The 2015-16 season was one that greatly challenged the mental fortitude of Earl Thomas III and the Seattle Seahawks.
It began after one of the most heartbreaking defeats in Super Bowl history: a last-minute defeat to the New England Patriots. And not surprisingly, the prideful Seahawks suffered a bit of a hangover early in the year. They recovered eventually to challenge for the title yet again—only to come up short in the playoffs.
Individually for ET III, the season began with a question mark as well. No. 29 separated his shoulder in the 2015 NFC Championship game and underwent surgery after the Super Bowl to repair a torn labrum. He missed essentially the entire offseason for Seattle, but suited up on opening day and played at a high level right from the start. He combined for 64 tackles and tied two career-highs: five interceptions and nine passes defended.
ET put his repaired shoulder to the test right away, racking up a game-high nine tackles in Week 1. He also forced a key fumble in the fourth quarter. Seattle trailed the St. Louis Rams by 11 going into the fourth, and Earl was a big part of why Seattle was able to fight its way back. However, the Rams swiped a 34-31 victory in overtime in their home stadium. That became an all too familiar result early in the season.
Earl’s running mate, strong safety Kam Chancellor remained out of the lineup in a contract holdout, and, the Hawks remained on the road the following week. They traveled to Lambeau Field to take on the Green Bay Packers in prime time. Thomas finished the game with five tackles, but Aaron Rodgers and the Pack scored 11 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to sink the Seahawks for the second straight week.
After the 0-2 start, Chancellor returned, and the Legion of Boom wasted no time showing that it was back. ET III and the L.O.B. suffocated the Chicago Bears in a 26-0 rout. No. 29 didn’t even have to make a tackle in the team’s first shutout since Dec. 13, 2015.
In Week 4 the Seahawks squared off against the Detroit Lions on Monday Night Football and came away with their second victory of the season. In a close game throughout, No. 29 helped make a tremendous play to seal the game for the Hawks when it looked like the Lions were about to pull off a shocker. ET stonewalled Calvin Johnson right before the goal line, allowing Chancellor to punch the ball out of Johnson’s hand to save the game and propel the Hawks to victory.
“We saw one of the great plays in ball, when the team’s on the precipice of winning the football game and a guy makes a play. The play Kam made was just extraordinary. We’ve seen it before. Earl made one against the Rams a year ago right at the same kind of situation,” Carroll said. “Those guys are battling for the football. It was a fantastic effort from the defense all night long.”
With the Seahawks at .500 and things starting to look up, Thomas and the Legion of Boom went up against two of the hottest teams in the league in Weeks 5 and 6, facing off against the Carolina Panthers and Cincinnati Bengals. Unfortunately the Hawks came up short in both contests, falling to the Bengals in overtime, 27-24, before letting one slip away late, 27-23, the next week against the Panthers.
ET did all he could to lift the Seahawks in both games. He came away with a highlight-reel pick at Cincy, adding two tackles and a pass defended. He notched four total tackles and another interception of eventual MVP Cam Newton.
The loss to Carolina came in the waning seconds when Newton found tight end Greg Olsen after a miscommunication between two of Seattle’s best defenders: Earl and corner Richard Sherman. But even after the defeat, Earl remained optimistic that the Seahawks would turn it around.
“Man, this is great, really,’’ he said after his team’s 2-4 start. “It’s a part of the story. So we’re going to outlast this. This is why we are in this position in the first place, this is why we are the best, these situations. They are not going to break us.’’
Thomas and the Hawks got back to their winning ways in Week 7 against the San Francisco 49ers. On Thursday night, the Legion of Boom only surrendered a field goal and rolled past San Francisco by a final score of 20-3. ET finished with a team-high seven tackles and the defense as a whole limited the Niners to a mere 142 yards of total offense.
“Because we didn’t listen to y’all,” Earl said with a smile when asked how his team kept the faith. “We go home, we take care of business, we show up to work, and we’re going to prepare our butt off every week. I don’t care what you say: ain’t nothing changed.”
In Week 8, the Hawks won their second consecutive game, and this win brought a coming-of-age moment. Thomas and the Seahawks traveled to Dallas and held on in the fourth quarter to win by a final score of 13-12. In the area that ET grew up and against the team he grew up rooting for, Thomas had a great day with five tackles and the LOB didn’t allow a pass of over 15 yards all afternoon.
