The bonding of a championship team, the meshing in the middle of what has become among the top NFL defenses of the last 40 years, didn’t begin on a practice field.
It wasn’t hatched in a draft room or at the NFL combine. Or even in any games.
It began over a 2010 episode of “Family Guy” inside a hotel room in Bellevue.
Pete Carroll was in his first spring as Seahawks coach. Even though Seattle had veteran Lawyer Milloy at safety that season, Carroll and his staff knew that would be the last of Milloy’s 15 seasons in the league. They knew the foundation upon which the team would build its defense — thus its identity — would be first-round draft choice Earl Thomas and fifth-round pick Kam Chancellor as the safeties.
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But before those two could co-exist as free and strong safety up the middle of the defense, they had to get along with each other. So Carroll made the ultra-intense, football-only Thomas room with the less-heralded, less-accomplished Chancellor in the team hotel during minicamps and training camp the spring and summer of 2010.
“The first time I did meet him we were in a hotel watching ‘Family Guy,’ ” Thomas said Thursday of the animated Fox television series, an adult-themed cartoon lampooning American culture. “That was kind of awkward because all I did was watch ‘SportsCenter’ back then.”
Five years later and three days before he and Thomas anchor the Seahawks’ defense against Green Bay in the NFC Championship Game, Chancellor laughed at the memory.
“Yeah, he called me weird for watching ‘Family Guy,’ ” Chancellor said with a deep, almost sheepish chuckle. “I don’t know, I just like watching ‘Family Guy.’ There’s a lot of humor to it.”
For most. Not so much for Thomas, though. He seems to only smile when he tackles, hits and intercepts.
“You’ve got to be a person with an open mind, though. You’ve got to have an open mind and like to hear jokes and stuff like that,” Chancellor said. “I mean, it’s just a lot of humor in that show.
“Yeah, you have to (laugh) sometimes. He takes his job very seriously, which he should. Sometimes you’ve got to loosen him up sometimes, show him how to have a little fun, a little dry humor.”
Did Thomas at least ask Chancellor to change the channel?
“No, I didn’t. I didn’t,” he said. “I just asked him, ‘Bruh, you watch ‘Family Guy?’, like that.
“And that was it.”
Now Thomas is a two-time All-Pro. His partner, Chancellor, has been picked for three Pro Bowls and came within two votes of joining Thomas as an All-Pro this winter. They are the centerpieces of the “Legion of Boom.”
They have an unspoken understanding of where each one is going, where the other will be during plays. That makes the middle of Seattle’s top-ranked secondary a pair of harmonious, hard-hitting heroes.
Thomas roams like a rover in softball, the freest of free safeties who relies on his preparation and his instincts to react to the ball.
Chancellor is more assignment-true, thumping ball carriers closer to the trenches like a linebacker while still covering tight ends, running backs and wide receivers inside and out.
“It’s crazy how when you come together and you never dream of right now,” Thomas said of the five years togather in Seattle for he, Chancellor, Carrol and general manager John Schneider.
“We just talk about how good we want to be,” he said. “But when you actually put the action in and you actually see it come to life, that’s special.”
Thomas and Chancellor unabashedly use another word not all that common in football to describe what bonds them to each other and their teammates.
Yes, “love” is a large reason why the Seahawks have led the league in fewest points allowed for three consecutive seasons. Seattle’s is the first defense to do that since the 1969-71 Minnesota Vikings.
It’s yet another example of Carroll’s vision for rebuilding the Seahawks, and how he acted upon it – through trust and relationships.
It’s why the team’s road roommate list also pairs Cooper Helfet and Marshawn Lynch. Helfet is a former lacrosse player at private Johns Hopkins and a part-time model and son of a South African. He is Caucasian and a native of white-collar Marin County north of San Francisco. Lynch is an African-American from a hard part of Oakland — an, uh, independent personality who would never be mistaken for a lacrosse player.
“Coach Carroll is a mastermind in a lot of ways,” Thomas said.
“We didn’t see it. But he saw it.”
The result is a core reason the Seahawks cite for being one victory away from becoming the first team since the 1982-83 Washington Redskins to win consecutive NFC titles at home, and the first NFL team to reach the Super Bowl after winning it since the 2003-04 New England Patriots.
Trust. And that belief starts inside the self-proclaimed “Legion of Boom” secondary.
