Baby, let’s cruise away from here
Don’t be confused, the way (to the End Zone) is clear
And if you want it, you got it forever
This is not a one night stand, baby
Let the music take your mind
Just release, and you will find
You’re gonna fly away, glad you’re going my way
I love it when we’re cruisin’ together
“Cruisin’ “, sung by William “Smokey” Robinson, 1979
Last night on Saints and NFL analyst Walter “Reverend Deuce” Windham’s Who Dat Confessional radio show that I co-host with him every Monday night, both Windham and I commented on the remarkable durability of Saints RB Pierre Thomas. Now entering into his 8th season as an NFL RB, Thomas is nearing the average age of an NFL back’s longetivity (right at 30 years old). During his time in the league however, the 29 year-old Thomas has been an anomaly.
Not only has he remained in the league for eight seasons against all of the odds stacked in front of him, but he has done so all with one team — a team that’s been very successful in that time. After an impressive showing against the Indianapolis Colts this past Saturday, it would seem that the lovable Thomas (easily among the most beloved players to EVER wear a Saints uniform), who at times goes by the nicknames PT23 or “The PT Cruiser” (after the car of the same name) is going to have another solid season for the Saints. In fact, it almost seems (to borrow a phrase since we’re on car analogies) that Thomas has shifted his career into cruise control as he keeps steadily moving on.
As Thomas wowed Windham and myself along with the rest of Who Dat Nation with a spectacular 26 yard catch-and-run off of a perfectly executed screen pass from QB Drew Brees on the near flawless opening 13 play, 80-yard drive, I couldn’t help but think to myself that Thomas looked as if he were playing with a renewed sense of passion and rejuvenation. It was just days prior to the Colts game in a post practice interview when Thomas said that: “(Other RBs) are gonna have to put me on the bench, and that’s gonna be hard to do.” After Saturday night’s performance, I’d have to wholeheartedly agree with that statement.
Whenever I think about the “greatest” RB’s of all-time in New Orleans Saints history, there honestly are only a small handful that ever made a significant impact throughout the entire NFL. There of course was THE greatest RB in the club’s all-time leader in TD’s and rushing yards in Deuce McAllister; who retired in early 2009 right before the Saints won the Super Bowl in early February the following year.
There was former La. state high school (Patterson) and LSU legend RB Dalton Hilliard; who was a key part of the team’s first taste of prolonged success in the late 80’s and early 90’s. There was my personal favorite as a young kid growing up during the late 1970′s, California University All-American and Pro Bowl RB Chuck Muncie, whose tenure as a Saint sadly came to an end because of his unfortunate cocaine addiction.
But none of those gentlemen that I just mentioned including McAllister himself, may end up rivaling the sure and steady Thomas — who hails from Chicago, Illinois by way of the island nation of Haiti. Out of all of those backs, Thomas is the only Saints RB to win a World Championship as an active player — as he continues cruising along as a key part of the Saints offensive attack for most of the Sean Payton Era.
Pierre Thomas, if nothing else, has been a model of consistency in the NFL. Most backup running backs don’t stay in the league for as long as Thomas has. Whether it be coaching changes, player cuts, salary issues, a simple lack of productivity, or because their bodies can no longer take the physical punishment — these players tend to not last in the NFL.
Among active running backs, Thomas ranks 26th in total rushing yards, with 3, 523 for his career. While those numbers are anything but staggering, consider the fact that he only led his team in carries for two out of his seven seasons. His 4.6 career yards-per-carry suggests that when he is given opportunities, he makes the absolute most of them. For comparison, Adrian Peterson (who of course receives more defensive attention) averages 5.0 yards per carry for his career.
Now while you can believe that I’m not actually crazy enough to start comparing the two, my intent is to simply show that Thomas is if nothing else, wildly efficient. Where Thomas really stands out though, is his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. When you factor receiving yards into the equation, Thomas then moves from 26th to 19th to total yards among active backs.
His 332 career receptions average out to 40 per season, including last year when he tied Antonio Gates with a whopping 77 catches, but Thomas did so on only 84 targets compared to Gates’ 116. Drew Brees and Thomas connected on 91.6% of their tries. By comparison, Redskins WR Pierre Garcon, who led the NFL in receptions last year, caught only 61% of the balls thrown his way.
Surprisingly, it is Saints special teams coach (and Sean Payton’s good friend) Greg McMahon that is actually responsible for helping to jump-start Thomas’ NFL career. Thomas wasn’t intriguing enough to be one of the 326 draft prospects invited to the 2007 NFL scouting combine. After the draft, McMahon, who had been on then Illinois head coach Ron Turner’s (Norv Turner’s little brother) Illini staff, spoke up for Thomas. So the Saints decided to invest a $5,000 signing bonus in him even though his numbers (5 feet, 11 inches tall, 205 pounds, 4.67 seconds in the 40-yard dash) were largely unimpressive.
It was McMahon who recommended Thomas to Turner at Illinois after watching him play for Thornton Fractional South High School (because of overcrowding in the late 1950′s, the original Thornton High was split in half along north and south county lines) against his son Drew’s Champaign Central team. McMahon had become aware of Thomas because McMahon’s best friend since kindergarten, Hap Farlow, was an assistant principal at Thornton Fractional South.
