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As Texans reportedly pursue Earl Thomas, here's why the Cowboys never made a play for him

·NFL columnist
·9 min read
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Three weeks into the Dallas Cowboys’ season, two gameday traditions went hand-in-hand: The secondary got pummeled by a passing attack and Earl Thomas began trending across social media platforms in the state of Texas.

Three straight Mondays featured a familiar question pinballing through the Dallas fan base.

Is this the week the Cowboys finally call Earl Thomas?

Every week, the answer was no — without a sensible explanation.

Now, with the Houston Texans reportedly engaging with Thomas and a signing looking imminent, the question becomes:

Why didn’t the Cowboys call Earl Thomas?

Every time a safety gets burned deep. Every time a cornerback doesn’t have an adequate bracket on a star receiver. Every time Dallas gives up touchdown passes at a seemingly historic rate.

Earl Thomas stands on the field during warmups with the Seahawks before an NFL game in 2018.
Despite the Cowboys' seeming need in the secondary, Dallas passed on free agent Earl Thomas because of multiple issues flagged by the Seahawks and Ravens organizations. (Elaine Thompson/AP)

Fans can dial back to Monday’s statement from Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones, who basically delivered a “this is fine” burning house meme to the team’s flagship radio station, 105.3 The Fan.

“Overall, we got the guys here on campus that can get the job done for us,” Jones said.

That’s a dicey stance, even with injuries that have forced the Cowboys to shuffle their secondary and a unit that is still adjusting to scheme changes under new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan.

The bottom line for the Dallas secondary has been, well, the bottom of the stat line. The Cowboys are among the league’s worst teams in nearly every defensive passing category through three games, including dead last with nine touchdown passes surrendered. Amazingly, all nine have come in the past two games, when the Atlanta Falcons’ Matt Ryan and Seattle Seahawks’ Russell Wilson staged what amounted to nearly perfect passing clinics.

The fallout? It has become clear that the Cowboys made a mistake in prioritizing the signing of linebacker Jaylon Smith over cornerback Byron Jones in the summer of 2019. They allowed Jones to leave in free agency in March, ultimately putting pressure on young cornerbacks and safeties who have been woefully overmatched through three games. So much so, even Cowboys Hall of Famer Troy Aikman couldn’t resist getting in on the Thomas talk after the Seattle loss on Sunday.

“After what happened tonight [to Dallas], with some of the issues there at safety and the big plays, yeah, he may be getting a phone call,” Aikman said at the conclusion of the Fox broadcast.

That call never came. At least, it did not come with a job offer. Now, the conversation moves on for the Cowboys, but not without answering the lingering question of why. Remember, team ownership is leaning into head coach Mike McCarthy, who has been very clear about wanting the right locker room, with the right veterans — building whatever program he envisions.

That program was never going to include Earl Thomas.

It’s worth considering why Dallas had consternation that Houston apparently didn’t. I reached out to handful of sources with insight on how Thomas arrived at this point — three games into an NFL season and needing a bit of a lifeline from the Texans. More to the point, why was Dallas so reticent to roll the dice on a player who has previously made it clear he wanted to play for the franchise?

The answer wasn’t one thing. It was outlined through sources familiar with Thomas’ end in Seattle and Baltimore, two franchises that were content to move forward without him. That is a word that should be underscored here. Content.

Despite boasting considerable talent, Thomas was shown the door by two franchises that pride themselves on being able to handle mercurial players. Thomas wore out his welcome in both places. And the problems arose from essentially three issues.

Among them ...

On-field reliability

In Seattle, despite Thomas’ considerable coverage skills — and they were certainly elite during his Seahawks tenure — he also had a penchant for occasionally freelancing that put stress on the back end of the scheme.

When Kam Chancellor was healthy and playing alongside Thomas, Seattle leaned on him to make sure everyone (including Thomas) knew where they were supposed to be at all times and to understand and cover up scenarios where Thomas might be caught out of place.

This became a concern when Chancellor’s health began to erode. Essentially, Seattle felt like Thomas was at his best (and freest) when he and Chancellor were paired. When that tandem ceased to be viable in the long term, the Seahawks’ hopes that Thomas would mature into Chancellor’s leadership role and on-field reliability never materialized. This played a part in why Seattle was reluctant to give Thomas another long-term extension, as well.

