With 2:50 remaining against the Titans, the Saints swapped a heavy personnel package with two tight ends, a fullback and an additional jumbo tackle for a “21” personnel grouping with a pair of wide receivers, a running back, a fullback and a tight end. Nearly everyone in the stadium knew what was going to happen next.
Michael Thomas was one of the players that subbed in. It was just a few plays after he was denied—via replay review—a touchdown on a catch that broke the record for most receptions in a season. And if there's one coach who is passive-aggressive enough to middle-finger the review process and simultaneously considerate enough to reward a player with a score on a special occasion, it’s Sean Payton.
But this is less about the play-caller than the player. In breaking Marvin Harrison’s record for most catches in a season, Thomas solidified his place in a unique grouping of players in the modern NFL: Those who demand a defensive game plan to be centered on them, but who consistently succeed anyway.
On nearly every NFL roster there is a transcendent athletic talent. And on a lot of NFL Sundays, there are coaches explaining why a defense took that player away. Fantasy football conditions a lot of us to think of games through that extraordinarily narrow lens. Think about how many Sundays you’ve spent refreshing the Yahoo app wondering why Odell Beckham only has four catches and cursing the hellish combination of play-caller and supporting cast that allowed this to happen.
But players like Thomas (and DeAndre Hopkins, and Julio Jones) legitimize the conversation by consistently dominating despite the myriad forces working against them. It could be a coverage rolled their way. It could be a matchup against a premium cornerback. It could be an injured starting quarterback. It could be a sputtering run game that robs the team of play-action unpredictability.
In 2019, Thomas has had just six games without double-digit catches, and in four of those games, he had either eight or nine catches (and in two of those four games, he had more than 110 yards receiving). According to Next Gen Stats, Thomas has nearly half the entire teams’ share of total air yardage. For perspective, Tyreek Hill has about half that number. He has caught more than 80% of his passes.
So, on that second-and-goal when Thomas was subbed in, he immediately shouldered past the defensive back lined up on him and gained leverage. He dragged across the field parallel with Drew Brees until the moment where Brees needed to throw, just before Thomas reached a second defender perched for a trap interception. He caught the ball, leaving the first defensive back, LeShaun Sims, exhausted and stumbling behind him.
This was against a Titans team with a formidable secondary. A Titans team that is still very much alive in a playoff race. A team that, like the rest of the stadium, probably could have guessed in all likelihood where the ball was going.
The beauty of Thomas is that it just doesn’t matter.