METAIRIE - For all intents and purposes, the New Orleans Saints’ ability to run the ball effectively last season was crushed in a devastating Week 3 loss to the Atlanta Falcons.
With all due respect to former Saints running back Reggie Bush, who fractured his fibula six days earlier at San Francisco, a bigger loss came against the Falcons when Pierre Thomas injured his left ankle in the final minutes of regulation of an eventual 27-24 setback.
Bush, who was traded to Miami last week, missed eight games because of his injury. Thomas, a fifth-year pro, was sidelined for 10 games - plus a shocking first-round playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks.
While the dangerous Bush gave the Saints offense a chance to hit a home run on any play, Thomas, a smallish back with a low center of gravity, has been consistent in his ability to hide behind blockers, remain patient and then sliver between defenders.
The Saints managed to post a 7-4 record in games Thomas didn’t play, but they seemed to miss the spark the exuberant 26-year-old brings to the field - and the huddle.
“Pierre?s got unbelievable balance and he puts his blockers on defenders,” right tackle Jon Stinchcomb said. “He does a great job of setting up his linemen to be in position to create a little crease for him to hit.
“He brings a poise and a certain calm into that huddle knowing that you have a guy behind you that can turn a 4-yard gain into a 7- or 8-yard gain with his drive and balance,” Stinchcomb said. “Even if he gets shut down one play, he’s right back at it the next play.”
It’s the kind of patience that’s allowed Thomas, an undrafted free agent in 2007 who surprisingly outplayed fourth-round draft pick Antonio Pittman to earn a roster spot, become a well-respected and productive part of the Saints’ high-powered offense.
Four years later, Thomas is the senior member of the Saints backfield following the trade of Bush to the Dolphins.
How Thomas got there doesn?t matter; what matters is that his ankle is almost all the way back after having surgery in late January and he has a new four-year, $10.9 million contract to go with it.
“Well, it’s a business -you never know what?s going to happen,” Thomas said when asked if it was surreal that he?s still around and Bush, the second pick of the 2006 draft, is gone. “It doesn’t matter when you were drafted or if you were even drafted at all.
“You just put everything on the line when you step onto that field,” said Thomas, who out-produced Bush by 547 yards from scrimmage and seven touchdowns from 2008-10. “It is what it is when it comes to the draft. If you were drafted or not, you have to show what you?ve got on this field.”
After playing in 2007 behind veterans Deuce McAllister and Aaron Stecker, as well as Bush, Thomas became a force in 2008 when he had 909 rushing and receiving yards from scrimmage and 12 total touchdowns.
A year later, Thomas topped that with 1,095 total yards and eight TDs even though he was part of a backfield by committee that also included Bush and Mike Bell. Together, they helped the Saints rank sixth in rushing with 131.6 yards per game.
In the postseason, Thomas continued his solid play and became a part of Saints? lore by scoring the franchise’s first Super Bowl touchdown on a 16-yard screen pass in a 31-17 win over the Indianapolis Colts.
The Chicago native also scored a pair of touchdowns in the NFC title game victory over the Minnesota Vikings that sent the Saints to their first Super Bowl.
But as great as that season was, 2010 was a washout for Thomas. His ankle injury was part of the reason the Saints dropped to 28th in rushing with 94.9 yards per game - about 36 fewer yards a game than the year before.
Saints coach Sean Payton is hoping a healthy Thomas, along with second-year pro Chris Ivory and 2009 Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram, can help rejuvenate their running game this fall.
“I think it’s important that we have that balance from a team concept,” Payton said. ?”It helps us win the time of possession, and helps with what we want to do in the play-action passing game. It’s certainly a big emphasis for us.”
A lot of it will depend on Thomas, who’s shown flashes of his old self in the first week of training camp even though he admitted he was only about 85 or 90 percent? healthy for the first practice.
“I would say I have to get more strength in it, but otherwise I?m good,? he said. ?I feel happy about it; I worked my tail off this off-season just focusing on rehabbing my ankle so I could be ready for the season. I didn?t want to sit out any games, I just wanted to be prepared for the season.
“I wanted to come out here and make people think that I didn’t even have surgery. I didn’t want be out here limping a little bit; I wanted to show people I?m back to where I used to be.”
The Saints practiced Thursday afternoon as a full squad for the first time in training camp after the NFL players ratified the new collective bargaining agreement. The 90-man squad worked indoors in full pads, also a first since camp opened last week, for a little more than two hours under the watchful eyes of a full officiating crew that included three NFL officials - led by referee Clete Blakeman - and four college officials. “I thought we handled things well with the pads, and the tempo was good,”? coach Sean Payton said. “I thought we handled everything logistically... The Saints had to make five cuts to reach the 90-man limit. Released were RB Lynell Hamilton, QB Ryan Colburn, T Mike Smith, T Harold Beilby, TE Harry Flaherty and RB C.J. Gable. They also signed former Arizona cornerback Trumaine McBride. ... Payton said releasing Hamilton, who tore his ACL in camp last year, was one of the most difficult decisions he’s had to make in six years with the team considering how hard Hamilton worked to get back. But, Payton said, a backfield stocked with young players made the three-year veteran expendable. ... Not practicing Thursday were CB Tracy Porter (knee), RB Chris Ivory (foot), T Charles Brown (hamstring), DE Greg Roemus (knee), WR Michael Galatas (knee) and LB Ezra Butler (hamstring).