The Earl Thomas situation gets even more real with training camp over and the regular season beginning.
For the Seattle Seahawks, it's unproven-replacement-with-zero-career-starts, games-now-count real.
For Thomas, it's $500,000-a-week real.
That's the whopping amount the All-Pro free safety stands to forfeit now that his holdout has continued into Week 1.
For anyone following closely, this has been the expected outcome. Neither Thomas nor the Seahawks have budged and are about as dug in as two parties can be. Thomas' holdout was never about merely getting a point across by missing a few weeks and then showing back up. It was about using the only leverage he has to secure a new deal, and more recently, trying to force a trade when it became clear he wasn't getting one.
But that approach gets a lot more expensive in September compared to July and August.
The NFL's collective bargaining agreement allows teams to fine holdouts up to $40,000 for every day of training camp they miss. The Seahawks can also dock Thomas 25 percent of his $1.9 million signing bonus proration for 2018, which comes out to another $475,000. Throw in the $84,000 and change from skipping mandatory minicamp and the tab to this point is somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.6 million. The exact total depends on how many days over the past five weeks actually count.
Those fines are technically at the team's discretion. In theory, the two sides could work out a deal that reduces the amount.
Whether or not the Seahawks hold Thomas to every last fine dollar he has racked up so far, this is when a holdout's resolve really gets tested. Not only is the money Thomas stands to lose from here on out non-negotiable, it's a lot steeper. Every game he misses means missing out on half a million dollars, which is one-seventeenth of his $8.5 million base salary.
Plus, he has to show up at some point this season to avoid having the final year of his contract toll into 2019. According to former NFL agent Joel Corry, who writes about contract matters for CBSSports.com, there's no clear standard for how many missed games would cause a contract to toll, but he thinks a holdout would want to return by the trade deadline -- which is Oct. 30 this year -- to be safe.
And even waiting that long would mean forfeiting seven game checks worth a combined $3.5 million.
It's why showing up at some point over the first half of the season seems like the most probable of any potential outcome for Thomas.
It's either that or ...
1. Thomas continues to hold out all season. This is hard to imagine. Not only would Thomas miss out on his entire $8.5 million salary, but he would risk being in the same position he's in now -- still a year away from free agency because his contract would toll.
2. The Seahawks reverse course and extend Thomas. This is the unlikeliest outcome by far. It's fair to wonder why an All-Pro defensive pillar such as Thomas doesn't seem to be in the team's long-term plans, but whatever the reason, there hasn't been the slightest indication that they're at all interested in giving him a new deal right now.
3. The Seahawks get a suitable trade offer for Thomas and take it. This is still a possibility, but as ESPN's Adam Schefter reported over the weekend, it would take another team making an offer to Seattle that it has yet to get. One would assume it could take a team in a desperate situation for that to happen. Why else would one increase its offer so late in the game, when Thomas would have to scramble to learn a new system and work himself into football shape?
In the meantime, Thomas had been posting daily Instagram photos of his workouts from his home state of Texas before a picture surfaced of him at Sea-Tac airport on Monday, though his apparent return to Seattle is not believed to be a sign of any change to the situation. When asked Monday if there has been any additional communication with Thomas, head coach Pete Carroll paused and said there's "nothing to report." The Seahawks have been preparing to start Tedric Thompson at free safety alongside Bradley McDougald, who's taking over for Kam Chancellor at strong safety. A fourth-round pick last year, Thompson developed a reputation as a play-maker at Colorado and has shown as much at times over the summer. But he's no Thomas in that regard -- no one is -- and he has all of seven regular-season defensive snaps under his belt.
Thompson suffered a stinger in the team's third preseason game, but Carroll has said he's expected to be fine for Sunday's opener.
The defense that lines up for Seattle against the Broncos in Denver might be hard for some to recognize. Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril are gone from the defensive line, where there's a major question about Seattle's ability to generate a pass rush. The secondary no longer has its lockdown cornerback in Richard Sherman or its enforcer in Chancellor. One of the most experienced remaining members of that defense, linebacker K.J. Wright, likely won't play because of a knee injury.
And Thomas won't be there to patrol the back end and erase big plays like he has done as well as any safety over his eight seasons.
"You can't focus on the people that's not here because we did that one year," middle linebacker Bobby Wagner said in reference to Chancellor's 2015 holdout. "You were kind of wondering more so when the guy was coming back versus [focusing on] the people that were in the building. So this go-around, I feel like we've shown Earl that we support him, we've shown him that we welcome him, we want him back. But at the same time, it's like, we've got a season coming, and we've got to be ready, we've got to be focused and we have to make sure the guys that are in there, let them know that we have confidence in them."
No one can be sure exactly how this will end, just that it's about to get a lot more costly -- maybe for Seattle and undoubtedly for Thomas.