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Michael Thomas’ rift with the Saints, explained

Rumors are swirling after a Twitter post by Thomas.

NFL: Pro Bowl-NFC Practice Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Michael Thomas was the greatest receiver in the NFL during the 2019 season, and it wasn’t even close. Catching a league-high 149 passes, to go along with his 1,725 receiving yards, the partnership between Thomas and Drew Brees was the scariest in the league for opposing defenses.

Now, less than two years later, it’s all collapsed. Thomas is on the outs in New Orleans. He’s reportedly refused to answer calls from coaches, and the receiver is frustrated over differences over how his injured ankle should have been treated. Now he’s taking to Twitter and claiming the Saints are trying to ruin his reputation, while insinuating he knows the ugly things the team has done, but is choosing not to air their dirty laundry. Things are very, very ugly.

What got the relationship to this point?

Thomas, who had an injury-plagued 2020 season, was clearly not himself for much of the year. While he did manage to return in time for the playoffs and mount a huge effort to lead the Saints past the Bears in the playoffs, he then failed to make an impact at all against the Buccaneers, not being able to register a single catch in the team’s 30-20 loss.

What followed was a major turning point for the Saints. With the team in salary cap hell, and Brees retiring, major veteran cuts would be needed to right the ship. However, it quickly became clear that no matter what: Thomas would be staying in New Orleans. A receiver of his caliber was too critical to future plans at quarterback, offering one of the league’s best safety nets for whoever would take over as signal caller.

Just one issue remained. The ankle injury that plagued him for much of the 2020 season was still lingering, and it’s here the problems began.

The Saints believed Thomas needed ankle surgery to be ready for the season. Thomas claims he got a second opinion from a doctor who believed he could be game-ready without surgical intervention. Well within his rights to listen to that second opinion, Thomas tried to rehab his ankle himself — but ultimately those efforts failed. Thomas went under the knife in June, indefinitely delaying his start to the season.

Now, here’s where things get murky. The Saints have said they wanted to check in with Thomas while he attempted to rehab himself from the end of the season to May, but he refused to answer their calls.

“For unknown reasons, Thomas fell out of communication with the Saints. He did not return multiple calls over the next three months. Then-Saints trainer Beau Lowery, wide receivers coach Curtis Johnson and head coach Sean Payton all tried to reach Thomas. None of their calls were taken or returned.”

Saints coach Sean Payton didn’t mince his words when asked about Thomas’ timeline during training camp.

“It’s disappointing,” Payton said last week when asked about the situation. “We would have liked (the surgery) to have happened earlier rather than later. And quite honestly, it should have.”

Payton’s comments seem to have set off Thomas, leading to his frustrated tweet and concern about his long-term future with the Saints.

So, what do we think happened here?

It’s tricky, because as it stands we really only have the Saints’ side of the story — but even then, that side of it doesn’t really make sense. Objectively it sounds like information is being omitted, and Thomas is alluding to the same. It’s unclear why Thomas would suddenly stop answering the calls of coaches and team officials, especially after they were okay with him trying an alternate treatment path.

Payton’s comments allude to a lot of friction surrounding the situation. To be fair, the Saints were ultimately correct. They wanted Thomas to get surgery early, and he chose not to — only to then have to get it later. The timing unquestionably sucks, and could put the start of New Orleans’ season in jeopardy, though they were still seen as an extreme long shot to win the Super Bowl after Brees’ retirement.

The extreme cynic’s view would be that this was a way to try and force a trade to a better built, more successful team. However, there’s no evidence of that. It would make sense for Thomas to want to push for a Super Bowl on a new team as he rounds the corner to 30, but suggesting he delayed surgery for that reason is a little extreme.

As things tend to be, the truth likely lies in the middle. Thomas wanted to try and fix the ankle issue himself, the Saints wanted him to get surgery immediately — and it damaged their relationship. Now it’s unquestionably hurting the start of the Saints’ season, Thomas feels there’s a coordinated effort to make him look bad in the public eye, and there’s going to need to be a lot of work done in order to bring the sides back in sync.

It’s definitely going to be something to watch as we approach the start of the season.