Football is an incredibly violent sport. We know, this is like saying "staring at the sun will scorch your retinas" or "operating heavy machinery under the influence of drugs or alcohol could result in your untimely death."
There is nothing insightful in those six words, but sometimes you get lulled into a false sense of security only to be slapped back into reality. For Seahawks fans used to seeing Earl Thomas patrolling the secondary and meting out punishment to would-be pass catchers, that came Sunday night in a game that was otherwise over long before halftime. Seattle cruised to a 40-7 victory but the loss of Thomas could be a lasting one.
The all-world safety was this close to making a spectacular interception, only to be undercut by teammate Kam Chancellor. The accidental collision jarred the ball loose and left Thomas hobbled.
The replays were hard to watch, and Thomas had to be helped from the field before taking a cart to the locker room. By halftime, NBC's Michelle Tafoya reported that coach Pete Carroll confirmed that Thomas had suffered a cracked tibia.
That's a devastating blow to both player and team. For Thomas, it reaffirmed what players try to put out of their minds -- that they're mortals who spend three hours a week running full-speed into the world's best-conditioned athletes -- and goes a long way in explaining this tweet sent minutes after Thomas left the field for the last time this season:
This game has been so good to me no regrets.. A lot is running through my mind including retirement thanks for all the prayers.— Earl Thomas (@Earl_Thomas) December 5, 2016
Thomas, 27, and drafted in 2010, had never missed an NFL game until last week against the Buccaneers. He returned on Sunday, but his 2016 season appears to be over. He's understandably emotional.
Meanwhile, the Seahawks' defense -- and the Legion of Boom, in particular -- need to figure out Plan B in a post-Earl Thomas world.
NBC graphic pretty much sums up how much Seahawks' defense could be hurting if Earl Thomas is done for the season pic.twitter.com/nznWFSxOWG— John Breech (@johnbreech) December 5, 2016
Because after struggling through the first few months of the season, Seattle finally looked like a legit Super Bowl team in recent weeks. That was contingent on Russell Wilson's health, and Thomas leading the charge on defense.
How important is Thomas to this defense?
Here's Matt Bowen, the ESPN.com analyst and former NFL safety:
The injury to Thomas will have a major impact on the Seahawks defense moving forward. Thomas has the best range in the game. And that allows Seattle to lean on single-high safety defenses because of his ability to consistently close the seam and the post. Really tough to replace Thomas' speed, ball skills and football IQ in the deep middle of the field given the scheme and the technique Seattle uses in the secondary.
Put another way: Wilson's job just got a lot more difficult.
Here are seven more things to know about the Seahawks' blowout win.
1. Healthy Russell is more important than Healthy Earl, right?
There's no way to sugarcoat it -- Thomas is a huge loss. But the Seahawks' season would have been a lost cause weeks ago if Wilson continued to battle the ankle injury that confined him to the pocket for the first two months of the season.
Consider this: Over the first 10 games, Wilson had 79 rushing yards -- total -- and averaged 2.0 yards per carry. Last week in a loss to the Buccaneers? Wilson had 80 yards on 10 carries.
And now, with the return of Thomas Rawls to the backfield, the Seahawks can pretty much run the ball at will. This means less pressure on an offensive line that struggles to pass block. The biggest issue with this otherwise sound strategy: The defense just isn't the same without Thomas on the field. This fact was reinforced on the first play after he left the field against the Panthers.
.@CameronNewton's cannon + @TedGinnJr_19's speed = @Panthers TD!— NFL (@NFL) December 5, 2016
55 YARDS. #CARvsSEAhttps://t.co/iMOceFQ19z
That was on a third-and-17.
If a disjointed and discombobulated Panthers offense can do that, imagine what the the Cowboys would do. And this brings us to the generic "Here's how we can minimize the Seahawks' defense" gameplan that the Seahawks may now have to employ in the coming weeks: Basically, lean heavily on the rushing attack, shorten the game, and keep the opponents' offense off the field.
2. Keep it simple, stupid
Which brings us back to Rawls. He reached the century mark midway through the second quarter on Sunday night thanks to what can best be described as running angry:
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That @TRawls810 guy is BACK.
