ONTO THE LEAGUE
Teams knew what they were adding when they looked to draft Earl: an instinctive safety with elite speed and quickness, remarkable playmaking ability and a profound level of toughness, despite being a bit undersized. That’s why Pete Carroll and the Seattle Seahawks jumped on ETIII in the first round with the No. 14 overall pick. Earl and fellow Big 12 prospect Russell Okung (No. 6 overall) of Oklahoma State were the first two players taken by the newly hired Carroll as he sought to rebuild the Seahawks.
ET showed off his outstanding range and athletic ability early in his rookie season and Week 3 of the 2010 season was his first launching point. Earl notched two interceptions, including the game-ending pick in the end zone as the Seahawks dropped the San Diego Chargers 27-20. The picks against the Chargers were two of five INTs notched by ET in his rookie year to go with 76 combined tackles and seven pass deflections.
Seattle finished 7-9 in 2010 but won the division and took to the playoffs. In the postseason, the Hawks knocked out the New Orleans Saints in a huge Wild Card round upset, but couldn’t do the same to to the Chicago Bears in the Divisional round.
Year 2 brought continued improvement for the Seahawks, particularly in the secondary. As more pieces were added around Earl, Seattle improved and ETIII began to find his groove.
The young Seahawks squad matched its 7-9 record from a year prior, but with many new pieces still in place, they showed promise for the future. ET lead the way for the improved defense, notching 98 combined tackles and two interceptions. He was named second-team All-Pro and earned a starting spot in the Pro Bowl.
In Year 3, the improvements continued in Seattle. With their defense beginning to shine, the Seahawks upgraded their offense by drafting quarterback Russell Wilson, who shined as a rookie and shored up the quarterback issues that limited the Seattle the prior season.
With a revamped offense and the No. 4 total defense in the league, the Seahawks finished the regular season 11-5, including win in seven of their final eight regular season games.
ET once again was a focal point of that highly ranked defense, earning him another All-Pro distinction.
Seattle topped Washington in the Wild Card round of the 2012 playoffs but fell in a thriller against the top-seeded Atlanta Falcons in the Divisional round.
As the Seahawks continue to improve, so do their expectations and Earl can see Seattle’s vision come together.
“Even the new pieces that we have, everybody’s bought in already,” he said. “Coach Carroll is doing a great job of teaching us the central theme is competition. Everybody’s buying in, and when you get that, the team is going to go far.”
SUPER BOWL CHAMPS
After an impressive performance in the 2012 season, Earl and the Seahawks shared the same expectation for 2013: It was time to take the next step and attain that ultimate goal.
It wasn’t so much a dream as an objective, and the Hawks, with Earl leading a suffocating defense, set out to attain that goal.
Seattle showed right away that it was a serious Super Bowl contender, silencing two playoff-caliber foes—Carolina and San Francisco—to start the season. ET III came through with a huge fumble recovery against the Panthers in Week 1 that sparked a narrow 12-7 victory.
The following week, against their rivals and defending conference champion 49ers, the Hawks stated their claim as the NFC favorite. ET pulled down one of three interceptions of SF’s Colin Kaepernick, as the Seattle defense yielded just 207 total yards in a 29-3 drubbing.
Afterward, Earl said that, while others might have been surprised by the lopsided outcome, he wasn’t.
“Every game we feel like we should dominate, and we did,” ET said of Seattle’s blowout Week 2 win over San Francisco.
That win would prove to be a springboard for the rest of the Seattle season. While the Hawks marched to an 11-1 start, teams seemed intent on venturing into Area 29 early in the year. As a result, Earl tallied four picks in the first seven games.
The 11th win of the year was another dominating performance against a vaunted, playoff- caliber New Orleans Saints offense. ET III and Co. held the Saints to 188 yards in what would be a preview of a later playoff matchup.
The following week brought another playoff preview, but it also brought Seattle’s second loss of the season. The Hawks traveled to the Bay Area to take on their rival Niners, who were bent on exacting revenge.
At 11-1, Seattle was looking like a Super Bowl favorite at this point in the season, but SF had other thoughts. Earl and the LOB harassed Kapernick yet again, but this time the Niners D had the last laugh in a 19-17 victory.
