Vahe Gregorian

Chiefs rookie De’Anthony Thomas can take your breath away when he gets the ball

The Chiefs’ De’Anthony Thomas raced down the sideline for an 81-yard touchdown on a punt return in the first quarter of Saturday’s game against the Raiders at Arrowhead Stadium.
The Chiefs’ De’Anthony Thomas raced down the sideline for an 81-yard touchdown on a punt return in the first quarter of Saturday’s game against the Raiders at Arrowhead Stadium. The Kansas City Star

Chiefs rookie De’Anthony Thomas can zoom from zero to 60 mph in approximately “one second,” reckons teammate Kelcie McCray.

“That’s crazy how he does that,” McCray said.

Thomas can surge up-field about as instantaneously as anyone … at least when his compass is hard-wired to north and south. And he’s cultivated the rare agility to be able to accelerate into a sudden cut.

All of which helps explain the relative inevitability of his 81-yard punt return for the touchdown that stoked the Chiefs’ 31-13 victory over Oakland on Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium.

“He’s that guy that every time he touches the ball everybody’s kind of holding their breath,” quarterback Alex Smith said, adding, “You know, in a good way.”

If it seems like Smith’s inadvertent qualifier was redundant, though, it wasn’t.

Because as exhilarating as Thomas’ game can be, and almost certainly ultimately will prove to be, he’s still emerging from the embryonic phase of his NFL career — a phase that’s been marked almost as much by breaths held out of concern as anticipation.

It was only three games ago at Oakland, for instance, that Thomas was benched on punt returns after he serpentined to a 12-yard loss that hemmed in the Chiefs at their own 5.

If that play had been his only madcap misadventure with this fascinating, complicated job that simultaneously, incompatibly calls for high-wire derring-do and cool restraint, Thomas likely would have gotten some slack.

But that was only the most dramatic example of his misjudgments that have included letting other punts land — and roll — that he could have fair-caught.

Perhaps clamped in some mental gridlock trying to sort it all out, Thomas had managed just 24 yards on nine punt returns over the previous five games entering play Sunday — even as he continued to thrive as a kickoff returner (31.9-yard average on 12 chances).

“He has to learn you can’t run around NFL players. … There’s a learning curve with punt returners; I went through the same thing with Devin Hester (at Chicago),” Chiefs special-teams coordinator Dave Toub said after the first Oakland game.

Toub later added: “He wants to return everything, which is a great trait to have, but sometimes you’ve got to say, ‘The coverage is there, the punt is there: I’ve got to use the fair catch.’ ”

So Sunday may have illustrated a revelation for Thomas, even if it’s unclear from speaking to him. He seems to be a pleasant enough fellow who, alas, isn’t a particularly revealing interview.

So he didn’t convey many details on how he peeled out of those recent struggles into what became the second-best punt-returning day (156 yards on eight returns) in Chiefs history — behind only Dexter McCluster’s 177 last season at Washington.

“I’ve just been learning; I’ve been learning the whole season,” said Thomas, who averaged 17.1 yards per punt return at Oregon. “It’s to the point where I’m starting to get a feel of it.”

Along with that, Thomas did allow as to how he recently has been feeling particularly compelled to maximize his gifts when he explained words he had posted Thursday on Twitter:

“THE PROBLEM IS AVERAGE.”

The point is one of urgency, he said, that stems from his interpretation of the words of running back coach Eric Bieniemy:

“You don’t want to be average; you want to be phenomenal,” Thomas said, later adding, “He’s talking to the whole world about, ‘Don’t be average; get up off your feet and do something to help yourself become successful.’

“It means a lot to me, not taking opportunities for granted. A lot of people don’t get the opportunity that I have right now, so I just want to make the best of it.”

With a little help, he promptly noted:

“Give it up to the guys playing up front,” he said.

In this case, the props go most visibly to McCray, who scraped away former Chiefs defensive back Neiko Thorpe at the start of the TD return to spring Thomas into a convoy down the sideline.

“We knew he was due for one; he’s been too close all season,” McCray said. “It makes everybody play to a higher standard (on special teams), because we know what he can do once he gets the ball in his hands.

“If we give him a chance, even the smallest crease, we know he can take it 70 or 60 or however long it was today.”

That made it 7-0 and stood as the difference in the game until the Chiefs uncorked three touchdowns in a span of 4 minutes, 42 seconds late in the third quarter.

“I think it kick-started all the momentum that we finally got going,” Smith said.

But Thomas is capable of kick-starting other elements of the Chiefs’ game, as he’s shown in flashes week by week.

“Any time he’s on the field, I think the defense recognizes that as well,” Smith said. “You can do a lot moving him around and doing different things with him.

“So it adds another dimension for sure.”

Another dimension beckons, though, because Thomas also is capable of changing the complexion of a too-often stagnant offense.

He had two carries for 14 yards and a reception for 5 yards on Sunday, tame stats that aren’t indicative of what he can eventually bring to an offense that needs more pop.

He’s a game-changing talent, after all, as he showed Sunday.

And the Chiefs would be well-served to expedite him through any lingering growing pains so he can be properly engaged in his NFL potential all over the field.

“I love watching what this guy can do with the ball in his hands,” McCray said.

To reach Vahe Gregorian, call 816-234-4868 or send email to vgregorian@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vgregorian. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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