NFL teams never tried to measure the heart of a player whose determination was evident even as a youngster in the Chicago suburb of Lynwood, where he grew up rooting for the Bears. There, the young Charles Pierre Thomas Jr. would put weights in his backpack, strap it to his back using towels as cushions and run up a hill. With the help of a friend, he also would put an old Dodge Dynasty in neutral and push the car for a couple of blocks at a time to build up his lower leg strength.
Thomas was a two-time All-State selection at running back by the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune; totaling over 5,522 rushing yards for his career along with 88 touchdowns (an average of 22 a year). He gained over 3,200 yards as a sophomore and junior, before racking up 2,365 yards and 38 scores during his huge senior season, which included a memorable career-high 304 rushing yards in a single game in 2002. Thomas finished with 27 100-yard rushing games, including 11 of them that were over 200 yards. He subsequently was rated the No. 1 player in the SICA Orange Conference in 2002. Thomas ended up earning All-Area and All-Conference honors as a sophomore, junior and senior.
Thomas’ college career at Illinois was solid but unspectacular. He suffered a severe ankle injury during his freshman year that lingered into the next season. Then just as he was becoming the offensive centerpiece under Coach Ron Turner, he was replaced by Ron Zook; who brought more of a committee approach at tailback. It’s hard to blame Zook for Thomas’ “demotion”, since the former Saints defensive coordinator also had future NFL first-round pick Rashard Mendenhall at his disposal.
Nevertheless, Thomas still led the Illini in rushing each of his final three seasons. He finished his career with 2,545 rushing yards, 23 touchdowns and an average of 5.6 yards per carry, and was a standout kickoff returner as well. Thomas broke the school record for career kickoff return yardage with 1,495 yards. He still ranks sixth on the Illini career rushing list; and ranks second on the Illini career all-purpose yardage list with a total of 4,451 yards that included nine career 100-yard rushing games at tailback. He was the Illini’s team MVP in both his sophomore and junior seasons.
“I feel happy. I feel blessed. I’ve been through a lot in my journey; a lot of ups and downs. I’ve been told I was too small and I’m not going to make it. You’re not athletic enough. I heard nothing but negativity but my coaches, my friends, my family, kept me on the positive side. I didn’t fight. I didn’t complain. I just said when I get my opportunity, I’m gonna break the door down and that’s what I did. The Saints gave me an opportunity to go out there and show what I have.” — Saints RB Pierre Thomas, in a 2012 interview
After the 2007 draft wrapped up, Thomas refused to be bitter or feel sorry for himself. The Saints’ website refers to Pierre Thomas as “an exceptional find” after being signed as an undrafted free agent in 2007. Thomas originally made his mark as a special teams ace as a rookie, but unexpectedly evolved into one of the most productive running backs in franchise history by becoming a threat as both a receiver and blocker (only former ’80′s All-Pro Dalton Hilliard even comes anywhere close).
Thomas turned heads in minicamps and training camp before having a few standout performances in the Saints’ preseason games that year (446 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns). Thomas ended up making the 53-man roster and that year’s 4th Round draft choice at RB, Ohio State’s Antonio Pittman, was cut as a result.He played sparingly (on special teams) until he was forced to fill in at tailback (due to injuries to McAllister) late in the season and made his first career start in Week 17.
It ended up being his “breakout performance” and actually came during his first visit back home to Chicago, in a December game at Soldier Field near the end of the 2007 season. Thomas had 226 total yards from scrimmage, 105 of them rushing yards.He completely “wowed” the hometown crowd by becoming the first player in Saints history to gain more than 100 yards rushing and 100 yards receiving in the same game– despite playing with cracked ribs. Thomas earned his place in the running back rotation after that, and he’s been the Saints’ leading rusher ever since.
He has also filled in at kickoff returner when needed, like he did at the start of overtime in the NFC title game. Also in that game, Thomas scored on a 38-yard screen pass in the first quarter, a 9-yard run in the third quarter, and he gained a crucial first down on fourth-and-1 in overtime. When then-kicker Garrett Hartley sent the winning 40-yard field goal between the uprights a few plays later, Thomas was the first player to burst off the sideline and sprint onto the field.
It’s easy to see why the Saints coach staff has kept him around despite what would seem to be inevitable odds stacked against him. Thomas has remained steadfast in his role with the team — an important one that ultimately is still a vital part of the team’s overall success. Speculation at the moment (by myself included, recently) is that this could indeed be Thomas’ final one in the Black and Gold; mostly because perhaps that mythical age for an NFL RB is quickly approaching, and perhaps more so due to salary cap considerations in 2015.
However, after Saturday night’s impressive performance with the first unit during the first half of the win against the Colts; Thomas showed that he still has plenty of gas left in the proverbial tank. No matter what happens, Thomas’ contributions to this franchise are both unquestioned and even unrivaled in some aspects. His role and performance in Super Bowl XLIV is one that will be remembered forever by myself and the rest of the Saints fan-base, and I have no doubts whatsoever that we’ll see the number #23 up on the Superdome Wall of Fame someday. Until then, the “PT Cruiser” will continue to do what he does best: shifting his many talents into ‘cruise control’, as he steadily just keeps moving on…………………