Typical horror movie. The call was coming from inside the house.
The guy doing the dialing was New Orleans Saints receiver Michael Thomas, who had just slashed the Rams to the tune of 12 catches for a club-record 211 yards, including a soul-crushing 72-yard touchdown.
Thomas celebrated that November score by fishing a flip phone out of a goalpost pad and pretending to make a call, an homage to long-ago Saints receiver Joe Horn who had done the same thing back in 2003. A stickler for details, Thomas stashed phones in both Superdome end zones just in case — he knew it would happen, just not where.
When this stranger calls, the raspy voice says: “Have you … checked the scoreboard?”
That touchdown, the biggest difference-maker in the 45-35 Saints win, ended with an awfully expensive make-believe phone call. Thomas was fined $30,000 by the NFL for his celebration.
“I was just trying to set the tone, get the crowd going, and use it to our advantage,” the surprisingly soft-spoken Thomas said this week, during a break from preparations for a rematch with the Rams in the NFC championship game on Sunday. “I knew they would love it.”
Make no mistake, Thomas is terrifying to opponents. The third-year receiver led the league with 125 catches this season, and — unlike your cellphone provider — almost no drops.
Thomas, 25, who played at Taft High in Woodland Hills and is the nephew of former USC and NFL receiver Keyshawn Johnson, figures to be a major factor in the conference title game. Drew Brees looks for him often, as he did Sunday when Thomas caught 12 passes in an NFC divisional victory over the Philadelphia Eagles.
The Rams didn’t have star cornerback Aqib Talib in the first meeting with New Orleans this season — he was recovering from ankle surgery — so the task of covering Thomas fell to Marcus Peters, who was overmatched. With Talib back, and likely assigned to blanket Thomas, that changes the dynamic.
“Talib is going to challenge him,” said former All-Pro receiver Steve Smith, who had his own battles with that relentless cornerback. “I believe that Michael’s not going to back down, but it’s also a first for Mike. He’s a young kid. Talib is a savvy vet, he knows what he’s doing. He knows what impression he wants to make. He’s not out there to make friends. Mike isn’t out there to make friends, either.”
Peters didn’t take too kindly to postgame comments from Saints coach Sean Payton after their first meeting. Payton said that New Orleans got the matchup it wanted with Thomas vs. Peters. The corner responded the following Thursday, encouraging the coach to “keep talkin’ ” and that the Rams would see the Saints “soon” — as in the postseason — and they would have a bowl of gumbo together.
The Rams corner reiterated his opinion this week when he tweeted a picture of himself with the caption: “It’s gumbo week let’s eat.” The tweet is no longer on Peters’ timeline.
“Peters is the guy who’s done more of the talking,” Smith said. “The question is, are [the Rams] even going to allow Marcus Peters to cover him? Because Marcus Peters is also excited and animated to do it. I’m not sure why you’re so animated to do it when you got routed up last game. That’s one of those I consider false enthusiasm. I call that fake juice.”
Here’s what’s real: Brees said that Thomas, a second-round pick from Ohio State, has made huge strides because of his thorough understanding of the offense. He has learned how to be patient and let the game come to him, rather than constantly trying to overpower defenders.
“Michael’s always been a really strong, highly competitive, raw type receiver,” Brees said. “But when he learned to develop the patience with the routes, and understanding of the timing of when the ball’s going to be there. Like, ‘Hey, Mike, don’t get your head around now, I’m not ready to throw the ball to you yet.’
“Working together, talking through concepts, and then just the repetition, I’d say that’s where he’s made the biggest jump, even from last year to this year. He’s always had the competitiveness, the work ethic, the fire. But it’s the polish.”
After Taft, Thomas attended a post-graduate year of prep school at Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia before moving on to Ohio State. One reason he chose the Midwest is to create separation from his famous uncle. He didn’t want to be Keyshawn Johnson II at USC, for instance.
“The whole point at the end of the day was setting my own legacy,” said Thomas, whose father is Johnson’s half-brother. “He played in a different time. You only live this life once. You don’t want to live this life in somebody else’s shadow. You want to scratch the surface of what you’re capable of. It’s a new era and I’m trying to be the best too. We both have the same mind-set.”
Still, Thomas is such an exceptional player, some people can’t help but compare him to great receivers of the past.
Troy Aikman, who will be in the broadcast booth for Fox on Sunday, can’t help but see a bit of fellow Hall of Fame Dallas Cowboys player Michael Irvin in Thomas.
Aikman said Thomas has the ability “to get big at the point of the catch.”
“That’s what I used to always say about Michael,” Aikman said of Irvin. “He wasn’t the fastest guy in the world, he wasn’t the quickest guy, but when the ball was in the air he believed that it was his ball. More times than not on contested throws, he went up like a rebounder and made plays on the ball. And we see that from Michael Thomas.
“I trust what Drew Brees has said, and he said that he is the most competitive wide receiver he’s ever played with. That’s quite a statement.”
Competitive? Without question. But still grappling with immaturity at times, such as pregame introductions against Washington this season when he ran out in a ski mask, or plucking the cellphone from the goal post.
The latter move was such a surprise to his father, who was in the stands, that he didn’t even see it happen.
“I missed him looking for it, I missed him pulling the phone out,” his father said. “I was celebrating. So when I looked up I was like, ‘What’s the penalty?’ Then I saw it on the screen and I’m like, ‘Oh, man.’ I had to watch the replay, because I definitely wasn’t looking for that.”
He didn’t take issue with his son celebrating that way.
“I was just happy the game was pretty much done at that point,” he said.
Thomas was just telling the crowd, in essence: Can you cheer me now?