Michael Thomas is getting closer to returning. A look behind the decision to shut things down, and what his return would mean

Michael Thomas wanted to play.

When the star wide receiver injured his ankle during the season opener against Tampa Bay, he was determined to beat the prognosis that usually accompanies high-ankle sprains. Everyone around the wide receiver was quick to point out that he is a fast healer and made it clear there was no need for injured reserve because he planned to be back in a couple of weeks.

The Saints wide receiver was determined to compete with the timeline so he could compete on the field. But Thomas wasn’t back in a couple of weeks. His ankle injury was followed by a subsequent hamstring ailment and then the practice incident that led to his suspension. When Thomas finally made it back to the field in Week 9, he performed well, and you wouldn’t know there was anything wrong if you looked at his stats.

But if you watched Thomas closely, how he moved, you could see something different about the reigning Offensive Player of the Year. He knew it, too. It didn’t matter that Thomas had caught 30 passes for 343 during his last four starts. His mind was made up.

In fact, the last game in that equation – eight catches for 84 yards against Philadelphia – didn’t even matter to him. He knew he wasn’t right, and so did everyone else. Late in the week before that game, he told his teammates that he would give it everything he had left and then shut it down until the playoffs.

So, he did, and now the hope is that Thomas will be back to the All-World level — or something closer to it than he was when we last saw him — when he starts playing again.

“I think the last three weeks being down have been great for him,” quarterback Drew Brees said. “And we’ll just take it one step at a time here.”

This isn’t the season Thomas wanted to have. After catching 149 passes for 1,725 yards last year in one of the most unforgettable individual seasons in league history, his 2020 season will be remembered for what happened off of the field. But he can change the narrative with a strong postseason and  four more Saints’ wins.

This season has been bizarre in that it never really started for the New Orleans offense. Between injuries to Thomas and Brees, the regular season felt like a long preseason where things were staying afloat. While the Saints were winning 12 games, most of the conversations were framed in hypotheticals about what the team could be or would be with someone else on the field or something else happening.

Figuring out the answers to all of those questions during the playoffs will be odd. If Thomas plays this weekend against the Bears, it will have been 120 days since he caught a pass from Brees during a game. That’s usually about how long it is between the end of the season and the start of minicamps.

There will have to be some period of acclimation. Expecting Brees and Thomas to simply pick up and go might be unreasonable, and maybe they’ll feel better and more natural with each passing week, but if there are two players who can hit the field and go, it’s these two. Or, perhaps more accurately, it’s this receiver.

Thomas has had no issues settling in with various quarterbacks the last two seasons. He immediately clicked with Teddy Bridgewater last season and was a favorite target of Taysom Hill’s while Brees was out with broken ribs. Last year, when Brees came back from a broken thumb, he hit Thomas 11 times on 11 targets for 152 yards in his first game back.

Thomas can have instant chemistry and succeed with any quarterback because he is so consistent and mechanical in how he runs his routes. There isn’t much surprise with how he does things, which makes it easy on his quarterbacks. One of the giveaways that Thomas wasn’t quite himself was when his routes stopped looking precise. Against Denver, he rounded off a curl when cutting back on a pass that got intercepted. A healthy Thomas plants his foot and snaps back.

There could prove to be benefits of going through the difficulties this season. With Thomas out, Brees and Emmanuel Sanders have developed good chemistry, and injuries have also allowed Marquez Callaway to emerge as a legitimate receiving threat. Brees and Jared Cook have also been forced to work through some issues, perhaps more so than would have been necessary with Thomas on the field.

For Sanders and Cook, the process has been more difficult than expected. Those two often became the focal point of defenses throughout the season. There were games where teams schemed to take one of the two players out of the game with Thomas out. The Panthers tried to double Sanders last week but failed. Cook often saw the attention in the red zone. Getting the wide receiver would open things up for those two and allow them to work against more one-on-one looks.

“There’s a lot more double covers when Mike T is out,” Cook said. “That would leave room for AK (Alvin Kamara) to be open a lot. … You definitely notice when Mike T is out.”

You also definitely notice when Mike T is in the game. The Saints have gotten here, to the No. 2 seed in the NFC, with him playing half the games at something less than full health. How far can they go with him and Brees at something closer to full strength?

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