What fueled New Orleans Saints' Michael Thomas after 20-month absence

METAIRIE, La. -- One of Dennis Allen's first acts as head coach of the New Orleans Saints was to fly to Los Angeles this offseason and get to know receiver Michael Thomas a little better.

Thomas had dinner with Allen and his wife. And they spent time learning about each other's mindsets and expectations and what makes them "tick," according to Thomas, who called it a "great bonding experience."

Allen, who previously served as Saints defensive coordinator, said it was important because he simply hadn't been around Thomas as much as other players in recent years because he was rehabbing the left ankle injury that wiped out his entire 2021 season.

Allen also identified that a healthy relationship with his enigmatic and electrifying superstar would be as important as Thomas' healthy return to the field.

Sure enough, Thomas delivered in a huge way during Allen's first win Sunday, catching two touchdown passes in the second half while New Orleans rallied for a 27-26 victory over the division-rival Atlanta Falcons. And Thomas' first words after the game were, "I love this organization, I love these teammates, I love my team."

This offseason was a far cry from last summer, when the Saints and Thomas were at odds over his decision to delay ankle surgery until June. There has been an unmistakable change in Thomas' mentality.

Thomas said he "100%" feels a greater appreciation after an absence of nearly 20 months between games.

"You can't take it for granted," Thomas told ESPN. "Once the Saints offered me my second deal [before the 2019 season], that was an agreement to be out here, to add value to this team, to keep the Saints hanging banners and competing for championships. And I have a big role on this team.

"So, to not be out there and add that value, whenever you get that second chance I always told myself to take full advantage of it and find a way to always give back."

You can see that approach in Thomas' media interviews, social media usage and interaction with teammates. Those close to him say it has been evident behind the scenes as well.

"He's in a great space," Saints quarterbacks coach Ronald Curry, who previously served as Thomas' position coach, said. "I think he appreciates the game a little bit more. Not that he didn't at first, but I think the game just means a hell of a lot to him. You know, he missed playing. You could tell that with his energy, his focus, when he's out here competing."

Allen said Thomas has "done everything that we've asked him to do."

"Mike's been great," Allen said. "... He just wants to win. And he's hyper focused on being the best he can be for this football team."

NOT MANY DOUBTED Thomas would come back with a vengeance. He has attacked his entire football career that way, earning a reputation as one of the NFL's most intense competitors, fueled by every perceived slight.

But that competitive fire is both legendary and notorious.

Former Saints quarterback Drew Brees once compared Thomas to Darren Sproles as rare teammates who treated every practice rep like it was the Super Bowl. Former coach Sean Payton once joked he felt like he got hit by a car when he made the mistake of standing in as the defensive back across from Thomas during a walk-through session.

It's the mindset that led him to an NFL-record 149 catches and the Offensive Player of the Year award in 2019 -- helping the 6-foot-3, 212-pounder live up to the "Can't Guard Mike" Twitter handle he created for himself at Ohio State.

However, that same mindset has led to volatility over the years, including several Twitter beefs with opponents and a one-game suspension in 2020 for punching former teammate C.J. Gardner-Johnson in practice and talking back to coaches in the aftermath. It also led to last year's rift with the Saints when Thomas didn't like how he was being portrayed during the injury recovery.

Thomas first injured his ankle during Week 1 of the 2020 season but came back to play eight games, including the playoffs, fighting through the injury. The Saints recommended he have surgery to repair the torn deltoid and other injured ligaments immediately after the 2020 season, but Thomas preferred to try to rehab the ankle.

The Saints approved that decision, but sources confirmed multiple reports that the Saints were upset when they had trouble communicating with Thomas throughout the spring -- and when they didn't get their first look at how the ankle was progressing until June, when he finally had the surgery.

Payton, who retired this offseason, publicly expressed his disappointment. Then after multiple reports suggested Thomas was to blame for the delay, Thomas tweeted, "They tried to damage your reputation. You saved theirs by not telling your side of the story."

Thomas also liked multiple Twitter posts that suggested the Saints urged him to play through his injury without surgery during the 2019 season before blaming him for not being healthy.

However, that tension was defused after a productive phone conversation between Payton and Thomas -- and Thomas rejoined the team while rehabbing early in the season. He was on track to return around midseason before he suffered a season-ending setback in his recovery (a separate but related issue in the same ankle that required another surgery).

Thomas finally returned to practice again at the start of training camp in late July. That was also when he made his first public comments about his decision to delay surgery, saying, "We can put that to rest right now."

"It's pretty much like when you go to a doctor, you get an opinion. You go to two doctors, one person has an opinion, another person has an opinion. You have the right to pick an opinion," Thomas explained. "So if one of the opinions is 'You can rehab your ankle, and it should be good by camp,' and I've never had surgery, then I'm going to stick with that one. If that one doesn't work, then I'm going to go with the second one."

Thomas didn't go into detail about why he didn't communicate with the Saints during that period. But he did make comments suggesting doctors aren't always right. And he made several suggestions that media reports exaggerated the truth.

"People have to try and create stories, which I guess that comes with being who you are. But outside of that, a lot of that stuff is just foolish. It's a lot of 'he said, she said' and stuff you can't control," Thomas said. "They even tried to do it with me and Sean Payton and all that. I still have a great relationship with Sean. I have a ton of respect for all my coaches. I was raised in a household with a family that's big on respect."

THAT FAMILY, THOMAS said, has also been a big motivation during what he called a second chance.

Thomas said he spent more time than usual surrounded by his inner circle back home while rehabbing. And he said he learned to appreciate even more that he is a "shining light" in a football family that has always bonded over the sport. Thomas' uncle, Keyshawn Johnson, was also a standout NFL receiver.

After a year filled with so much negativity, Thomas said he knew he "wanted to come back and make them proud and keep a smile on their face."

"I come from a strong family. I feel like I watched my family struggle way harder than what I'm going through," Thomas said. "And I know me being out there playing this game makes them proud. And I take a lot of pride in that."

One thing that has never been questioned with Thomas is his work ethic. "Finding a way to get better when no one's looking [has] always been my niche," he said.

Rookie Saints receiver Chris Olave saw it firsthand when Thomas took him under his wing this summer, inviting the fellow Buckeye to train with him in their shared home base in Southern California.

"He's very disciplined," Olave said. "When somebody's not doing the right thing, he'll call him out."

When asked if he had been called out himself, Olave gave a sheepish grin.

"Oh yeah, a couple times," he said. "That's a real friend, though.

"Waking up late for a workout or waking up late for breakfast, he ain't going to let nothing slide. I respect that. I like that. It's going to make me get better and help me push myself. That's what separates him."

Thomas pointed to the wristbands he has worn for years that say "Self Discipline" -- one of the "core values" he said he gained during his year at Fork Union Military Academy before he enrolled at Ohio State.

"That was a big turning point in my life where I had to basically leave home right before college on my own and go into an environment like that," said Thomas, who said he gravitates to hard coaching and has been blessed to play under Allen, Payton, Urban Meyer (at Ohio State) and his high school coaches.

"That's the whole point of this game is evolving, elevating your game and winning games," Thomas said. "I love collaborating with those guys to try to be one of the best players they ever coached and try to set that example, that standard."

Allen's visit to California paid off in the form of a Week 1 victory, thanks in part to Thomas. The receiver said last week he's trying to surpass his historic 2019 season.

And when asked if Sunday's five catches for 57 yards and two second half touchdowns lived up to his expectations, he said, "That's definitely not my standard. ... I still have more work to do."