The last few years of Darron Thomas’ football career have been remarkably strange for someone who was an elite college quarterback. In fact, those three words – “elite college quarterback” – can be thrown into the pile of Thomas weirdness because there are some people who do not think the former Oregon quarterback was all that great.
The term system quarterback was thrown around so often it practically lost its meaning. Some said Thomas wasn’t “the elite passer his statistics would suggest” and was a “significant project” in terms of his NFL outlook. Thomas’ NFL draft declaration was maybe the strangest chapter in the saga, considering he had one more year of eligibility and had been Oregon’s starter the previous two seasons. Plus, as the “significant project” line illustrates, Thomas wasn’t a highly-touted pro prospect.
Of course, no one can forget the incident before the 2011 season when Thomas helped smoke it all in a car cruising well over the speed limit. Not his finest moment.
Just this past week, the quarterback entered the Champions Pro Indoor Football League (CPIFL) with a team that literally anyone can try out for.
These events certainly don’t paint the prettiest picture, but they also tell just a fraction of Thomas’ story. He was arguably the most successful quarterback in Oregon Ducks history, putting up gaudy numbers and winning a boatload of games. Of his twenty-seven starts, two were in BCS bowl games – one resulted in a Rose Bowl victory, the other nearly netted Oregon its first national championship crown.
Thomas might not be remembered as the most talented quarterback in Ducks history or have the most successful post-Oregon career, but no signal-caller has achieved more while playing in Eugene.
Thomas appeared in five games his freshman year (2008) but only accumulated about a game’s worth of stats playing behind Jeremiah Masoli. In 2009, Thomas didn’t even play backup for Masoli, electing to redshirt instead.
Rather than starting again in 2010, Masoli made some big mistakes that got him booted off the team, opening the door for Thomas. But this time Thomas had to battle front-runner Nate Costa for the starting job, which was a tight battle until just before the season started. Thomas prevailed, but he was still a mystery to many Ducks fans.
“Not a lot of people know my face right now,” Thomas said at the time.
The anonymity didn’t last long. In a few months the new quarterback would be known as the leader of a 12-0 team, the “last piece” of the puzzle for a team determined – and ultimately bound – to appear in the national title game. While LaMichael James garnered the Heisman recognition, Thomas was arguably just as important to the team’s success. Accumulating 2,518 passing yards, 492 rushing yards, 33 total touchdowns (28 passing, 5 rushing) and a 60.7% completion rate . . . he exceeded already lofty expectations.
In the title game, he struggled out of the gate but made several huge plays in the second half. He couldn’t lift the Ducks to victory, but no team has come closer to unseating the SEC’s current run of title game dominance than Oregon did that January night. And if the
Ducks had won, Thomas almost certainly would’ve won the game’s MVP award.
After that, the oddities in Thomas’ career started to pile up. First, there was the infamous smoke-out in Harris’ lightning fast rental car. Thomas wasn’t too thrilled with the media during the immediate aftermath and neither were certain members of the media thrilled with him.
Thomas didn’t suffer any major consequences as a result of that incident, but he did suffer an injury that led to an always-entertaining quarterback controversy. After Thomas went down with a knee injury against Arizona State, Bryan Bennett stepped in and looked absolutely electric, not just in the second half of the ASU game but in the next game against Colorado. Thomas returned to start the following week against Washington State, only to get benched half way through. Chip Kelly described the benching as “performance-slash-injury-based,” leading people to wonder if Bennett would keep the job. For a guy who quarterbacked his team to a national championship appearance the year before, that whole situation must’ve been most peculiar to Thomas.
“I don’t think I’m in no competition at my position,” he said after the WSU game, and he was right. Mark Helfrich, offensive coordinator at the time, squashed the debate, and when the next game arrived, Thomas was the starter. The controversy didn’t re-surface for the rest of the season.
Thomas and his teammates didn’t get back to the national title game that year, but they did end the season with a win, this time in the Rose Bowl, giving Oregon a 23-3 record with Thomas as starter. Thomas had another good individual
season, too. After the Rose Bowl he was on a summit not many quarterbacks had ever reached.
Then, all of the sudden, he left. Despite his poor draft stock, Thomas decided to declare for the NFL, and he might be the only person who truly knows why. Maybe he was tired of school. Maybe he thought, or knew, Marcus Mariota would win the starting job. Maybe Kelly called him out. Many factors likely contributed to his decision, and it was reportedly one he had been considering throughout the 2011 season, but that didn’t make it any less perplexing.
So there Thomas went, off into the professional football horizon, and like many predicted, his impact at that level was hardly felt. After multiple unsuccessful tryouts, it became painfully clear that Thomas might not have an NFL skill set. That certainly doesn’t mean he’s a bad player, though. Not every successful college player succeeds in the NFL (see: Timothy Richard Tebow). Sometimes, nothing tastes better than a home-cooked meal. Mom and Dad may not be professional chefs but that doesn’t make them failed cooks.
Hopefully, Thomas can carve out a successful career in the CPIFL or wherever he may end up. Considering his current position as the most successful quarterback in Oregon history, failure almost doesn’t seem possible.
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