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The Ascendancy of Michael Thomas

The Ascendancy of Michael Thomas

Why Michael Thomas? It’s not in the name, which is too normal. Michael Thomas wasn’t even the only wide receiver named Michael Thomas selected in the 2016 NFL Draft (the other, from Southern Miss, went in the sixth round to the Rams). That didn’t matter: Last year, Thomas busted the ceiling off the B&G Hype Meter and kept flying.

Before 2016 ended, Thomas had become the sort of player that makes you lean in your seat towards the field or the television when you realize he’s got the football. Reggie Bush was that sort of player before his flaws overtook his skills in the collective fan consciousness; 2011 Darren Sproles, too; and, at his berserker best, also Jimmy Graham.

None of those guys, though, save Bush before his NFL career was really underway, possessed an aura of impending superstardom quite like the one hovering around Michael Thomas right now.

What if, even the more pessimistic among us ask ourselves after Thomas goes a routine 60 yards for a touchdown in a scrimmage, this guy is the best player Drew Brees has ever thrown a football to while quarterbacking the Saints?

(NOLA.com

Here’s a list of things that could dim the usual bright excitement you feel for lots of stuff that you love: dreary routine, scary local and national and global events, sickness, mental health issues like depression or anxiety, etc.

That stuff can make it hard to get excited about football even before you add Saints-specific items: three straight years of 7-9, the arrival of good defensive player Nick Fairley followed by the heart health-related so long to good defensive player Nick Fairley, the absence from camp of multiple players the team seems to need for it to do better than 7-9 this year, the mysterious maybe-trade of Delvin Breaux, etc. Drew Brees is getting football old. The end feels near.

So why do we get so excited about the idea of watching second-year wide receiver Michael Thomas play football? During training camp of 2016 I didn’t even like him. I called him Hype, derisively, because I felt fans were glowing over a flawed possession receiver.

Then he was a half-step away from running across the entire field.

Then he caught that pass, against San Francisco, for a touchdown from 35 yards out, a defender in perfect position, the kind of catch you’re not supposed to make, the sort that, since Drew Brees and Sean Payton got here, maybe only Jimmy Graham has been capable of making.

I asked some folks what makes a sports superstar, and got a whole mess of answers. A player has to produce, all of them said, but if production were enough to make you a superstar then Marques Colston would have at least made the damn Pro Bowl. A player needs talent, too, all of them said. But if the intersection of talent and production were enough to make you a superstar, then Brandin Cooks wouldn’t need the Boston sports market and the Belichickian football machine to take the leap, which he will simply by reproducing his New Orleans-era numbers.

You can go through the list of almost-stars looking for evidence. Cooks, for example. The gap between the hyper-Sprolesian gadget receiver we expected him to be and the gentrified Devery Henderson he turned out to be was too great, and so, despite the fact Cooks is a very good receiver, I don’t think his departure made that many Saints fans too sad.

Or look at Reggie Bush, the first celebrity of the Sean Payton era. Expectations extinguish as many stars as they create. As a second overall pick and USC phenomenon, Bush was a failed messiah, the role that had been set up for him in New Orleans quickly usurped by its actual football messiah, Drew Brees. Imagine him as a fourth round draft pick, like Darren Sproles, though — you’d never have felt disappointed in him then. And, sans that disappointment, in the eventual trade he probably would have been worth more than unknown defensive back Jonathan Amaya.

The closest anyone could get to an explanation of what produces sports superstardom was this: The player must do all the routine stuff necessary to outproduce his initial expectations while also doing an unusual number of spectacular things. That makes sense, right? Marques Colston did the everyday stuff but was short on the spectacular; Reggie Bush could manufacture the spectacular, but the rest of the time you were yelling at him because he was running sideways.

Even one defect can knock you out. Jimmy Graham was “soft,” or at least he was injury prone, or maybe it was that he couldn’t block. Drew Brees is a superstar, but winning is a disproportionate condition for quarterbacks, so Brees’s overall greatness still hasn’t been quite enough for him to overcome his team’s run of 7-9 seasons and — for example — make him NFL MVP.

And Brandin Cooks? Brandin Cooks ascended, almost overcame the scourge of initial expectations, and was then swept away by a tsunami named Mike Thomas.

(Art by the great Chris Marroy)

It must have been frustrating for Cooks to experience the rise of Michael Thomas as the first true premier wide receiver the Saints have had since Payton and Brees arrived. Cooks apparently thought he’d be that guy, thought he deserved to be that guy.

But here came Thomas, catching everything during training camp and then catching everything when the games were real. Just a possession receiver, I continued to think for a few weeks. And that was true. Thomas’s 21 catches for 229 yards in the season’s first month were solid, but did not justify the fans’ excitement, I repeated to myself.

Then, over his final ten games, Thomas averaged nearly seven catches per game for over 800 total yards. He caught 80 percent of the throws that went his direction. He broke tackles, made plays after the catch, and — have I mentioned? — he caught that pass against San Francisco.

You can win without the spectacular. Football games, especially on the NFL level, are attention-to-detail, do-your-job affairs that involve thousands of man-hours of study in which coaches and players look for the slightest advantage over the week’s opponent, and the next, and the next.

A friend, talking about the NFL coaching game, once told me that he gets why coaches burn out. “It’s exhausting,” he said. “You look at the same piece of film for days just to get your guy the right leverage, you prepare them perfectly, they play it perfectly, and then some freak like J.J. Watt blows everything up anyway.”

There it is. “And then.” Superstars live in that phrase. They take the perfect plans of your rivals and blow them up anyway. Michael Thomas thrills us because we suspect he can’t be stopped. Spend days watching the film. Spend hour after hour at practice preparing your cornerbacks with the best anti-Thomas technique and building the perfect anti-Thomas scheme.

You can drape a good NFL cornerback and a good NFL safety all over him. Whatever. Drew Brees will still throw the football at him. And when we realize where it’s headed, we’ll lean forward in our chairs, and the breath will catch in all our throats. We know it’s only a matter of time until he makes us scream.

Author

Bradley Warshauer
As a kid: Once read a newspaper so intently over a candle that I did not notice its ignition.