The two first-round draft picks schooled in the old option offense helped the Denver Broncos end their playoff drought last season, then connected for one of the most electrifying endings ever: an 80-yard TD toss on the first play of overtime to beat Pittsburgh in the playoffs.
Their coming out party soon became a farewell bash.
Three months after Thomas and Tebow starred in the longest winning play in NFL playoff history, the bond was broken when Tebow was sent packing one day after Peyton Manning’s arrival.
Now, Thomas couldn’t be happier to be on the other end of Manning’s passes, even though he knows he’s going to face plenty of double-teams in 2012.
Manning’s eager to play with Thomas, at 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds, the biggest target he’s ever had in his 15 seasons as a pro.
After all, in December and January, Thomas’ numbers — 35 catches for 745 yards, four touchdowns and a 109.3-yard receiving average — were second only to Detroit’s Calvin “Megatron” Johnson. And this, despite playing in an ultra-conservative offense that didn’t allow receivers to strut their stuff.
Thomas caught 10 passes for 297 yards in the playoffs, prompting former teammate Eddie Royal to marvel, “Imagine what he would do with 20 targets a game.”
Fantasy football freaks certainly are salivating over the possibilities.
They figure Thomas will really pop with Manning, a 65 percent career passer with four MVP trophies and a Super Bowl ring on his resume delivering the ball rather than Tebow, who completed just 46 percent of his passes last season and only 40 percent in the playoffs.
Thomas agrees his numbers could be off the charts, but he adds a dose of caution.
Tebow’s 660 yards on the ground helped Denver lead the league in rushing and draw plenty of safeties near the line of scrimmage, leaving Thomas to face plenty of man-to-man coverage.
Manning ran 18 times for just 18 yards in 2010 in his last season in Indianapolis before missing all of last year with a nerve injury in his neck.
“Most of the time it was man-to-man, and now it’s going to be more zone,” Thomas said.
And he’s certainly not expecting to see the kind of all-out blitz the Steelers put on Tebow in the AFC wild-card game only to watch helplessly as Thomas hauled in a high play-action pass at the Denver 38, stiff-arm Ike Taylor and outrace backup safety Ryan Mundy to the end zone.
Crowded coverages will be the norm in 2012, Thomas figures.
“It’s a lot of different when Tebow was playing and it was nine (defenders) in the box all the time. All I had to do what beat man” coverage, Thomas said. “Now it’s cover-eight, cover-six, cover-two. It’s a little different, but I think I’ll have a good year if I can stay healthy and do what I’m supposed to do.”
Thomas has been dogged by a broken foot, sprained ankle, concussion, torn Achilles and fractured finger in his first two seasons since leaving Georgia Tech following his junior season.
He was coming off yet another surgery, to remove pins in his left pinkie, when Manning signed in March, so he got a late start working on his rhythm and rapport with his new quarterback while fellow starting wide receiver Eric Decker quickly became Manning’s new workout buddy.
Thomas said he made up for that lost time this summer and his timing with Manning is “wonderful.”
“We got better. At the start of OTAs, we were behind, but now, it’s like night and day,” Thomas said. “By the end of minicamp, it was good, and I feel like it’s still getting better.”
Thomas lost five pounds but added girth in the offseason. He now packs 225 pounds on his 6-foot-3 frame. His chest looks bigger and his legs smaller.
“Well, I think it will help my cardio, my quickness, being able to run down the field more often, more than just four to five plays, maybe a little longer,” Thomas said.
And it should help him get in and out of his cuts in traffic, too.
“Bigger guys struggle running routes most of the time, but he’s on top of it now,” cornerback Champ Bailey said. “He looks like one of the best now, because he’s running his routes as crisp as can be and he’s catching the ball.
“As long as he’s healthy, he’s going to be out there, and I know Peyton, he loves his No. 1s out there. When he was in Indy, they never went to the bench. I don’t expect anything less now.”
Asked if he was worried that Thomas might throw that stiff-arm in training camp like the one he put on Taylor in the playoffs, Bailey retorted: “Oh my God, I hope not. I want no part of it.