Share this article

print logo

OLDER, WISER THOMAS IS READY FOR NEW ROLE

It's OK to look at him differently these days. The creases on his face are a little deeper. There are times his legs appear weary. The expectations for him are lower.

Thurman Thomas understands times have changed. He's a little wiser but more beat up now that he's near the end of his career with the Buffalo Bills. He has evaluated his 10 seasons. He knows his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame will likely come five years after he retires.

So why was it, earlier this week, a man who has cradled the ball for nearly nine miles along NFL fields found it necessary to cradle his playbook for the ride home? How can it be that a man who many believe is past his prime now is responsible for injecting a few wrinkles into a new offense?

Because: a) after 10 years, he's still learning, and b) the Bills believe, quite simply, he's still got it.

"That's what I want people to say about me," Thomas said. "Even though I'm not starting, whenever I can go out there and catch the ball for 25 yards or get a draw for 15 yards, I want people to say, 'Even though he's not starting, he's still productive.' It's just me being competitive. I don't want to make myself look bad."

Although Thomas was initially unhappy about not being informed of his role, he has not shown one ounce of anger since surrendering his starting position to second-year running back Antowain Smith. After all, it's Smith who will be taking the brunt of the beatings this year, not Thomas.

And Thomas figures he can do more with fewer plays. He could line up in the backfield on one play, in the slot on another. At times, he will be a receiver (something he has requested for years). Throwing a pass is not out of the question.

"It's something to confuse them," he said. "It's fun for me, it really is, and it's good for our team."

It's not about being rejuvenated, Thomas said, it's about being relieved. No longer is he the lead to the movie. The show directed by Wade Phillips and produced by new offensive coordinator Joe Pendry has co-stars in Smith and quarterback Rob Johnson. Thomas is just looking for a role.

"This is the first time in a long time I haven't had to shoulder the load," Thomas said. "Being the guy for so many years in college and the pros, it takes a toll for you to perform week in and weekout. It's on Antowain and Rob now. It's on other people beside me.

"It's like 20 pounds have been lifted off my shoulders. I'm not really carrying an elephant right now. I'm carrying an ant. That's how much weight has been lifted off my shoulders."

For the first time in months, he mentioned playing beyond this season. Remember, this is the same guy who once promised never to play for anyone but Marv Levy. He's the same one who never wanted to say goodbye to the no-huddle offense. He's now on his third offense in three years.

You still think he's a little peeved at not starting? If anything, Thomas said, he's starting over. The younger players have made him feel younger.

"There are guys on this football team who have said, 'When you guys were in the Super Bowl, I used to watch you on television,' " Thomas said. "To hear that from younger guys coming in, and me still doing the same things now, it makes me feel good. I know I can still get the job done."

Thomas has several new jobs in Pendry's offense. He will be inserted into the lineup mostly on third-down and passing situations after being underused as a receiver the last three years.

That's not to say when Thomas goes in, Smith comes out. There's a good chance they'll line up in the backfield together. Thomas is a solid blocking back. He's also one of the team's best receivers. And he can still run.

"Thurman's a versatile player," Phillips said. "He does a lot of things for you, and he's a guy you want to get the ball to when he's in there. Thurman's going to have some 100-yard games rushing. It's going to be a lot like when he first started. He's going to be able to run the ball and catch the ball."

Last Friday against Chicago, Thomas showed what he can do when well rested. He had two carries for 11 yards, making one first down. He dropped a catchable pass thrown behind him, but still served as a spark.

Thomas' production comes not from the number of plays but the size of them. At age 32, making 15 yards on one play is more body friendly than banging away five times at 3 yards a pop.

"I still put pressure on myself to make something happen," he said. "As long as I'm on this team, and in order to stay with this team for a couple more years, I have to make big plays when I'm out there."

Thomas will make $1.75 million this season. If he stays on the team, he's scheduled to earn $2 million in the next two seasons. Other backs are earning much more.

But Thomas, often chastised for acting more spoiled than last month's milk, keeps chugging along. Maybe he would be gone had the Bills won just one of those Super Bowls. Maybe there's still a hole in his career despite all he has accomplished.

"There's no way anyone can take away what he's done for the Buffalo Bills," Smith said. "Eventually, he's going to be in the Hall of Fame and go down as one of the best running backs in the National Football League. He could walk away from the game today and have nothing to regret and nothing to feel sorry for."