By Mike Klis
The Denver Post
8:30 AM EST, December 14, 2012
It is not Demaryius Thomas, the Broncos’ No. 1 receiver.
Nor is it Eric Decker, one of the best No. 2 receivers across the land.
“What will happen is you won’t be able to say one person’s name without saying the other,’’ Rod Smith said. “That’s when you’ve played together a long time and achieved.’’
Occasionally, Smith will be mentioned as the best receiver in Broncos history. More often when people fondly recall the golden age of Broncos pass catchers, Rod Smith is synonymous with Ed McCaffrey.
In Thomas and Decker, the golden age of Broncos receivers appears to be here again.
“When we first came into the league it was spoken about,’’ Decker said about the comparisons he and Thomas received to Smith and McCaffrey. “I think we both feel like it’s quite an honor, but we have a lot of playing to do before we belong in their same house.’’
They’re approaching the neighborhood. With their game Sunday at Baltimore against the Ravens, then two more to finish the regular season, Thomas and Decker are on pace to finish with a combined 160 receptions, 2,445 yards and 20 touchdowns.
As a duo, Smith and McCaffrey surpassed that type of production only once, and that was in 2000, when John Elway and the back-to-back Super Bowl titles were long gone and the Broncos’ quarterbacks were Brian Griese and Gus Frerotte. That year, McCaffrey and Smith combined for 201 catches, 2,919 yards and 17 touchdowns.
Numbers, though, weren’t the first thing Smith and McCaffrey mentioned when asked what Thomas and Decker have in common with them.
“I was blessed to play alongside a guy like Rod because of his hard work and his unselfishness,’’ McCaffrey said. “And it’s not always that way in the league. I think Demaryius and Eric are both hard-working, likeable guys. Unselfish. They work hard in the run game. They’re good teammates.
“There are selfish receivers who want the ball all the time. But when you want to win championships you can’t worry about how you only got targeted two times one week because you know when you have a guy like Peyton Manning he’s going to go to the open receiver. He trusts all of his weapons.’’
Manning brings up another similarity.
“About the only way I would compare is we played with a guaranteed Hall of Famer just like those guys are playing with a guaranteed Hall of Famer,’’ Smith said, referring to Elway then and Manning now. “Not that you don’t have the talent, but your game gets elevated when you play with a guy like that.’’
It takes two to tango
People might have it wrong about NFL receivers. The team with the best receiver in 2011 was not Detroit with Calvin Johnson. It was the Super Bowl-champion New York Giants with Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks.
The most lethal receiver in 2008 was not Houston’s Andre Johnson, even though he led the league in receptions and yards. It was Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin and Pittsburgh’s Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes.
Those two receiving tandems wound up squaring off in one of the most exciting games in Super Bowl history.
Brandon Marshall had three consecutive 100-catch seasons for the Broncos from 2007-09. What did that get the Broncos besides 7-9, 8-8 and 8-8?
“You’ve got to have two,’’ Thomas said.
Demaryius and Decker, Decker and Demaryius aren’t just a tandem that splits wide to each side of Manning. As rookies in 2010, Decker, a third-round pick, shared the home owned by the first-round pick, Thomas.
“Deck liked to cook a lot,’’ Thomas said. “He made real good tacos. He liked to throw steaks on the grill. He cooked a lot of stuff.’
The two even share charities. They’ve sponsored families together, spent time at Judi’s House with grieving children, recently went on a Christmas shopping spree for members of the Denver Metro Boys & Girls Club.
“Those two guys get it,’’ said Judianne Atencio, who helps organize the events for the receiving tandem and other Broncos players. “There have been times when they’ve come up to me and showed me something and told me, “I’m in on this.’’’
Plenty of differences
For some reason, contemporaries always are trying to squeeze people into a historical box. The label next Mickey Mantle has spoiled many a baseball career.
When Thomas and Decker came along, who could resist reminiscing about Smith and McCaffrey?
“I know people try to compare us but we’re totally different,’’ Thomas said.
“We’re not the same size players,’’ Thomas said. “Eric and I are both the same size as Eddie Mac. I think we’re totally different styles.’’
There is no one quite like Thomas. A 6-foot-3, 230-pound receiver, who has snagged slant patterns and deep go-routes down the sideline from Manning with the same assurance? Calvin Johnson, maybe.
But Johnson doesn’t have a receiver like Decker on the other side.
“Deck is quicker,’’ Thomas said. “He’s quicker than me. Not faster. But he is quicker.’’
Another difference between the tandems is age. Smith spent a year on the practice squad and two years on the bench before breaking through. The Broncos marked McCaffrey’s third team.
“Rod and I probably had a little more chip on our shoulder because of our early experience in the NFL — Rod not being drafted and me being cut and having to reprove myself,’’ McCaffrey said. “These guys are first and third-round picks. I think they know that they’re good, but I think they know they have room for improvement and they continually work to get better. And that’s what I like about them.’’
Health was one reason Thomas and Decker have had their best statistical seasons of their three-year careers. Both struggled overcoming foot injuries as rookies.
But it’s no coincidence their receiving numbers improved exponentially with the arrival of Manning.
“I feel like our timing has improved,’’ Manning said. “Once again, it’s not what it would be had we played together for five years. I think it’s pretty good considering we’ve only been together for 13 games. I appreciate their work ethic. Those guys do like to work; those guys do like to improve. And that’s all you can ask for as a quarterback, receivers that like to work, that like to improve, and obviously both of them are very talented.”
More to come
Rod and Eddie Mac had an impressive four-year run from 1997, Smith’s first year as a starter, until opening day, 2001, when McCaffrey suffered a gruesome broken leg.
Health willing, Thomas and Decker are young enough they can have a longer run.
“These guys are just coming into their own,’’ Smith said. “People will be chanting their name and wearing their jerseys pretty soon. Denver is a small market for the most part and people don’t give us our due until you get to the top. And that’s what those guys are doing. Now people are looking at them and saying, “Man, these boys can play.’’
They’re not quite at the top, yet. At 10-3, the Broncos have a chance to get there. But in terms of Super Bowl rings featuring the Broncos’ logo, the score is Smith and McCaffrey 4, Thomas and Decker still working on it.
“I’m hoping they have a lot more in common with Rod and I come February 4,’’ McCaffrey said, referring to the day after Super Bowl XLVII. “If they continue to do what they’re doing, if they continue to work hard and play unselfishly, nice things will happen to them the next several years together as a tandem.’’
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