Seahawks' new secret weapon: Coach Earl Thomas

Free safety Earl Thomas inspired his teammates during his return to CenturyLink Field Saturday. (AP)

There were plenty of familiar faces at CenturyLink Field on Saturday – from legendary ex-guard Steven Hutchinson and running back Shaun Alexander to Mayor Ed Murray and former Seahawks owner John Nordstrom. But in terms of inspiration and input, there was no more important visit than the return of Earl Thomas – even if he was on crutches.

“He talked to us tonight before the game, and he told us to go out there with the swag that we walk around with,” Seahawks strong safety Kam Chancellor said in the locker room after the Seahawks 26-6 win over Detroit. “Play like we know who we are, who we are capable of being. He just told us, I can’t say the words on the mic, but he told us to be confident, play free.”

Thomas, a five-time All-Pro safety, broke his leg during a collision with Chancellor on Dec. 8 against the Panthers. Almost immediately, the fiery Thomas led Seahawks fans through his whirlwind of emotions, tweeting about retirement in the locker room. While most of his teammates chalked it up to Earl being Earl, the 27-year-old reiterated a few weeks later on The Rich Eisen Show that he was still mulling retirement and just wanted to “have peace.”

On Christmas Eve, though, he declared on Twitter that he would “def be back next year” and explained to fans in a Seattle Times live chat that he misses the competition and being a part of the Seahawks’ defensive “machine.” And, also, that “I really believe I know how the machine works, and I control it best.”

And Coach Thomas got to work Saturday, crutching around in a black overcoat, custom Russian fur hat and sunglasses during warmups, bobbing back and forth with his teammates in the LOB huddle and giving the defense tips on the sidelines. The team took notice.

“To have him here to support us means a lot to us,” said middle linebacker Bobby Wagner. “To see his face, to see him in good spirits and want to be part of the team, to kind of give us his vibe and his energy is definitely great.”

But there is more to Thomas than good energy. The injured player-coach is a time-honored tradition for veterans of all sports, but a new role for Thomas who had missed only one game in his seven-year career prior to the injury. It had been a relatively new experience for Michael Bennett, too, who had to sit out for five games due to an injury after being an iron man during the previous four seasons. Bennett likened watching from the sideline to “watching somebody sleep with you wife” earlier this year. Thomas appeared to take to the spot more naturally.

“It was good to have him out there, he can coach up the guys and show them where to go, line up,” Bennett said after the game. “It was just a great team win.”

Thomas was not only in the ear of veterans on Saturday but also of Steven Terrell, the fourth-year pro who has replaced him. The 26-year-old has drawn praise for his play in Thomas’ place, even if nobody expects Terrell to replace Thomas’ production. Cornerback DeShawn Shead said he also took tips from Thomas before and during the game Saturday.

“I definitely talked to Earl,” he said. “It was good to see Earl, he was on the sideline … helping us, coaching us up and cheering us on. He definitely wished he could be out there but it’s tough because we wish he could be out there, too. But we’ve got a motto: Next man up. So Steven Terrell has been doing a great job back there.”

Shead said that he and Thomas talked about the game only, not on the future.

“We weren’t talking about none of that. Getting ready for today’s game,” he said. “That’s one of our brothers, one of our brothers. Just because he’s down doesn’t mean we don’t talk to him or anything. So it was great having his presence and everybody enjoyed him being around today.”

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