“My first year starting, my second year (with the Seahawks in 2011), I saw it,” Chancellor said. “I saw the group. We started in the back unit first. We started the ‘LOB’ thing. We wanted to create that bond, that brotherhood, that playing-for-one-another thing and the love for one another. And when we created that and seeing how powerful that was, we were like, ‘Oh, man! We need to get this around.’
“And that’s when we started believing.”
Chancellor brings the “bam” — literally. That fist-into-hand pounding celebration he does after many of his big plays, such as last week’s team-playoff-record 90-yard interception return for a touchdown?
“It’s my ‘BamBam gavel.’ The chaplain here, Carl, he calls me ‘The Commissioner,’” Chancellor said. “So this is what you hit when the court is in session. They hit it with the gavel. It’s the ‘BamBam gavel.’ ”
Thomas brings the speed and nose for the ball.
“We understand each other’s responsibility on the field. We understand where we’re supposed to be, and we try to funnel the ball to one another,” Chancellor said. “We always talk about how we want to just run around all game: Just run, just run, just run, and whatever leverage you’re on, I’m on your opposite leverage. So if you miss, I’m going to make it up on the other leverage.
“So I think that that communication, that understanding, just knowing where we’re going to be, where each other is going to be and what we’re going to do, it just helps us out a lot.”
And believe this: Thomas and Chancellor see Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers as blocking their path to getting back to the Super Bowl. The key to the title is stopping him.
“I just respect him as a football player, in general,” Thomas said. “You can tell that he knows the game. He has a lot of confidence back there.
“You don’t really see a lot of quarterbacks of his skin color with soul like that, and I like it.”
As for that partially torn calf that’s limited Rodgers in practice but didn’t stop him from throwing for 316 yards and three touchdowns to beat Dallas last weekend in the divisional round, Thomas is counting on Rodgers’ best Sunday.
“I think he’s going to find a way to protect himself, but we’ve really got to know that, too,” Thomas said. “Obviously I think with him, you have to blast on the deep balls.
“I’m not buying into this leg issue. I’m not buying into it. I saw him scramble close to the goal line on the Cowboys, so he’s not fooling me with that.”
And about that episode of “Family Guy” five years ago: Who ultimately won that battle over the remote in their hotel room?
“Most of the time he’d either be asleep or on his phone,” Chancellor said of Thomas, laughing again. “So I watched ‘Family Guy’ as much as I wanted.”
FS EARL THOMAS
January 15, 2015
- Bobby Wagner was just saying that regardless of what teams come in and expect to do to you guys that you're going to be ready for it. Do you agree with that?
EARL THOMAS: I definitely agree with that. We just have a lot of talent, and Bobby understands how good we are as a defense. When a guy says that, that just shows you how strong we really believe in ourselves and what we really got going on in our defensive room with Dan Quinn. We love each other. We're just ‑‑ we just feel strong inside. Everybody is connected, and he has every right in the world to feel that way because I feel the exact same way.
- A lot of you guys have been together three, four years. How much has the communication in the defense room kind of come together quickly, whether it's a signal or just a word?
EARL THOMAS: I think a lot goes into just the experience that we have. We see the same thing over and over because we don't change who we are as a defense, so that actually makes it easy on us as far as preparation‑wise because they can only attack us like this, and then you add the D‑line that we have, then you add the second level that we have, then the secondary, it's hard. We make it hard for a lot of teams.
- You talked a lot over the years, over the season, about the love, how much you love each other. You don't hear that much from football players. How does that fit in?
EARL THOMAS: I think ‑‑ when you're talking about something like that, I'm unique in my own way. I'm not like everybody else. Just because I'm a football player I'm not going to be labeled in that type of whatever y'all think of a football player. I just think you just take outside‑the‑box way of thinking. I think everybody thinks the same, but I think we have a lot of guys that understand who they are and really believe, strong‑minded guys. Strong‑minded guys, man.
- What does Kam Chancellor's physicality do for this defense? People talk about him setting the tone. When he's hitting guys like he was last week, what does that do?
EARL THOMAS: Yeah, he definitely sets the tone. He sets the tone. It's something that you can feel. It's something that you can feel. You see he gets up and starts pounding his hands, all that stuff is contagious, and that's when we're at our best, when everybody is doing their own thing and they're bringing it to the group.
- Did you know Kam at all before you guys came in together that year?
EARL THOMAS: Not at all. I was really just getting familiar with the safety position, and in general just to be watching other players around college football playing safety, my position, but no. But the first time I did meet him we was in a hotel watching "Family Guy," and that was kind of awkward because all I did was watch SportsCenter back then.
