With the weekend’s five trades, a big-splash arrival of one-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, the angst of Seattle waiving Kasen Williams and others on roster cut-down day, it was easy to overlook what has the Seahawks most excited this season.
Earl Thomas is back. Fully-dedicated-again, all-the-way back.
You can easily understand – maybe even revel in – the hype the Seahawks have right now about their three-time All-Pro safety returning from a broken leg in December. He will start Sunday’s opening game at Green Bay.
“I don’t even want to say anything,” coach Pete Carroll said. “He’s, like, pitching a no-hitter.”
Speaking of invoking a baseball superstition for near-perfection, the Seahawks seemingly left Thomas alone to do his own, exquisite things this preseason.
He was so constantly there, fully into every practice at his free safety spot he’s owned and redefined since his rookie year of 2010, it’s easy to forget he was gone last winter.
That is, until you remember how last season ended without him.
Carroll gushed late last month about Thomas being his ball-hawking, slamming self through three preseason games – and full go for the regular season less than nine months after he broke the tibia in his right leg.
Thomas promised when he surprisingly participated in the team’s minicamp in June that he’d start the opener against the Packers. Two and a half months later he’s made the Seahawks’ defense whole again – following a wholly deflating end to the 2016 season without him.
“He’s doing great. He’s doing great, and I’m just thrilled for him,” Carroll said. “The comeback that he’s made because of the way he’s approached his offseason had to be just impeccable. He just looks great, so he’s made great hits, great tackles. He’s ready to go. He’s showed us that. He showed the sparks of that way back in the OTA part when he first got some reps, that he was further ahead than we thought he would be.
“And, shoot, he’s just had a great camp and he’s played really well. He’s ready to go.”
Thomas and strong-safety partner Kam Chancellor, who had surgery on both ankles and was confined to a wheelchair for part of this offseason, completed the preseason fully participating throughout.
That’s another reason for the Seahawks to be pumped.
For all the focus and angst over how vital the iffy offensive line will be to this season, Thomas centering the defense is this team’s most dramatic improvement from their last games of 2016.
On Dec. 4, moments after he broke his shin colliding with Chancellor trying to intercept a pass from Carolina’s Cam Newton, Thomas unforgettably posted on Twitter his raw emotion of contemplating retirement.
“This game has been so good to me no regrets.. A lot is running through my mind including retirement thanks for all the prayers,” Thomas wrote online that night.
Carroll thinks the injury and Thomas seeing his career mortality for the first time at age 28 changed the star’s mentality about the game to which he was already fiendishly dedicated.
“I think it captured the best of him. I think it challenged him,” Carroll said. “There was a time when he wasn’t sure; he was a little broken when it all happened and he didn’t know how he was going to handle things. But once he got his feet on the ground, got his vision clear he has gone for it and I think it’s brought out his best and the great competitive nature, the great fire that burns in him. It’s extraordinary. It just drove him to the point that we’re talking about like we are, he’s ready to go and there’s no doubt about it. And he’s done it quietly, just put together a great preseason.”
The Seahawks entered their Dec. 4, 2016, home game against Carolina leading the NFL in fewest points allowed — 17 per game. They had not allowed more than 25 points in any game and had held opponents to one or no touchdowns four times. They were seventh in total defense (335.6 yards allowed per game) and 10th against the pass (235.5 ypg).
Then Thomas collided with Chancellor.
In the four games without Thomas – including one he watched from a Buffalo Wild Wings in Portland, undercover with a hoodie up and sunglasses on – the Seahawks allowed their only 30-point games of last regular season: 38 points in a blowout loss at Green Bay and 34 points in the home defeat to Arizona on Christmas Eve.
They allowed the 2-14 San Francisco 49ers to score 23 points. They lost in the divisional round of the playoffs in Atlanta in January because they gave up 36 points in the Georgia Dome.
“It was very difficult,” Thomas said.
“I just tried to stay positive. I think I used Twitter as a coping mechanism just to shoot my thoughts out there, but it was different. And it was difficult.”
But now he’s back as Seattle’s most important defender – just in time to begin a new season against two-time NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers and the Packers at Lambeau Field.
“It’s a revived Earl Thomas,” said defensive coordinator Kris Richard, Thomas’ defensive backs before a promotion in 2015.
“It’s not as if he’s ever taken this game for granted, but you could just see a guy relieved to be back out there, playing football again, doing what he loves to do.”
EXTRA POINTS: Williams didn’t last past one team on the NFL waiver wire. The Cleveland Browns, who had the first choice of all waived players, immediately claimed him Sunday. … The Seahawks began setting their 10-man practice squad by signing back second-year center Joey Hunt, undrafted rookie tight end Tyrone Swoopes, rookie seventh-round pick and wide receiver David Moore, defensive tackle Garrison Smith, rookie sixth-round pick and defensive back Mike Tyson, undrafted rookie college track champion and wide receiver Cyril Grayson at wide receiver and running back Mike Davis.
Seattle had released all of them Saturday.
Gregg Bell: @gbellseattle