As the Saints cleared out their lockers a few days after their shocking playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks, Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas talked to reporters about their uncertain futures in New Orleans while standing less than 10 yards apart.
The Saints kept the right guy. While former No. 2 overall pick Bush was a non-factor on Sunday as his new team, the Miami Dolphins, fell to 0-2, the perpetually underrated Thomas, undrafted out of Illinois in 2007, helped the Saints (1-1) win a game they had to have against the Bears.
His numbers, as usual, were understated – 41 rushing yards and 14 receiving yards.
Watch him on screens, though, and he provides a textbook example of how to set up blocks and make the most of the play. His 12-yard gain in the second quarter was the perfect illustration, as he slowed down to wait for the linemen to get in front of him, found the gap they created and picked up a key first down to the Chicago 18.
“The biggest thing is you have to have patience,” Thomas said. “I have to wait for my guys. They say you have to do a good acting job on screens. I try to act like I’m sitting there blocking.”
That little stuff often is the difference between a contender and a pretender. With leading receiver Marques Colston sidelined by a broken clavicle, the Saints needed contributions from everyone to make sure they had no hangover effect from a tough loss to Green Bay on opening night.
Thomas, who grew up in the Chicago suburb of Lynwood, Ill., took extra satisfaction in beating the Bears. He was not around for the Saints’ 2006 NFC Championship Game loss in Chicago, but New Orleans came up short in the Windy City in 2007 and 2008 December meetings despite his huge performances.
“Every time that we played, we played there, so it was a good time that they came here and got a taste of what the Superdome is like and how our fans are like,” he said. “We got a taste of how that cold is in Chicago, but they also got a taste of what New Orleans is like. We’re happy with the results.”
The mercurial Devery Henderson provided the most spectacular moment, using his blazing speed to haul in a strike from Brees on the dead run to put New Orleans ahead for good on a 79-yard touchdown reception.
Old reliable, Thomas, filled in the gaps. He averaged 4.6 yards on his nine carries, better than running back mates Mark Ingram and Darren Sproles in the Saints’ effective three-player rotation.
The system reminded him of 2009, when he, Bush and Mike Bell shared the workload.
“We did a great job of rotating then, and we’re doing the same thing here,” Thomas said. We have two good guys that came to our system. I feel comfortable with it, and I know they do, too. I’m happy. When my name gets called, I’m going to do what I have to do.”
Sunday actually was not a vintage Thomas performance. He dropped a swing pass in the third quarter, and after the outcome had been decided, could not hold on to a slight overthrow from Brees on a wheel route that could have gone for 40 yards.
But the Saints will benefit from his skill set all season as they try to recapture the mojo they had in winning the Super Bowl two years ago.
That would have been much tougher if New Orleans had not signed him to a four-year deal in March when many analysts thought they would let him go. A lingering high ankle sprain limited him to six games last season, when he recorded career lows for average per carry (3.2) and average per catch (6.9).
Healthy in 2008 and 2009, he averaged 4.8 yards and 5.4 yards per carry, respectively.
“I’ve always been looked at as an underdog,” Thomas said. “People told me you’re not going to make it, you’re too small, so many bad things, but I never listened to them. I just kept going, doing my own thing. I’m glad I have good people on my side encouraging me to do the right thing, and now I’m here. Look at me now, that’s all I have to say.”