I think it's crazy how when you come together and you never dream of right now. We just talk about how good we want to be, but when you actually put the action in and you actually see it come to life, that's special.
- Where was that, that you guys were watching "Family Guy"?
EARL THOMAS: In a hotel.
EARL THOMAS: Here. I'm sorry I don't explain stuff well. They actually put rookies together, so Coach Carroll is a mastermind in a lot of ways. We didn't see it, but he saw it.
- Did you ask him to change the channel?
EARL THOMAS: No, I didn't. I didn't. I just asked him, bro, you watch "Family Guy," like that, and that was it.
- Do you look at the specimen that he is, and you go, this guy plays DB?
EARL THOMAS: Yeah, definitely. He's versatile, man. He can play a linebacker position, but he really does. He's an extra linebacker in there for us. His hips, you know, he works at everything. If you work at something hard enough and you add stuff that you can ‑‑ your body can do from other people's games, that's why we're all so good in that secondary, because we challenge each other in every way possible. The game within the game, footwork, just competition, period.
- Your guys' rookie year you guys were playing alongside Lawyer Milloy and Kam was kind of learning. What did having that veteran presence do for you?
EARL THOMAS: To be honest with you, we respect Lawyer and everything that he brought to the team, but your rookie year, it's not too much to learn. I'm just out there running, and I know Lawyer was trying to protect his position in this spot, but for the most part, me and Kam had a long road to get where we're at right now.
- How does the Packers' offense look different on tape from the guys you faced in week one?
EARL THOMAS: I think we look different, that's the biggest difference. We look so different. I can just tell, an off‑season guy, I'm just looking at myself, that's not me. After we do what we've got to do this year, it's going to let me know what I need to do this off‑season.
- What do you bring to the defense?
EARL THOMAS: Everything, in my eyes. I'm biased, but I think I bring everything to the defense.
- You're in the middle of it now, Earl, but have you thought about, or do you guys sense how close you are to something historical that teams just don't do back‑to‑back years?
EARL THOMAS: I don't know. I really can't tell you. I haven't really thought of it in that way yet. I'm just really having fun, you know, trying to stay focused. This time of the year, this whole football season, I steal my mind away from everything else. I just try to focus on what I've got to do.
- You probably watched a ton of film on them. What's one thing you really respect about Aaron Rodgers when you think about him as a player?
EARL THOMAS: I just respect him as a football player in general. You can tell that he knows the game. He has a lot of confidence back there. You don't really see a lot of quarterbacks of his skin color with soul like that, and I like it.
- How do you think he'll do with the calf injury?
EARL THOMAS: Not sure. I think he's going to find a way to protect himself, but we've really got to know that, too. Obviously I think with him, you have to blast on the deep balls. I'm not buying into this leg issue. I'm not buying into it. I saw him scramble close to the goal line on the Cowboys, so he's not fooling me with that.
- Rodgers, he scrambled a little bit, but not like he usually ‑‑
EARL THOMAS: I'm not falling into that. I'm on my own road regardless. I'm on my road regardless.
- Do you tell your guys up front ‑‑
EARL THOMAS: We know that we have great coaches, we have great leaders. There's a reason why we're back where we're at.
- What was Bobby's impact when he came back from the injury? How good is he now compared to maybe his first two years, or is he still the same player, just getting recognized for it?
EARL THOMAS: No, everybody is growing, but with Wags, just killer instinct. Some guys just have that nasty streak to him, and I want another guy beside me with killer instincts. He has that, Sherm has that, Kam has that, and that fired‑up passion is contagious.
- Help me make sense of something because Russell Wilson said yesterday ‑‑
EARL THOMAS: Are you from Green Bay?
- No, I'm from New Jersey.
EARL THOMAS: Okay.
- Russell Wilson said yesterday this team is stronger than last year. I look back at that team last year, and it was a pretty strong team, but he says, coming out of what you did early in the season, having to find a way makes you stronger. Can you make sense of that? I'm sure you probably agree with that because a lot of guys do.
EARL THOMAS: I think the moral of the story is you're either getting better or you're getting worse. Every year you're going to see the game different, you're going to understand it better, and that's what I take from it. Even though we lost a lot of guys, but the core guys that we kept, that's the guys that's driving this thing. The drum of this team. As long as everything is connected within that core, we're going to be fine.
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