No one player better embodied the Payton-era Saints than did Pierre Thomas.
Unheralded, selfless, diverse, smart, tough, and reliable.
An undrafted free agent out of Illinois, Pierre Thomas came to the Saints in 2007 as an afterthought, a camp body, an insurance policy.
Just a few months later he'd won a spot on the team, beating out 4th-round draft pick Antonio Pittman, a player selected to eventually fill the shoes of an aging Deuce McCallister.
But it would be the then-unknown Pierre Thomas who would ably and memorably fill those shoes in the coming years, ultimately authoring a Saints' career among the best dozen or so in franchise history.
Our first glimpse of PT's subtle immensity came at the end of the 2007 season when he finally got his shot. Playing in Chicago, his hometown, PT made history. He became the first runningback to amass more than 100 yards rushing and 100 yards receiving in the same game at Soldier Field, the NFL's oldest stadium.
More than just that achievement, PT displayed in that game one of his greatest traits as an athlete: an innate ability to rise to the occasion, a trait, like the number 23, he shared with his hometown idol, Michael Jordan. While Thomas was never blessed with the otherworldy athletic gifts bestowed upon Jordan (who was?), he possessed a similar drive, dedication, and relentlessness--skills that would mark Thomas' career as a Saint.
How many times did the first guy ever bring down Pierre Thomas?
Not many, if ever.
And that was because PT possessed "heart" in spades, a gift not quantifiable, or as easily recognizable, as 40-yard dashes or bench press reps. Lucky for that are we as Saints' fans. Because whatever Pierre Thomas lacked in size or speed or "measurables," he more than compensated for with his indomitable will to compete. Finally, Thomas' team-first humility complemented his heart and his will to win, a collection of traits that defined Sean Payton's Saints at their best.
By 2008, Pierre Thomas had supplanted Reggie Bush as the Saints' most valuable runningback. An idea once unfathomable was now one undeniable. PT's reliability and consistent production overwhelmed the uneven, though periodically jaw-dropping, exploits of a player not long before considered a franchise savior.
Thomas' wide-ranging skills--running, catching, pass-blocking, returning--made him an essential component of a roster on the precipice of greatness.
In 2009, Pierre Thomas cemented his legend as a Saint during the postseason. In the NFC Championship Game, Thomas scored on a long screen pass on the Saints' first drive to even the score at 7. Later in the game, he scored again. In overtime, in the game's most crucial moment, Sean Payton called on PT to return the kickoff. Thomas promptly returned the kick 40 yards, setting the stage for an historic overtime victory.
Not quite finished though, PT secured a critical first down on a fourth-and-1 leap to set up Garrett Hartley's game-winning field goal--a play in which a lesser guy would have fumbled, or been driven backwards, from the thunderous hit delivered by Vikings' linebacker Chad Greenway.
Two weeks later in Super Bowl 44, Pierre Thomas scored one of the most iconic touchdowns in Saints' history on the most beautiful god damn screen pass you've ever seen. This was the finishing touch on Ambush, a sequence that catapulted the Saints to Super Bowl glory.
Lost in the shuffle is Pierre Thomas' 2011 playoff game against Detroit, one in which he quietly contributed 66 yards rushing and 55 yards receiving. Thomas' presence on the field, though, steadied a Saints' team that started slowly. His 59 first-half yards kept the Saints afloat while much of the team fumbled through a listless first half.
The next week in San Francisco, the Saints weren't so lucky. On the game's opening drive, Thomas, on the doorstep of the end zone, took a vicious hit and left the game with a concussion. The Saints then fell into a huge hole and never recovered that day, and one might argue that neither so have the Payton-era Saints.
With Pierre Thomas in the fold for that entire playoff game in San Francisco, one wonders how different Saints' history might look right now.
Nevertheless, for eight seasons, Pierre Thomas built himself into one of the very best runningbacks in Saints' history. While at first glance that might seem underwhelming, there's Deuce McCallister and George Rogers and Chuck Muncie and Dalton Hilliard and Rueben Mayes and Ricky Williams, all excellent runningbacks in their own right.
But Pierre Thomas stands alone, above, in a way. His unique, diverse style. His signature screen passes. His authoring of franchise-defining moments.
Without PT, a once forgotten player turned franchise great, there is no Saints' Super Bowl victory. For that, we should all remember #23.
Long may you run, Pierre Thomas.