The numbers are decisive, and there's no way of getting around that fact. New Orleans Saints receiver Michael Thomas is stalking NFL history, and it may seem as if his teammates are more witnesses to, than participants in, a brilliant show.
Thomas has a franchise single-season record 133 receptions entering Sunday's game against Tennessee at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tenn., a hearty 36 percent of the 370 catches made by Saints players this season, and 11 short of breaking Marvin Harrison's single-season NFL record for receptions. And he has 1,552 receiving yards, another franchise single-season mark, to account for 40 percent of New Orleans' receiving yards.
But as the Saints (11-3) have rounded into offensive form (34.8 points per game over the last five) down the stretch of the regular season, they also have shown that the load is shared more than it appears, even while Thomas continues to gorge on opposing defenses.
Take the last two games – New Orleans' most productive of the season – as a sampling.
While the Saints averaged 40 points after scoring 46 against San Francisco and 34 against Indianapolis, and Thomas loudly was wreaking havoc (23 catches for 262 yards and two touchdowns in the games), his teammates quietly were biting off chunks of their own.
And Brees' four touchdown passes against the Colts went to four different receivers – Thomas, Smith, Josh Hill (to set the NFL all-time record at 540 touchdown passes) and Taysom Hill.
True, Thomas often presents the most advantageous picture for Brees. But when the look offers another, better option, Brees historically hasn't been hesitant to go with the open man wearing the friendly jersey.
"Every play has its progression, every play has its rhyme or reason – depending on coverage, depending on matchup – as to where you're going and why," Brees said. "I think when we can walk away from games and look at the stat sheet and be like, 'Ten different guys caught passes,' or, 'Four different guys caught touchdowns,' imagine the problem that presents for a defense. Where it's like, 'Man, we can't just key on one guy or two guys, even. They've got these other guys that, when the matchup is there, they're going to try to exploit it.'
"I think that keeps all of our guys really in tune as well, knowing that on any play – regardless of maybe the way it played out in practice, or the way it even plays out when you're installing the play – this play could go to me. This opportunity could be mine. That gets everybody very in tune and very focused from play to play knowing that it could be their opportunity."
Nine Saints combined to catch Brees' 29 completions against Indianapolis. The same nine combined to catch his 29 completions against San Francisco. And when he completed just 18 passes against Atlanta six Saints caught those passes (two more were targeted without a catch).
"That's a big thing, coming from Drew himself," Smith said. "He's like, you never know when your opportunity will come. It's just really about being prepared. Even though you might not be the first or second read, Drew does a great job going through all his reads. If the first read is not there or the second read is not there, he's going to get the ball to his third read. So you've always got to be prepared in this offense."
It was, and remains, one of the more appealing aspects of the offense, Cook said.
"(Payton) puts athletes in the right positions, get out there and play ball and it's pretty awesome because you never know who's going to be out there, you never know who's going to get the ball on certain plays," Cook said. "So it keeps the defense guessing, which is good for us.
"It keeps us really sharp because you have to know so many different positions, and you have to know all the route combinations for that certain position. So it always keeps our mind into it, it always keeps us on our toes and it always keeps us growing."