The Seahawks' Earl Thomas, left, and Kam Chancellor tackle Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota as Mariota reaches the ball toward the goal line during a 2017 game.
The Seahawks needed Kam Chancellor, middle, to keep Earl Thomas in check on the field. (Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

Fast forward to the Ravens, and that reliability was a bigger problem than expected.

A team source said Thomas was repeatedly late to meetings and confirmed Peter King’s report that Thomas missed a walkthrough. Some teammates thought he was a diva who still believed he was an elite player with the talent to make up for freelancing mistakes or blowing an assignment. Some in the organization questioned his Pro Bowl nod in 2019 as being on reputation rather than results.

The bang on Thomas through both organizations is simple. He’s a better player when he’s paired with another high-level safety who is willing to bite his tongue and allow Thomas to freelance, while also cleaning up some of Thomas’ mistakes and taking on the burden of making sure the secondary is aligned properly every play.

Dallas does not have that kind of talented safety. That means the team would have to hope Thomas is something he hasn’t historically been, despite being 31 years old and in the winter of his career.

Locker room chemistry

The Seahawks felt like Thomas was an elite player whose personality was a bit of an outlier when it came to the leadership cast. He was never voted a team captain. Although, in fairness, the franchise had a lot of talent and only so many opportunities for that distinction.

Outside of his play on the field, Thomas also was never forced into the alpha role in the locker room. There were always multiple players who took that mantle. Once Seattle hoped he could step into that role following the end of Chancellor’s career, it not only didn’t happen ... it fell flat in the middle of Thomas’ extension talks going sideways.

Ultimately, he was never a player who broke Seattle’s locker room, but he never materialized as someone who galvanized it, either.

In Baltimore, it’s fair to say a number of players and surrounding personnel in the organization didn’t care for Thomas in the locker room.

The Ravens’ 2019 success covered up the griping. There was a hope he would return, following the COVID-19 offseason break, as someone who could be a dedicated teammate and would fit in more seamlessly as a leader.

As one Ravens source pointed out, this was a franchise that made it work with guys like Steve Smith, Anquan Boldin and Marcus Peters. They could be a handful as personalities, but they ultimately established immense respect rather than rubbing teammates the wrong way.

That never happened with Thomas. Then during 2020 training camp, he punched Chuck Clark, who has a reputation as a humble, hard-working and very popular teammate. That was the last straw as far as some Ravens players were concerned.

Earl Thomas looks toward the camera with Chuck Clark turned away.
Safeties Earl Thomas, left, and Chuck Clark go through drills during Ravens training camp on Aug. 18, 2020, before the practice fight that ended Thomas' tenure in Baltimore. (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Off-field trust

His Seahawks run — despite an unceremonious end that led to him flipping off his own sideline — wasn’t marred by a lot of trust issues. But the Ravens? It went south fast.

The first major blow: Baltimore’s brain trust was furious about having no advance warning about a highly publicized domestic incident between Thomas and his wife, which mushroomed when TMZ printed the salacious details and left the Ravens scrambling to catch up.

The Ravens also were upset that Thomas chose his social media accounts as an avenue to try and sweep the incident away, rather than relying on silence and guidance from the franchise.

That wasn’t the only significant breach.

A second, and ultimately relationship-ending, issue developed at a critical moment when Baltimore was deciding whether the situation with Thomas could be salvaged following his fight with Clark.

That was when Thomas posted parts of practice film on his social media pages, which the team considered a massive slap in the face. Some in the organization knew at that moment that there would be no turning back. Even Thomas’ limited supporters acknowledged internally that it was time to leave him behind.

It was a moment that cemented a belief among some in the organization that Thomas was a selfish player who would repeatedly put himself ahead of the team both on and off the field whenever he felt it suited him.

What does all of this have to do with the Cowboys’ ultimate decision to pass on Thomas?

A lot, considering the team’s history of missteps with red-flagged players who ultimately undermined the messaging being sent to younger players. While Thomas can’t be put in the same category as Greg Hardy, there is still a lingering residue of Hardy being a selfish player who often ran counter to the team’s messaging about personal responsibility. That residue is not something team ownership wants inside the building again.

Time will tell if Thomas is indeed that kind of player — or whether he has lost a step or needs elite players next to him to cover for his decision-making.

Whatever his playing reality is at 31 years old and on his third team in three seasons, it won’t be Dallas showcasing it. Which is saying something, considering what the Dallas secondary has showcased this seaason.

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