So smooth for the @Seahawks TD! #CARvsSEAhttps://t.co/AEdMav4tn6
Watch out, @Seahawks opponents.@TRawls810 is running WILD!— NFL (@NFL) December 5, 2016
45 yards to the house. #CARvsSEAhttps://t.co/qAOZJLPS0K
Rawls runs a lot like Ray Rice used to -- explosive through the hole, the hell to whatever may try to get in his way. His style is exactly the opposite of Le'Veon Bell, though it clearly works for him. The problem, and this is a recurring topic, are injuries. Rawls' I-only-kn0w-one-speed running style led to a vicious in-the-hole collision with Thomas Davis that left the back grabbing his head as he hit the turf. He was evaluated for concussion before returning to the lineup in the second half. But in Rawls' absence, the running game sputtered, which, you may have heard us mention, is a concern.
3. Keep it simple, stupid, part II
Short passes can be an extension of the running game -- the talking heads often refer to them as long handoffs. Also acceptable: actual handoffs to one of the league's fastest, most elusive players.
.@TDLockett12. IS. GONE. 🚀— NFL (@NFL) December 5, 2016
75-yard TD on the first play of the 2nd half! #CARvsSEAhttps://t.co/DwA4XTodXS
In related news: Hey, look at that, it's Jimmy Graham!
.@DangeRussWilson to @TheJimmyGraham.— NFL (@NFL) December 5, 2016
Another @Seahawks TD! #CARvsSEAhttps://t.co/8vPpWUqUSq
He's one of the NFL's best tight ends, though he's been slow to find his niche in Seattle. Part of that is because he was injured late last season, but there's also the fact that Wilson isn't Drew Brees, and the Seahawks' offense doesn't typically wing it around the yard 50 times a game. But Graham has gotten more involved in 2016, including eight catches for 103 yards and two scores against the Bills back in Week 8.
4. Seahawks do have a friendly schedule
For all our teeth-gnashing about the loss of Thomas, Seattle has a relatively well-defined path to the postseason. Now 8-3-1, they're NFC's No. 2 seed, and their remaining four regular-season games come against teams all below .500: at Green Bay, home against Los Angeles and Arizona, and at San Francisco.
5. About those Panthers ...
It's hard to imagine that Carolina went 15-1 last season and twice beat Seattle -- once on the road in Week 5, and again in the playoffs. After Sunday's loss, the Panthers fall to 4-8, good for 14th in the NFC and with six teams between them and the final playoff spot.
When things go sideways like this, crazy things happen. Like, say, benching Cam Newton for a dress-code violation, replacing him in the starting lineup with Derek Anderson, and Anderson promptly throwing an interception.
With Derek Anderson at starting QB for Carolina...— NFL (@NFL) December 5, 2016
The @Seahawks intercept him on the FIRST PLAY. 😱 #CARvsSEAhttps://t.co/pNKQ7253lJ
By the way, Newton has been known to show up in public wearing this:
So we can only imagine what the dress-code violation was.
Cam Newton got a one serious suspension for all those terrible outfits he wears post game every week— Ricky Smith (@Rickonia) December 5, 2016
6. More on Cam's 'punishment'
SI.com's Jonathan Jones, who covered the Panthers for the Charlotte Observer, makes a good point:
I'm not convinced Cam's "punishment" was originally scheduled for 1 play. 1 set of downs? 1 series? But just 1 play doesn't seem right.— Jonathan Jones (@jjones9) December 5, 2016
And there's also this from ESPN.com's Jane McManus:
The brief in-game benching is the most meaningless and self-defeating of NFL team penalties.— Jane McManus (@janesports) December 5, 2016
This doesn't happen when you're 12-0, as the Panthers were at this point of the season last year. It happens when you're 4-8. Newton finished 14 of 32 for 182 yards with a touchdown. He should have been intercepted several times, though he's partly responsible for Anderson's pick on the game's very first offensive play.
7. In jollier news ...
The Seahawks have their own version of Ezekiel Elliott.
The Zeke Top trend is sweeping the nation. #SNFpic.twitter.com/rkYFlFRgdh— SNF on NBC (@SNFonNBC) December 5, 2016
And this seems like a perfectly fitting way to end things.