INDIANAPOLIS — Devin Thomas caught three passes for 37 yards this season for the New York Giants. But without the fourth-year wide receiver, a player the Redskins drafted in the second round in 2008 who never realized that potential in Washington, the Giants likely aren't playing in Super Bowl XLVI Sunday evening against New England.
It was Thomas who recovered two fumbles by San Francisco punt returner Kyle Williams in the fourth quarter and overtime of the NFC championship game at Candlestick Park two weeks ago that led to New York's final 10 points, including one at the 49ers' 24-yard line that set up Lawrence Tynes' game-winning 31-yard field goal. The NFL is flush with stories of redemption and perseverance, of players going from one team to another to another before finding a role and fit that allows them to contribute and prove that, yes, they do belong in the league.
Thomas is getting a chance to live out one such story this week.
"I've been humbled," Thomas said. "I always knew I was a good player and had talent, but the way changes have happened and put me down lower in the ranks of the depth chart have kept me grounded. It's been good in my life. But being a part of this team and its success and being in a pivotal role on special teams, which people can kind of write off, is nice."
Thomas' two-plus seasons with the Redskins were anything but something to be remembered. He started just 11 times in 34 games, catching 40 passes for 445 yards and three touchdowns. There was criticism while Thomas was in Washington that he wasn't focused enough on football, on doing all of those little things that allow a college star to continue playing at the professional level.
In his junior season at Michigan State, Thomas set single-season school records with 2,590 all-purpose yards and 79 receptions.
"He would come out and have a swagger about himself that he's going to make this play," said Giants rookie linebacker Greg Jones, who was a Michigan State freshman that season. "He wanted the ball in his hands. His thoughts were 'Put the ball in my hands and I'm going to lead this team to victory.' You saw that about him and everyone respected him for it. He could back that up."
That same play just never materialized in Washington. As far as playing wide receiver, Thomas hasn't reached anywhere near that level of performance in his NFL career — his three catches this season are his only receptions since 2009 — but he has learned that if he wants to play football for a living it's going to take more than attitude.
He credits former Redskins teammates James Thrash and Antwaan Randle El with instilling some of that in him.
"You've got to grow into it," said Thomas. "Sometimes you think you know it all as a young guy coming in with a lot of success. Setbacks can sometimes make you realize your faults; they allow you to self-evaluate. I think that's what I had to do with being released. I had to regroup and come up with a better game plan."
The Redskins released Thomas on Oct. 9, 2010. Two days later he was claimed on waivers by Carolina. Five weeks later the Panthers released him. The Giants picked him up on Nov. 24 last season and he's fulfilled his role, no day more so than against San Francisco.
The Giants managed just 128 yards on 12 possessions in the second half and overtime against the 49ers but needed just 29 yards to reach the end zone following Thomas' alert pickup of the ball after it glanced off Williams' knee in the fourth quarter. He then outfought everyone for the ball at the bottom of a scrum in overtime to set up New York's trip to Indy.
"It was a question in that game of which offense was going to be able to do anything because both defenses were playing superbly so the special teams aspect of stepping up and making plays helped us," said New York coach Tom Coughlin. "[Thomas] was very important for us because the gunner position we had been inconsistent at and Devin performed well for us in that capacity in San Francisco being Johnny-on-the-spot in one situation and also being there when Jacquian Williams forced the fumble."
Thomas will get his chance again Sunday to make a game-changing play at an often-overlooked position. It might not have been the job he envisioned when he entered the league as a Redskins rookie, but it's gotten him this far.