“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.’’