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Love's Labours Lost: Honoring Saints Running Back Pierre Thomas

On the departure of Pierre Thomas, the ultimate fan favorite.

Pierre Thomas.  Saint among Saints.
Pierre Thomas. Saint among Saints.
Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

After a 7th grade year laboring on the kickoff team, I was approached by Coach Mayfield, Chastain Middle School's Defensive Coordinator, and was told that I would be a team Captain my eighth grade year.  Naturally, I was honored, but the fact that Chastain was a large, competitive school that had served as an incubator for a few professional athletes coupled with my natural all-encompassing Middle School insecurity, it didn't allow my to rest easy.

I still had the feeling that if I didn't impress at tryouts I would be cut, so I killed myself on sprints, I popped up at the first inkling of instruction, I shouted "Yes sirs" to the point of being weird.  Finally, Coach Mayfield pulled me aside and said "Freak (I shared a nickname and number with Jevon Kearse), you're good.  You're gonna start."  I can't tell you how comforting that vote of confidence was.  That may be why every year, when Pierre Thomas didn't receive that talk, I felt for him.

The story of Pierre Thomas's time with the New Orleans Saints is truly an odd one.  Every year, he would enter the season second or third on the depth chart, and every year he would end up the starter.  Somehow, he could never prove himself enough times to warrant the starting job at the beginning of the year.  This seems to have to do with some odd, positionally specific elitism on Sean Payton's part.  He was perfectly comfortable with his O-line and receiving corps being filled with the unknowns and toss-offs from the furthest regions of the scouting world, but for some reason, Sean has always preferred a Heisman winner running between the tackles, even when that guy isn't as effective as an undrafted workhorse from Illinois.

Reggie Bush joined the Saints in 2006 as Payton's first ever pick as the coach of the Saints, going second overall (ahead of D'Brickashaw Ferguson, Haloti Ngata, Antonio Cromartie, and Tamba Hali, in case you were wondering).  Pierre Thomas joined the team in 2007 after accepting an invite to camp from Special Teams Coach Greg McMahon and beat out fourth round pick Antonio Pittman for the third running back spot.

Both Bush and Thomas were nominally Deuce McAllister's backups until 2009, but as you all likely remember, the greatest running back in Saints history was pretty banged up his last couple seasons, so Bush got 19 starts in 2007 and 2008 and Thomas got 11, despite the fact that PT averaged a full yard more per carry and a yard and half per reception more than Reggie.

2009 saw a shift to a multiple back by design model that gave Thomas more touches and used Bush almost exclusively as a scat back, and it was Bush's most efficient year as a Saint by far, producing 5.6 YPC and 7.1 YPR.  Thomas just kept on doing his thing, averaging a career-high 5.4 YPC (on over twice as many carries) and 7.7 yards per reception.  The final year the two of them played together was basically a wash; both got injured before the year was halfway over and we ended up losing to Seattle in the first round of the playoffs using our fifth string running back.

Every single year, fantasy pundits would predict it would be Bush's breakout year, and every year Thomas would quietly outperform him in every facet of the game (Bush was also useless at pass protection, a consistent strength of Thomas's).  To get a sense of how solid Pierre was and how frustrating Reggie could be, have a look at their fumble numbers:  in his five years with the Saints, Bush fumbled the ball an amazing 19 times, 10 of which resulted in turnovers.  In eight years with the Saints, Thomas fumbled the ball an equally but oppositely amazing six times, losing only four.

When the Saints let Bush walk after five years and brought in Darren Sproles as a much better, cheaper version of him, I assumed Thomas had finally secured the starting between-the-tackles job he'd so amply demonstrated he was capable of shouldering.  Alas, that was not to be.  In 2011, Payton decided to trade up at the tail end of the first round of the draft and once again take the first running back in the draft, this time Mark Ingram, the Heisman winner from Alabama.

The results were nearly identical.  Ingram started the year off as the starter before getting hurt, racking up 3.9 YPC to Thomas's 5.1.  In 2012, Ingram remained at 3.9, but Thomas slipped to a still respectable 4.5 YPC as the offense became the most pass-happy of the Payton/Brees era, slotting Sproles as the most featured back despite not getting many carries.  Ingram showed signs of growth in 2013, becoming the first running back in Thomas's career to average more yards per carry than PT; still, this was the year that Thomas led the team in receptions at 77, showcasing his elite skill in the screen game.  Then finally, last year, considered Ingram's breakout season, Thomas still outgained him 4.9 to 4.3 YPC, albeit with a much lighter workload.

I understand that Pierre Thomas is a 30-year-old running back with a lot of miles and that the Saints are a cash-strapped team.  Hard decisions must be made and I'd be equally if not more devastated if we'd said goodbye to Marques Colston.  But I see no point in justifying this hard decision by criticizing a guy who's been integral and a rock for us through the Golden Years.  I've particularly heard the knock that he couldn't stay on the field.  He wasn't exactly an iron man, but the idea that he was made of glass is errant; excluding the outlier 2010 season in which he missed 10 games, he only missed 1.5 games per season on average at an especially high-impact position.

It's always going to sting me that Pierre Thomas was never entrusted as the main running back in the Saints offense.  He was the ultimate good soldier, willing to do whatever.  So maybe that's the wrong way to look at it; in so many ways he was an ideal Saint and the perfect fan favorite:  ever-present smile, member of the community, team player.  Pierre took what he was given and made more of it every single year and was never discouraged.  He played with fire and grit and joy.  Instead of mourning the career that could have been, let's celebrate an all-time great Saint and wish him good health and success wherever he may go.  God speed, PT; you'll always be a member of the Who Dat Nation.