Earl Thomas has a unique tattoo on his right arm, a football with blood seeping out of it. Asked what it means, the explanation is straightforward, much like the man.
“I bleed football,” Thomas said. “Basically, it represents the blood, sweat and tears I put into this game.”
Thomas’ intense dedication has helped him become a six-time Pro Bowler at safety, a playmaking tornado in the secondary. As a key member of the Seattle Seahawks “Legion of Boom” defense for nine years, Thomas played with excellence and confidence, daring quarterbacks to throw into “Area 29”, his nickname for the part of the field that he patrols.
“When I’m on the field, I totally lock in,” Thomas said. “I feel free. I love this game, bro.”
Thomas’ unique skillset will be on display Sunday, when the unbeaten Ravens visit the unbeaten Kansas City Chiefs, led by MVP quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who leads the NFL in passing yards. The Chiefs have the league’s most electrifying passing attack. The Ravens hope that Thomas makes them better equipped to defend Mahomes and his array of weapons.
Last year at Arrowhead Stadium, a fourth-and-9 heave from Mahomes to Tyreek Hill down the middle of the field gave the Chiefs life and forced overtime, where the Ravens eventually lost. This time, Thomas will be waiting.
“Luckily, the Ravens have me playing free safety,” Thomas said. “I plan on eliminating all the big plays.”
The game is a marquee matchup between the two teams that pursued Thomas most heavily during free agency. Before he signed with Baltimore, Thomas thought he would sign a one-year “prove-it deal” with the Chiefs, and he went to bed thinking he was headed to Kansas City. But the next morning, Thomas’ agent said he had heard from the Ravens.
The dominos in free agency fall quickly, and Thomas was soon on a plane headed to Baltimore. He has not regretted that decision.
“I didn’t have a lot of information about the Ravens, but I knew they were known for defense,” Thomas said. “Plus the numbers were right, so that made it a no-brainer. This was the best fit for my family.”
Joining the Ravens’ family after spending nine seasons in Seattle Seahawks has been different for the 30-year-old Thomas. Living on the East Coast. Playing for a new coaching staff. Learning a new defensive system. Playing with new teammates.
However, Thomas has blended in quickly, partly because nobody questions his talent or passion. Ravens placekicker Justin Tucker has known Thomas since they were college teammates at Texas. When Thomas walked into the locker room, everyone knew a player with serious credentials had entered the building.
“Even back in our college days, he always carried himself like a pro,” Tucker said. “He had a professional demeanor about him, that he was going to handle his business. That you knew he had ability. It’s really cool to see what he’s become.
“Some guys just know how to flip the switch. They can turn it on when they’re on the field, in the meeting room and in the weight room. Take Earl outside of that element, and he can relax. But he’s one of those guys who’s switch is on more than it’s off. We’re glad to have him. He makes our team significantly better.”
Thomas has 29 career interceptions and made his first with the Ravens on the defense’s first series the regular season against the Miami Dolphins. It was a typical Thomas play, one that displayed his anticipation, range, and athleticism.
Thomas’ ability to produce takeaways is an important addition to the Ravens’ defense. Forcing turnovers was one of the few things the Ravens weren’t good at last year, when they had the league’s No. 1-ranked defense.
Unlike many defensive backs, Thomas has sure hands and rarely squanders opportunities to make a pick. Former Texas defensive backs coach Duane Akina noticed Thomas’ instincts for making plays when he was a multi-sport star at West Orange-Stark (Tx.) High School.
“I was originally there to recruit someone else, but Earl kept jumping out at me,” said Akina, now Stanford’s defensive back coach. “He can find the ball, and the ball finds him. He’s got so many natural gifts, but it’s the mental side that makes him great. He understands splits, formations. You can run a 4.4, but if you don’t study the game, you play at 4.8. Earl can run 4.4, but he sees the game playing at 4.1.
