A middle finger and hard feelings: Earl Thomas returns to Seattle

Ravens fired up to face Thomas' former team (1:45)

Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley isn't expecting much interaction between Earl Thomas and his former coach Pete Carroll. (1:45)

A wall inside the Seattle Seahawks' headquarters features the greatest players and moments from the Pete Carroll era. The 20 or so oversized photos run the length of the hallway and pay tribute to the most successful stretch in the franchise's history.

One of those photos shows safety Earl Thomas delivering a right-handed chop that knocked the ball free from St. Louis Rams running back Benny Cunningham as he was about to score a touchdown. The fumble resulted in a touchback that gave Seattle possession and clinched one of four division titles in nine seasons under Carroll. It also secured home-field advantage for a run to their second straight trip to the Super Bowl.

It's Carroll's favorite on-field memory of Thomas -- that and a nearly identical goal-line save he made three years later.

"Those are just the most phenomenal moments because they're scoring, [and then] oh, it's our ball somehow," said Carroll, describing them Wednesday as the subject of Thomas, who played in Seattle from 2010 to 2018 and won Super Bowl XLVIII with the team, dominated Carroll's news conference, with the safety's return to CenturyLink Field on Sunday (4:25 p.m. ET, Fox) as a member of the Baltimore Ravens. "It's because of the effort, the vision to see, the imagination to understand how you could possibly make a play like that. Just extraordinary."

Plays like that are why Carroll and others with the Seahawks consider the end of Thomas' tenure with the team -- as ugly as it was -- to be an unfortunate footnote to his nine seasons in Seattle.

Thomas leaving the field on an injury cart -- with his broken left leg in an air cast and his right middle finger extended toward his own sideline -- isn't the lasting image Carroll will have of him. But it was the last image of Thomas in a Seahawks uniform.

The Legion of Boom comes undone

Linebacker K.J. Wright, who played eight seasons and in two Super Bowls with Thomas, calls Thomas "the most dynamic person in his position." Wright cites a 78-yard pick-six of Deshaun Watson in a 2017 shootout win over the Houston Texans as his favorite on-field memory of Thomas. It was one of Thomas' 28 interceptions in Seattle.

"It was just perfect," Wright said. "He's got the best ball skills I've seen out of anybody."

While that play epitomized Thomas at his best, it was that season that marked the beginning of the end for him in Seattle. The Seahawks drafted three defensive backs that year -- including safeties Lano Hill in the third round and Tedric Thompson in the fourth -- preparing for life after the Legion of Boom.

There was more foreshadowing when cornerback Richard Sherman tore his Achilles and Kam Chancellor suffered a career-ending neck injury in a Week 10 game in Arizona. In March 2018, Seattle released Sherman -- who signed with the San Francisco 49ers -- and Chancellor's career ended with the injury.

At least one person close to the situation wonders if the Seahawks would have given Thomas an extension in 2018 if general manager John Schneider had his way. As it was, the team never engaged in meaningful discussions with Thomas about a new deal, telling him no veterans -- save left tackle Duane Brown -- would be getting a third contract that offseason.

Prior to the 2018 season, Thomas held out all offseason. He twice made public pleas for the Seahawks to pay him or trade him. He returned the week of the opener and then refused to practice leading up to a game against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 3.

"I'm invested in myself," Thomas said after picking off two passes against the Cowboys. "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 day of the middle finger

A week after the game in Dallas, whatever chance Thomas had of getting that extension at the end of the season disappeared.

On the field at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona -- the same place where Sherman and Chancellor's tenures in Seattle effectively ended, Thomas broke his leg for the second time in three years.

Then came the middle finger.

Thomas later specified in an interview with ESPN's Josina Anderson that his middle finger was directed at Carroll "because I felt like he wasn't being honest with me."

"That's the crazy part of our business. If [Earl holds out], then he's not a team player," linebacker Bobby Wagner said after the game, referring to what perceptions would have been if Thomas had continued to hold out. "If he does come and he gets hurt, then it's, 'He shouldn't have come.' So it's a position that we get put in often, and it's an unfortunate situation."

A year later, Wright chalks up the middle finger to Thomas' being caught in the heat of the moment.

"You want to express yourself," he said. "You're upset, you're mad, and sometimes our emotions get the best of us. It's a part of it. I've done some things in my career that I'm not proud of. It just is what it is."

