship with the quarterback. They worked out together in the offseason, and their wives and children are close.
Thomas will serve as a game captain for the Ravens in Seattle, and Harbaugh acknowledged the occasion will likely carry extra weight.
“I think for anybody, it would be a meaningful thing,” Harbaugh said. “He’s going to try to put his best foot forward there, for sure.”
Of any potential encounters with Carroll and his staff, Thomas said he would “take it as it comes.” But he has allowed himself a few late-night thoughts about how the Seattle fans might greet him.
“Hopefully, they respect what I’ve done,” he said.