“Everything with Earl is full speed. He’s got a fire you don’t want to pour water on, even in practice. You could just feel the passion in his game at a young age, and that’s always one of the biggest things I looked for. You can put together a great highlight tape on any good player. But that passion is something you can’t simulate. He was the same way playing basketball – tenacious. Then I found out he played centerfield in baseball, which makes sense because of the way he tracks the ball. He takes great angles.”
With the Ravens, Thomas is angling to win another Super Bowl. He was a prominent member of the Seahawks’ Legion of Boom defense that helped them dominate the Denver Broncos, 43-8, in Super Bowl (XLVIII). The Seahawks nearly won back-to-back Super Bowls, but a heartbreaking loss to the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX was a defeat the Legion of Boom never recovered from.
Thomas’ tenure in Seattle ended on a sour note last season, when he suffered a season-ending broken leg. While being carted off the field, Thomas flicked off Seahawks Head Coach Pete Carroll. Thomas felt he had been misled by Carroll about Seattle’s intention to sign Thomas to a new contract. Loyalty is huge with Thomas, and in a way, he felt betrayed.
“I was frustrated,” Thomas said. “I had just left his office recently and we had talked about them giving me a piece of the apple, meaning a new contract. Then the injury happened and I knew it wasn’t going to happen in Seattle. Being here is different, but it’s a great transition for me.”
Thomas has found renewed energy and purpose in Baltimore. He’s enjoying getting to know Ravens players that he has watched from afar and respected, like guard Marshal Yanda, whose locker is adjacent to Thomas’, and Tony Jefferson, Thomas’ running mate at safety. Jefferson said Thomas is not as serious as his businesslike persona suggests.
“The longer you hang around him, the more he loosens up,” Jefferson said. “We play Madden a lot and he’s beaten me once, out of at least 20 games. I’m not lying. He’s only beaten me once. But he’s so competitive, he always wants a rematch. It’s funny.
“I played next to Eric Weddle, now I’m playing next to Earl Thomas. It’s been a blast. Since training camp, we’ve been clicking. I pick his brain, he picks mine. His athletic ability and instincts are off the charts. He asks my advice on our defensive system, because he’s been in that one system for all those years in Seattle. I can help him with that. But he doesn’t need my advice about football.”
One of Thomas’ closest friends in football is retired running back Jamaal Charles, another former Texas player who had five 1,000-yard seasons with the Chiefs. Thomas knew about the winning culture in Kansas City from talking to Charles. However, Thomas has found a similar culture in Baltimore, playing for Head Coach John Harbaugh, who was an assistant coach under Chiefs Head Coach Andy Reid in Philadelphia.
“I told Earl that Andy was a great player’s coach, and that the Chiefs would’ve been a good fit for him,” Charles said. “But the Ravens really wanted him and showed it. So why not. Baltimore’s got a good team, and Earl has that fire. He’s wants to go back to the Super Bowl. He’s still got the drive, that energy.”
Thomas has great respect for the defensive history in Baltimore, particularly Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed, who Thomas hopes to join in Canton one day. Thomas loved the energy at M&T Bank Stadium during the home-opener against the Arizona Cardinals, and he’s looking forward to bringing people out of their seats with huge defensive plays, just as Reed did during his career.
“Ed has his legacy, I have mine,” Thomas said. “Ed is the best safety the Ravens have ever seen. He’s done a lot here. People are expecting me to come do the same. I hope I can reach people here with my play, my passion. I want the fans here to love me. Every player wants that. Ed Reed, he’d make a play here, and you’d hear everybody hollering, ‘Reeeed!!!’ That adds to the mojo, the joy of playing the game.”
Thomas is amped for every game, whether it’s Sunday in Kansas City, his return to Seattle next month, or any other game you mention. He only knows one speed. He only knows one level of intensity.
The blood that seeps from the football on Thomas’ tatoo still runs hot. After missing most of last season, Thomas is already being mentioned as an early candidate for Comeback Player of the Year. But his desire to be great never left.
“That’s nice, the comeback player talk and all that,” Thomas said. “But I have bigger goals in mind. Another ring wouldn’t hurt.”