As he did in the immediate aftermath of the incident, Carroll shrugged it off again this week. He has been called out by players before.

"Obviously, he was upset," Carroll said. "My heart's pretty big, pretty wide open to these guys from the time we spend together and all the stuff that we do. It's way more important than something that happens, some gesture or some statement. There's a lot of chances I could've come back to stuff guys have said when they leave. I kind of have space for them to be themselves and how they do it and how they handled it.

"I'm going to love him anyway."

Thomas, for his part, has said he doesn't regret what he did. However, this week, Thomas said the emotions of returning to Seattle had not hit him yet but that he thought about how he hopes the fans greet him.

"Hopefully, they respect what I've done, get a couple of cheers and not too many boos," Thomas said. "Hopefully, it's love."

Not Dallas nor Kansas City

Thomas thought his free agency would perhaps take him to Dallas. "That's what the story was looking like until the money got funny," Thomas said.

Thomas grew up a Cowboys fan and even asked Dallas coach Jason Garrett to "come get me" after a game in 2017. But the Cowboys weren't willing to pay a safety of Thomas' age (30) and with his injury history, and Dallas wasn't alone in this stance.

Two days into free agency, he had one substantial offer -- from the Baltimore Ravens. Thomas had reached a verbal agreement on a one-year "prove it" deal with the Kansas City Chiefs worth $12 million.

Coach Andy Reid spoke to Thomas, and the Chiefs scheduled a private jet to pick him up. Thomas and his family spent the night of March 12 packing to go to Kansas City.

Also that night, the Cleveland Browns traded for Pro Bowl wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.

Suddenly, the Ravens were facing a division with Beckham and Jarvis Landry with the Browns, JuJu Smith-Schuster with the Pittsburgh Steelers and A.J. Green with the Cincinnati Bengals. The next morning, the Ravens, who cut veteran safety Eric Weddle at the start of free agency and had a void to fill, knew they would have to overpay to get Thomas to break his deal with the Chiefs.

The Ravens signed Thomas to a four-year, $55 million contract that included $32 million guaranteed, the most ever given to a safety.

"It was last-minute," Thomas said. "I didn't expect the Ravens to even give me a chance. I didn't hear about the Ravens throughout the whole process."

Thomas acknowledged the transition from playing in the Seahawks' Cover 3 defensive scheme to a more complex system with the Ravens has been challenging. Though Thomas still plays center field like he did in Seattle, he lines up all over the field with Baltimore, playing split safety (two deep) and robber (jumping into the box when ball is snapped). He even blitzed off the edge on consecutive plays last Sunday against the Bengals.

"He's played well. He's getting healthier," coach John Harbaugh said. "... I think he gets stronger every week and faster every week and looks good. I love being around him. I love his demeanor. I love his desire to be great, and I think it's rubbing off on the guys."

Thomas has been more disruptive as the season has progressed, and he ranks as one of the top 10 cover safeties in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus data. But Baltimore gave Thomas a big contract because of a reputation for forcing turnovers. Outside of an interception on the first drive of the season, that hasn't happened yet.

Thomas said he's bothered by some of the plays he has left on the field.

"The more and more I watch myself on tape and get to know my game self and see my instincts ... it's coming together," Thomas said. "I've just got to stay intact with it, but I feel free out there. I'm having fun, and Wink [defensive coordinator Don Martindale] has given me that green light."

And like he was in Seattle, Thomas has been a lightning rod for drama in Baltimore. In Week 3, he said he would eliminate big plays against the Chiefs. Patrick Mahomes then connected on seven passes that traveled at least 15 yards in the air against the Ravens.

A week later, Thomas stopped his pursuit of Browns running back Nick Chubb on an 88-yard touchdown run, saying he didn't want to pull a hamstring. After that game, he got into a heated exchange with Brandon Williams over the defensive tackle's being a late scratch (Thomas said he's now on the same page with Williams).

Thomas' most understated week has been this one, leading up to his return to Seattle. Thomas downplayed the reunion, saying it's "business as usual." His teammates believe otherwise.

"Since Earl has been here, he's definitely been a pretty calm-mannered guy," Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey said. "But he's been [in Seattle] for a long time. The thing that flashed to me is the little middle-finger thing, so I think there will definitely be a little tension there."