NEW ORLEANS — Sometimes, in a slog of a game, when your season’s on the line and you’re down two touchdowns and absolutely nothing is coming easy, you’ve got to turn to a little hocus-pocus. You’ve got to call Doobie Pump.
And sometimes, when you’ve caught more passes than anyone in the league, and you’re near the end of a long season, and you are just dying to put your team on your back and prove to America and to your home crowd—which, by the way, lost its collective vocal chords in a high-decibel performance for the ages at the Superdome on Sunday—that there’s no better receiver in the NFL, you have to take one for the team. You have to be a decoy.
“At a crucial point of our season,” Drew Brees told me later, “Michael Thomas was a big piece of cheese.”
Thomas caught a Saints postseason-record 12 balls for 171 yards and a touchdown against the Eagles in the divisional playoffs, but it was a ball he didn’t catch that was his biggest contribution to the game … and a play that was his favorite play of his best postseason day.
Eagles 14, Saints 0, midway through the second quarter, fourth-and-goal at the Eagles’ 2-yard line. All eyes on Thomas, one of three Saints receivers to the left of the formation. The Saints, in a very Doug Pederson call, were going for it, and two Eagle defenders cheated toward Thomas as Brees called the cadence. Thomas came in motion from outside the numbers to the slot.
“Plays like this are the cool plays,” Thomas said in a quiet moment by his locker later, after the media herd thinned out. “It’s the kind of play the real coaches and the real players appreciate.”
Brees took the snap, stared at Thomas and pumped his arm forward. Everyone in the place, and Eagles defensive backs Cre’Von LeBlanc and Josh Hawkins, focused on Thomas.
After the game, Sean Payton stood in his office and drew it up on his whiteboard. Three receivers to the left, and the widest, Thomas, motions inside. “Looks like Mike’s gonna get it,” Payton said, stopping the blue marker behind the left guard, “but all of a sudden, it’s a pump. See, most times this season people would see that motion and we’d stick it in there to Mike, but in this case, Drew pumps. Everything about this play was Mike Thomas, till it wasn’t.”
“So,” Brees picks up the story, “I pump to Mike and they’re reacting to it, and that leaves [rookie receiver Keith] Kirkwood with a step on his guy over the top in the end zone, just the way we hoped, and just what happened in practice.”
The key was getting one of the corners, LeBlanc, who was on Kirkwood, to tend to Thomas in the same neighborhood. He did. And Kirkwood got a step on LeBlanc, and Brees’ throw was true. Easy touchdown to Kirkwood. One of the toughest TD drives of the year, from start to finish, for New Orleans, but also one of the most rewarding.
“I really wanted that play to work,” said Thomas. “It’s strange, but sometimes, when I’m getting all these targets from Drew—I caught the most passes in the league this year and didn’t drop many—people don’t really get to know exactly what kind of player I am. You know, I’m kind of selfish, but selfish in a way that I want to see the other guys I play with succeed too.”
Thomas said these “real plays” are the one receivers would talk about away from the field. “That’s the kind of play that the Larry Fitzgeralds and the Anquan Boldins, the great receivers, the guys who go to the Hall of Fame, they do. I’m happy to build my résumé by putting that one out there for people to see.”
That’s the fun thing about the Saints. They had so many issues Sunday, with dumb penalties—guard Andrus Peat was flagged four times, twice for holding—but they keep coming at you. Afterward, Brees reflected on his long tenure, and whether he could have envisioned another shot at a Super Bowl after three straight 7-9 seasons in 2014, ’15 and ’16.
“Well, ’14 and ’15 were tough, really tough,” Brees said. “We lost a ton of guys and it was a different locker room, a different vibe. But after the ’16 season, we made an effort to draft the right guys—guys of character, toughness and intelligence. We rebuilt the foundation and the culture of the team that we had for so long here but somehow we lost. We brought in the right guys, and look at the results.”
“What are you going to do Tuesday?” I asked.
“My birthday?” he said.
“Yeah,” I said. “Your 40th.”
“I’m gonna be sitting there grinding on Rams film,” he said. “Like I always do. I’ve got the whole offseason to celebrate. My son [Baylen] turns 10 Tuesday. He was born on my 30th birthday. So it’ll be all about him. I might get a piece of his birthday cake.”
It’s not often a quarterback gets a second life with many of the same important characters, like Payton and GM Mickey Loomis. But as Brees reveled in it Sunday in his locker room, and as Payton and Loomis told stories postgame with visitor and Saints fan Isiah Thomas, this felt like the good old days, the nine-year-old Super Bowl days, in the Big Easy. That’s the last time I heard the crowd like this—in the NFC Championship Game overtime win against the Vikings. The franchise, and the city, will have a lot to live up to Sunday against the Rams.