Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta has earned universally high accolades for his work since taking over for legend Ozzie Newsome running Baltimore's roster. For good reason.
His moves have mostly been nothing short of expert, taken on the whole, and, individually as well, it is hard to quibble with his signings and trades and draft picks ... with one exception. A high-priced exception who never really fit in there, who failed to ingratiate himself at all off field (and barely on-field) and whose exit this weekend -- after just one season -- amid scandal and controversy was the talk of the NFL.
Everyone makes mistakes, and this was a big miss.
Kudos for DeCosta, at the urging of his players and coaching staff, for moving on from safety Earl Thomas, the seeming prize of Batimore's 2019 free-agent class, whose attitude, abrasiveness, tardiness and churlishness came to a head at a practice last week during which he threw a punch at mild-mannered and universally beloved co-starting safety Chuck Clark. Alas, this has been boiling over for quite some time, according to numerous sources with direct knowledge of the situation, with the frustration with Thomas going back to last year.
Then, many around Thomas put up with him, shall we say, showing up not quite ready to practice or missing meetings or doing whatever he cared to do on game day rather than sticking to the scheme or play call. After all, this was a future Hall of Famer who has been the closest thing we've seen to Ed Reed during his storied career in Seattle. And this franchise has not shied away from taking on guys with difficult personalities.
But this was different, the sources said. This was personal. There was a sense on that defense that Thomas was not part of the group and did not care to really be part of the group. He had eroded too much trust to really be accepted anymore, and his teammates saw his skills deteriorating and missteps magnifying.
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A year ago, with the team winning every week (almost) and the defense improving once Clark took over starting duties and wore the headpiece in his helmet to communicate the calls from the coaching staff, the Ravens were willing to put up with Thomas, because of his track record and because he was coming off a significant injury. Maybe he would get better on the field and play himself into better shape and adapt to the group over time. Maybe he would clean up his act.
But it didn't work, and things were not getting better. His first few weeks back in the building this summer went largely as they did a year ago, team sources said, and there was a mounting sense among the club's veterans that they would be better off without Thomas than with him. Addition by subtraction. Cap issues be damned.
"This has been coming for a long time," said one team source. "Guys have been frustrated about this situation since last year and it was only getting worse. He had to go."
"Easily the most disliked guy in that locker room," said one source who has been in contact with a multitude of Ravens about Thomas. "Not even close. They put up with a lot last year but it's all about trying to win a Super Bowl there now, and guys did not want him around. It was really bad way before the thing with Chuck Clark."
Indeed, multiple sources said the Ravens' Leadership Council made it abundantly clear to management last week that they strongly believed the team would be better off without Thomas, as we first reported over the weekend. There was no debate who was at fault in the physical altercation with Clark, and the dichotomy between the universal support for Clark, and the candid remarks from player to coaches about wanting Thomas gone was lost on no one in that organization.
"The Council was pretty unanimous that they were better off without Earl Thomas," another source added.
Another team source put it this way: "If you don't make doing things the right way a priority, the players don't appreciate it at all and neither do the coaches."
So, at that point, the Ravens had no choice. Thomas had to go.
Veteran players spoke up passionately in favor of young safety DeShon Elliott, whose career has been sidetracked by injuries. They would continue to help coach him up with Thomas gone, and the unit would have better cohesion and chemistry.
"It's his time, so let's go," coach John Harbaugh told reporters of Elliott after practice Sunday, while opting not to comment on Thomas' release (I think the statement speaks for itself).
And the fact that veteran corner Jimmy Smith, who was already looking at more of a hybrid role, showed up in tremendous shape, with the ball skills to work at safety, doesn't hurt, either. The secondary, even without Thomas, has the potential to be as good as any in football, still.
Yes, there will be a messy grievance over Thomas' salary, which Baltimore contends Thomas defaulted on by violating language in his contract about conduct detrimental to the team (as made clear in the team's brief press release announcing the move). Yes, it would further compromise their cap space. Yes, it would be a quick admission of defeat about this signing. But it had to happen.
The moment Thomas was sent home from that practice he was most likely done as a Raven. The emphatic support for cutting him in the locker room, and then Thomas putting practice video on his social media, further cemented it. Picking an unpopular and highly paid player over the collective (that is comprised overwhelmingly of guys far outplaying their rookie deals), was impossible.
It remains to be seen how much of Thomas' $20M signing bonus the team might recoup and how much of that $10M "guaranteed" salary Thomas actually gets. This move always seemed slightly desperate; it was well known around the league the Ravens were big on adding a safety with Eric Weddle nearing the end in 2019 and the pass defense an issue.
At the time I believed Tyrann Mathieu was the best possible fit for them, and they were very interested, but lost out to the Chiefs for his services. Baltimore also dropped out of the bidding on some top receivers when the prices got too high for their liking, and while they had landed Mark Ingram to boost the run game, the reality last March was that they still had money to play with in a thinning crop of impact players, waning options to fill their needs, and Thomas still waiting for a partner.
The first wave of free agency was crashing on the shore, and, not even Jerry Jones was willing to meet Thomas' asking price at the time, despite the player and that team flirting (often in public) with one another for months. And while the successive major injuries were a big issue and the safety's antics in Seattle wore out even Pete Carroll, whose thresholds are quite high, Baltimore made a massive free agent splash, anyway, in DeCosta's first offseason.
Anytime you go where Jones won't go on a player with some warts, it should probably give you pause. In retrospect, wooing Mathieu may have put Baltimore over the top last year in the way he helped Kansas City break its Lombardi hex. He was the right guy all along -- a shapeshifting, multi-faceted defender who meshes perfectly with what coordinator Wink Martindale wants to do and was younger, more athletic and came cheaper than Thomas. He's been a perfect role model in K.C.
No one wins them all; not even DeCosta.
But to continue their failed experiment with Thomas any longer would have been folly, and this staff can coach up and move around players in ways few can. The Ravens will be just fine. For all of his star power and prowess in the past, Thomas wasn't close to that guy in Baltimore.
Buyer beware, again, to those who might think the Ravens overreacted. Best do all of your homework on this one. Bringing Thomas back to Texas, where his wife was arrested on a felony charge in connection with a domestic incident in the offseason, might not be the smartest decision for myriad reasons, and Thomas might not be the best guy to bring into a locker room that has had no shortage of drama on its own.
Thomas couldn't get his act together in nearly 18 months as a Raven. I'm not sure that's changing anywhere else, soon. And trust me, they weren't the problem.