Saints’ Pierre Thomas savors turn to be mentor

Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD --  New Orleans Saints running back Pierre Thomas (23) turns the corner against the Cardinals during the fourth quarter Sunday, Sept. 22, 2013, at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD -- New Orleans Saints running back Pierre Thomas (23) turns the corner against the Cardinals during the fourth quarter Sunday, Sept. 22, 2013, at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Pierre Thomas quickly rattled off the names of some of the players he’s previously shared the New Orleans Saints backfield with: Deuce McAllister, Aaron Stecker, Reggie Bush and Mike Bell. Those men, he said, were his mentors after he joined the Saints as an undrafted rookie.

But McAllister and Stecker have retired; Bush is now a Detroit Lion; and Bell is out of the NFL. Now, it’s Thomas who’s being described as a mentor by young undrafted teammates as he enters the sixth week of his seventh regular season with the New Orleans Saints (5-0).

“It means a lot,” Thomas said about how he’s had a place with the Saints despite the different running backs who have come to and gone from the organization in his time. “It really shows how much they respect me and really see that I’m always trying to do something positive ... for this organization.”

On Sunday, during his most recent visit to his hometown of Chicago, he served up a reminder of how he earned that respect.

Thomas went into this weekend’s road game against the Bears without having scored a touchdown since December. He had touched the ball less than 10 times in each of the first four games of this year while teammates such as tight end Jimmy Graham or running back Darren Sproles racked up yardage, scores or both.

Thomas, though, never grew impatient.

“I’m not a greedy guy,” Thomas said. “I love sharing the wealth. I love sharing time with these guys. I want these guys to be successful, not just myself. Seeing them do good, it pushes me to do better.”

The Saints were ready to reward that patience at Soldier Field. Thomas was ready, too — he had already scored three touchdowns and accounted for almost 400 yards of rushing and receiving in two previous trips to Chicago.

The Saints fed Thomas 19 carries and nine receptions for 28 touches, three of which proved to be among the game’s most crucial.

He scored the Saints’ first touchdown on a 2-yard reception. He used one of his rushes to pick up a first down on a fourth-and-1 while the Saints were ahead 13-7. Then he caught a screen pass two plays later to score a 25-yard touchdown and help put New Orleans ahead by 13 before the Saints toppled the Bears 26-18, their first victory in Chicago in four tries under coach Sean Payton.

That game illustrated how Thomas has consistently managed to contribute to some of the Saints’ biggest wins despite divvying up the opportunities at a crowded position group.

After playing his rookie year behind McAllister, Stecker and Bush, Thomas emerged in 2008 with 909 rushing and receiving yards and 12 total touchdowns. He improved the next year with 1,095 total yards and eight touchdowns while playing alongside Bush and Bell.

That postseason, he scored a pair of touchdowns in the NFC title game against the Minnesota Vikings and subsequently helped New Orleans win its only Super Bowl with a 16-yard score off a screen pass against the Indianapolis Colts.

Thomas missed most of 2010 with an ankle injury but returned to post 1,035 rushing and receiving yards and eight total touchdowns over the next two years while sharing work with Sproles; Mark Ingram, who’s been unproductive and hurt this year; and Chris Ivory, now with the New York Jets. He ranks highly in receiving and overall efficiency as a running back; he also grades well in blocking.

Travaris Cadet, who made the Saints in 2012 as an undrafted rookie, said Thomas’ career has taught him the value of staying prepared for touches but not growing impatient for an expanded role.

“Pierre’s a great role model,” said Cadet, a running back who’s played only on special teams this season. “He created his own path.”

Khiry Robinson, an undrafted free agent, added that Thomas’ multifaceted game is something he is striving for as he tries to entrench himself under Sproles, Thomas and Ingram.

“He has what our coaches are looking for,” Robinson said. “He has more than one tool. ... That comes with trust (from coaches).”

Thomas on Wednesday said he enjoyed Chicago. He grabbed a steak dinner with family and friends and watched the Chicago Bulls on television the night before facing the Bears — but he didn’t allow himself to reminisce too much about it with a showdown against the 4-1 New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., four days away.

“Once the game’s over, it’s on to the next,” Thomas said. “You can’t look back, or bad things happen.”