SEATTLE -- When Earl Thomas spoke publicly for the first time upon returning from his holdout, he said all he can do is put the best version of himself on display and "protect myself until I do get paid."
He's done the former through the Seattle Seahawks' three games and is intent on doing the latter, no matter the cost. That became apparent Sunday as Thomas cleared up the mystery about his absence from two practices earlier that week, saying he voluntarily skipped them because he's prioritizing his health above all else and that he's expecting a fine from the team because of it.
Oh yeah, this was after Thomas picked off two more passes and finished tied for the team lead with seven tackles, and Seattle got a badly needed victory over the Cowboys.
Welcome to the Seahawks' dilemma with Thomas, a transcendent talent who's still great enough to produce three interceptions in as many games but is now defiant enough to insist on not practicing as he seeks a new contract or a trade to a team that will give him one.
He actually said that.
"I need to make sure my body is 100," Thomas said when asked about missing practice Wednesday and Thursday for what coach Pete Carroll had only described as personal reasons. "I’m invested in myself. If they was invested in me, I would be out there practicing. But if I feel like anything -- I don’t give a damn if it’s small, I’ve got a headache -- I’m not practicing. But I don’t want that to be taken the wrong way. I know I’m going to get fined. But that’s just where I’m at with that."
The easy conclusion to draw here is that the situation with Thomas has become untenable to the point where the Seahawks have little choice but to trade him. And they might if the right offer from the right team comes along before the Oct. 30 deadline. Thomas’ situation, however, is important to view in the context of other recent Seattle personnel issues.
Marshawn Lynch became a constant pain for Carroll and his staff by the end of his tenure in Seattle. That reached its peak during the playoffs in January 2016, when Lynch surprised the team by refusing at the last minute to make the trip to Minnesota for a wild-card game against the Vikings, even after taking the first-team reps in practice that week. He started the next game.
Richard Sherman screamed at Seahawks coaches during two separate sideline outbursts in 2016. Carroll was a target of the second one after the Seahawks were nearly intercepted at the goal line during a win over the Rams. Sherman evoked the painful ending of Super Bowl XLIX while explaining to reporters postgame what had set him off. "I was letting [Carroll] know we've already seen how that goes," he said. Seattle dangled Sherman in trade talks the next offseason but hung onto him for one more year.
Michael Bennett developed an attitude toward practice that would make Allen Iverson cringe. He still started every game.
The Seahawks eventually reached their breaking point with Bennett as they did with Sherman, and as they probably would have with Lynch had he not retired first. But the team tolerated their behavior while they were still producing.
Thomas is still producing and still fully engaged -- at least on game day -- to hear Carroll describe him.
"What I do know is he gave everything he had [Sunday],” Carroll said. “He was in every step of the way, every aspect of the game. The communications, the focus and the adjustments, and we were going. I was with him on some of those things on the sideline. He was in everything. He played his tail off, and he had a blast playing, and he had a blast in the locker room.”
As much as Thomas' play both in recent seasons and the start of this one would justify an extension from Seattle, it's not nearly that simple in the absence of any insight into what he's asking for. Whatever it is, it still seems unlikely that the Seahawks will be the ones cutting that check.
After his second interception ended any remaining hope of a Cowboys comeback, he took a bow in the direction of Dallas' sideline.
"I felt like that was just in the moment," Thomas said. "And if they was gonna trade for me and extend me, they shoulda did it."
ESPN's Adam Schefter reported Sunday morning that one league source said a trade to Dallas -- the team most connected to Thomas in a potential deal -- is now a "super-long shot." Meanwhile, the Chiefs have emerged as a candidate, according to ESPN's Chris Mortensen.
Trading Thomas now for an early-round pick in 2019 would recoup more value than Seattle would get by letting Thomas leave in free agency after this season. That would bring back a 2020 third-round compensatory selection, at best.
But given how important Thomas has been and continues to be to the Seahawks' defense, trading one of their best remaining players would almost feel like waving the white flag on a season that still has some promise. That could have been a more palatable concession if the Seahawks were 0-3 and heading nowhere fast, but their decisive win Sunday showed how good they can still be when they're intact and at their best.
Plus, look around the NFC. The Rams are the only team at 3-0, and while they're in control of the NFC West, the Seahawks still have the best quarterback in the division. That gap will widen if the 49ers' fears of a torn ACL for Jimmy Garoppolo are confirmed.
"We're 1-2. Me personally, I've been in this position before," linebacker Bobby Wagner said. "So I'm not too worried. I'm happy with our progression, and I feel like we're going to keep going forward."
Can Thomas and the Seahawks do the same? Will they? Should they?
With Thomas still playing like an All-Pro and the Seahawks still alive, there's no easy answer.