After a Week 9 bye, the Seahawks had a tough test ahead of them right out of the gates. In an NFC West showdown, Thomas and the Hawks couldn’t hold off the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday night. Even though Earl snagged his third pick of the season and racked up five tackles, Seattle gave up another early fourth quarter lead in the 39-32 defeat.
With that loss, the Hawks were saddled at 4-5, leaving the margin of error thin if ET and Co. expected to make the postseason for the fourth straight year.
“It’s shrinking for us. We understand that,” Earl said. “We’re going to get everybody’s best game. Every game we’ve played this year, we’ve been in it, just like this. That’s the nature of playing for the Seattle Seahawks. The pressure is going to be on the defense every time we play. We understand that and have to hold up.”
ET III and the Seahawks responded to the frustrating loss and went on a tear to close out the season. The hot-streak started Week 10 in another drubbing of the Niners where the Hawks were clicking on all cylinders in a 29-13 victory. In the ensuing week against the Pittsburgh Steelers, both the offense and defense were on point again as the Seahawks came away with another satisfying victory.
The defense racked up a season-high four interceptions and Russel Wilson passed for five touchdowns in the 39-30 win. The game wasn’t perfect but the ET and the defense made the plays when they had to in the high-scoring affair.
“I’m just glad we finished. We got the win,” Earl said. “I think it’s just playing for each other. I don’t think we’re focusing on do or die. I think we’re just focusing on staying in the moment and trying to play for each other. It’s coming together these past couple of weeks.”
In Week 13 the Hawks continued their winning-ways in a blowout win over the Minnesota Vikings. ET III came away with his fourth pick of the season and added a beautiful return to set up a score in the 38-7 rout. The Hawks held Adrian Peterson to one of the worst outputs in his career: 18 yards on eight carries. Wilson accounted for four more touchdowns as the defense and offensive units were clicking again all afternoon.
Weeks 14 and 15 were more of the same for Earl and the Hawks as they cruised to a 35-6 win on the road against the Baltimore Ravens and the following week a 30-13 win against the Cleveland Browns. The win against the Browns clinched a playoff berth for Earl and the Seahawks. After the dominant win over the Browns, Thomas lauded his team for coming into form and proving that they are one of the teams to beat in the NFC after an up-and-down start to the season.
“I just feel that connection is so real,” Earl said. “I think early on in the season, it was in bits and pieces of position groups, but everybody didn’t have it. Just to see everybody generate that has been powerful to see.”
In Week 16, the Seahawks five-game winning streak was snapped at the hands of the Rams in a 23-17 loss, but ET III closed out the season on a high-note as they were able to get revenge on the Cardinals and came away with a confidence-boosting 36-6 win to conclude the regular season. Earl recorded his team-leading fifth interception of the season in the win.
In the Wild Card round of the playoffs the Hawks faced the Vikings on the road and came away with a miracle win to advance to the Divisional round. In sub-zero temperatures, Seattle overcame a nine-point deficit in the fourth quarter, and thanks to a missed Blair Walsh field goal in the final seconds, they advanced in an incredible 10-9 victory.
“I didn’t want to leave,” Earl said. “Stuff like that shocks me. Even with the Green Bay game [the comeback to win the NFC title last year], it feels new. It makes me appreciate the game even more. I really love it, and to see us have another chance, there’s nothing like it.”
Unfortunately, the magic run concluded the following week. ET III and his squad’s dreams of winning another Super Bowl came to an end in the Divisional round against the No. 1 seed Carolina Panthers.
A dreadful first half put the Hawks in a 31-point hole but a furious rally in the second half made things interesting in Charlotte. Seattle dominated the second half on both sides of the ball to get within seven points, but the hole was too big to climb out of as they fell by a final score of 31-24.
In that loss and throughout the season, Earl pointed to communication as the team’s downfall. It was a long road back from a 2-4 start, but No. 29 wasn’t about to use that as an excuse. Plain and simple: The Hawks couldn’t finish the job.
“I don’t want to point to fatigue or anything like that,” Earl said. “I don’t want to make any excuses.”