The Hawks quickly bounced back the following week against the New York Giants, as No. 29 pulled down his fifth pick of the year, one of five for his team on the day. Seattle left MetLife Stadium, site of Super Bowl XLVIII, dreaming of what they might do the next time they played in the East Rutherford, N.J. venue.
Unfortunately, that didn’t serve them well the next week. When they hosted the Arizona Cardinals, they fell flat in a 17-10 loss—their first home defeat in the last 15 games in front of the 12th Man.
However, as Earl would later explain, that bitter defeat at home ended up as a learning experience.
“I’m kind of glad it happened,” ET III said of Seattle’s home defeat to Arizona. “Because you have tough learning lessons, even though you don’t want it to happen. But we learned from that experience and applied it to this experience and it paid off for us.”
After that loss, it was all smooth sailing as the Seahawks closed the regular season and locked up the NFC’s No. 1 seed with a win over the St. Louis Rams. However, Seattle was not satisfied with just an NFC West crown.
Following a first-round bye, Seattle had a rematch with Drew Brees and New Orleans in the divisional round of the playoffs. The LOB withstood an onslaught from Brees, who threw 43 passes in the game but just one touchdown. Though they yielded yardage, they locked down when it counted. ET III played a major role in shutting down the Saints’ star tight end, Jimmy Graham, and the Hawks also received some help from running back Marshawn Lynch’s 140 yards and two touchdowns.
Seattle survived and advanced with a 23-15 victory and moved on to Round 3 with their most heated rival: San Francisco.
The rubber match with a trip the Super Bowl on the line was the best contest yet in the series and came down to the final seconds. It was a defensive slugfest, and the two evenly matched squads ended up with identical offensive outputs at 308 total yards.
The tilt came down to the 22-second mark, when Seattle clung to a 23-17 lead and San Francisco was just 18 yards from a game-tying touchdown. And like it had so many times, the LOB came through. Kapernick’s touchdown pass attempt to Michael Crabtree was tipped by All-Pro Richard Sherman and hauled in by Malcolm Smith, effectively giving the Hawks the NFC title.
As ET III, who was named first-team All-Pro for the third time just two weeks earlier, said afterward, Seattle was right were it expected to be.
“I’ve been saying since Day 1, when you enjoy the journey, the destination is always going to take care of itself,” Earl said. “That’s what happened in this situation. The destination is New York and we’re there.”
When ET the Hawks arrived at their destination and looked across the field, it was something like looking in the mirror. In the reflection, they saw the Denver Broncos: the 13-3 No. 1 seed from the AFC. But while Seattle was guided by an elite secondary and the No. 1 defense in the NFL, Denver boasted MVP quarterback Peyton Manning and the league’s No. 1 offense.
The game was billed just as that: The suffocating Seattle defense against a devastating Denver offense. But when the festivities were over and the ball was kicked off at MetLife Stadium, Seattle supplied the fireworks on both sides of the ball.
After a strange start, with the Hawks scoring on a safety on the game’s first play, they never trailed, and it was never close. Earl and the Seattle D tormented Manning and Co., forcing four turnovers. Meanwhile, Russell Wilson and the offense were on point, rattling off 36 points before Denver scored its first and only touchdown at the end of the third quarter.
In the third-most lopsided result in Super Bowl history, the Hawks walked away World Champions with a 43-8 victory.
While the world was shocked by Seattle’s domination, Earl was once again on the short list of those not surprised, lauding the hard work and incredible innate ability of himself and his teammates.
“We have great guys that God gave them so much athletic ability,” Earl said. “When you take advantage of that and you really practice your butt off, no matter if it’s walkthroughs or in practice, you come with the same energy every day, it’s going to pay off for you.”
ET was thrilled that his dedication paid off in the biggest way possible, but more than anything, the Super Bowl XLVIII victory just energized No. 29 to keep working to stay at the pinnacle of the sport.
“We’re just excited for the opportunity. That’s all you can ask for in life is the opportunity to do something. Obviously, we’ve done something great, but this is not the end of it. We’re going to keep striving to get better and try to stay on top as long as possible.”