NEW ORLEANS – While his teammates bask in the spotlight, right cornerback Fred Thomas bakes under a microscope. The scrutiny has intensified this week as the New Orleans Saints prepare to play the Chicago Bears in the NFC championship game.
To put it simply, Thomas' performance could determine whether the Saints beat the Bears, reach the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history and set off what figures to be the wildest celebration in the history of New Orleans … or ruin it all.
Thomas, an 11-year veteran, is on an "island" – that lonely and dangerous area on which cornerbacks must stand.
There's no hiding out there, especially with the Saints usually in man-to-man coverage. And there's no hiding what critics are saying about Thomas: He's the biggest chink in the Saints' armor.
Every cornerback gets beat. But Thomas gets smacked around with greater frequency than most.
So when Thomas takes the field Sunday at Soldier Field, he can expect to see speedy Bernard Berrian, who last week beat Seattle's secondary on a 68-yard touchdown. Thomas can expect to see long, arced passes hurled his way from the powerful arm of Bears quarterback Rex Grossman. He can expect to see an air assault designed to expose his shortcomings and end the Saints' magical season.
"It is what it is," Thomas said earlier this week. "Certain teams have success on me. Other teams obviously watch tape and film. … They're going to come after you. That's just something I'm expecting."
Until then, Thomas is facing something else: a parade of skeptics wondering if he's lost his speed and his confidence. The 5-foot-9, 180-pound defender meets interrogators unflinchingly, as if staring down a trash-talking receiver, and proclaims to have more than enough speed and confidence. But a scene earlier this week suggested otherwise.
One day after practice, the defensive backs were getting dressed in their corner of the locker room when talk somehow turned to track exploits. One of the players said he'd run a 100-meter dash in 10.6 seconds, then another player declared he'd run it in 10.4 seconds.
"What'd you run, Freddie?" someone asked.
As if he was set off by a starter's pistol, Thomas shot back: "10.22."
That's world-class time, and the claim prompted chuckles. Then Thomas announced he'd also run 200 meters in 19 seconds, a time that would have made him an Olympic medal contender, and that claim set off howls of laughter from disbelieving teammates.
As reporters inched forward, Thomas, looking self-conscious, ended the conversation. "We'll talk about this later," he instructed his teammates. "In private."
Half-joking or not, this is no time for Thomas to be boasting. Maybe it's time for explaining.
Explaining how he got beat on a 75-yard touchdown pass to Donte Stallworth last week. Explaining how he got beat during the regular season on a 41-yard touchdown and a 60-yard touchdown by Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chad Johnson; explaining how he got beat yet again on a 55-yard touchdown by New York Giants receiver Plaxico Burress.
But most of all, explaining how he's gone from a linchpin of the Saints' defense the past six seasons to a liability – maybe the biggest among the 22 starters.
Pressed for answers, Thomas said at times he's been too aggressive and at other times he's botched technique but provided few details on what's gone wrong.
"I still think I'm playing fairly well," he said. "I wouldn't say I'm losing a step. But everything I've done, it has nothing to do with a decrease in speed or anything like that."
He looked around the locker room.
"These guys got faith in me," he said, "and the coaches got faith in me."
In fact, their faith seems almost unshakeable. Sean Payton, the Saints' head coach, has offered steadfast support as Thomas has come under greater scrutiny.
"I think Fred is a confident player," Payton said this week. "Fred's been a big reason why this defense went from being in the bottom of the league in a lot of categories to 11th [in fewest yards allowed] right now. And he's a big reason why we're playing in the NFC championship game.
"So he understands the importance of consistent play out there. I think the best thing that a cornerback can have – and he's an experienced player – is a short memory. You gotta get back up. … You get back and start playing again and get ready for the next challenge."
Someone relayed the message to Thomas. For a moment, the island cornerbacks inhabit didn't look so lonely.
"It means a lot to me that people in this organization stayed behind me regardless of what's going on out there," he said.
But the lingering issue is what's going on out there in the secondary.
First, by NFL standards, you're talking about relative geezers. When the 33-year-old Thomas needs a breather, or a Ben Gay rubdown, the Saints send in 30-year-old Jason Craft. Starting left cornerback Mike McKenzie is 30 and starting free safety Jay Bellamy is 34. The Saints' most promising young defensive back is sidelined.
Roman Harper, a rookie who won the starting job at free safety before the season opener, suffered a torn anterior cruciate against Tampa Bay in Week 5. In came 34-year-old Bellamy, noted more for his run support than pass defense skills, which has left Thomas more vulnerable to the deep ball, according to an area scout.
While Thomas has his limitations, no one questions his toughness. He underwent surgery on his left thumb in November to repair a torn ligament, suffered from a strained left hamstring much of the season and has played with a bum knee. And when asked about the injuries, he shrugged and said, "Each individual in this locker room, somebody's got something wrong with him. It's just something you try to work through."
Now he's trying to work through the twilight of his career under scrutiny that will intensify yet again on Sunday.
"You're out there by yourself," Thomas said. "Everything you do is more noticeable. You can't cover it up.
"But I've been in this game a long time and I understand what's going on out there."
He also understands what's at stake Sunday, that he will find himself on that lonely island, and there will be nowhere to hide.