He is unflappable. Tra Thomas lounges in his locker after Wednesday's practice and answers questions about Vikings defensive end Jared Allen, about the pressure of the playoffs, about the crowd noise in the Metrodome. Hey, he has respect for all of it, he really does, but hasn't Thomas seen everything since the Eagles made him a first-round pick in 1998?
Thomas, a three-time Pro Bowl player, has been through coaching changes. He has been part of the franchise's resurrection from NFL doormats to a team that has reached the playoffs in seven of the last nine seasons. He has faced big, powerful right ends and small, quick ends and speed demons from the 3-4 and blitzing cornerbacks and, well, didn't we just get through a week during which the talk was of Dallas' DeMarcus Ware and his 20 1/2 sacks and didn't Thomas have to answer all of those questions, too?
"And then he left with as many sacks as he came with and nobody said anything," said Thomas, laughing. "I guess that's just the way it goes. It seems like I get the best pass rusher every week. It's a compliment. I know that. It's my job."
The Allen vs. Thomas battle on Sunday is a big one, no question about it. Allen comes into the game with 14 1/2 sacks after Minnesota traded a first-round pick and two third-round picks for Allen, and the Vikings couldn't be any more pleased with the deal. Allen's energy and production helped take the Vikings defense to a new level in 2008, helped them win the NFC North and now provides the team with a lot of confidence heading into Sunday's game.
Thomas has seen enough of Allen to know what to expect: The veteran tackle has to be on his game on every snap of the ball.
"He's a physical player with a high motor. He's another great end that I'm going to see. I've seen pretty much everything and he is a great player," said Thomas. "(Offensive line coach) Juan (Castillo) reminded me that I had seen him in Kansas City, but I really don't remember him from that game. He's a great athlete and he is a having a great season. He's coming in with a lot of sacks."
And maybe he'll go out with the same number of sacks. Thomas isn't a tackle who does the paralysis-by-analysis thing. He has seen enough of Allen, just enough, to become familiar with his moves, his tendencies and his tempo. But for great tackles like Thomas, the art of the block is more about handling his business instead of relying on a defensive end to dictate the game.
In other words, Thomas knows that he has to fine-tune his footwork, his hand placement and his balance. If he does all of those things, well, the results have largely been favorable over the years to the point where Thomas is one of the franchise's all-time great left tackles.
"I'll watch the cut-ups they give us. I don't like to watch a lot of games. I can kind of get a feel for what they give us, and then I'll watch some extra film and see some more things," said Thomas. "There's a lot riding on this game. It's not about what he is doing. It's about what I'm doing, about having my timing down, about my reaction. I don't like to study another player too much, because I don't want to wait on a certain move and when that move never comes you get beat on everything else. I try to get a basic feel for him and then take it from there."
The playoffs are a different kind of game, as we understand. There is more pressure and the tempo is faster and blah, blah, blah. This is all just mumbo-jumbo for Thomas, who has played in 165 games as an Eagle. Thomas knows the routine, understands the drum beat of the week and makes sure to take care of his body meticulously in the days between games.
On Wednesday, the Eagles pumped in crowd noise in the practice facility of the NovaCare Complex, as they do every time they are about to play in a hostile environment. Thomas does his thing, lining up at left tackle, watching for the snap of the ball, and the making sure to get his foot work down properly as he works against a player like rookie Bryan Smith. It is Smith's job to provide a good week of "looks" for Thomas. What they do in practice is nothing like the game speed that Thomas will see on Sunday, but it is a start.
Once the game begins, the tempo takes on its own life.
"Everybody is paying attention, I guess so. For me, it's just technique. Juan does a good job of getting us prepared and of working on our technique. He isn't going to let us slide on that," said Thomas. "We went out there today and he was acting like it was our first week, but that's good. Sometimes as a player, you get tired of it, but you know that at the end of the day, it's all for your benefit.
"The playoffs are different. Speed of the game, intensity. Knowing that if you lose the game, that's it. It's a whole new ballgame. That first play, its right there. Fast right off the start. I would prefer to run, and at least get some positive yards, start the clock ticking away, but it's not up to me and it really doesn't matter. It's my job to be right on every play."
If we don't notice Thomas, and the reporters don't crowd around his locker after the game, he has more than done his job. The goal is always to pitch a shutout, but that rarely happens against players as great as Allen. Going head to head for 60 to 70 snaps a game is a primal sort of sports war, and Thomas loves it.
"Oh, it's fun. I enjoy the challenge of it, the wins, the guys," said Thomas. "This team is something special. It means a lot. We defied all the odds and we stayed together as a team and we turned it on as a team."
Step one of the playoffs starts against Minnesota on Sunday. Thomas comes right out of the chute with a Pro Bowl defensive end on his outside shoulder. All he has to do is play as close to a perfect game as possible. And if Thomas does that, nobody will say much of anything to him afterward, and the veteran, one of the greatest to ever play the position in an Eagles uniform, will move silently to his next challenge.