Last Saturday, Oregon football fans, still basking in the glow of the program’s first Rose Bowl victory since the Woodrow Wilson presidency, suddenly felt like wounded ducks. The news that star quarterback Darron Thomas had decided to leave the team for a chance to play in the NFL was more surprising than a Greg Oden All-Star appearance.
Ducks fans expected this from LaMichael James, who broke nearly every UO rushing record over the course of his three-year career, and had nothing left to prove on a college football field—but Darron Thomas was supposed to be a lock to return for his senior year and run an offense that he and Chip Kelly built into a Mach 5 machine.
We probably will never know the true reason that Thomas wanted to give up his chance at becoming the best quarterback in Oregon history for an opportunity to play with the big boys on Sundays.
Perhaps, like James, Thomas wanted to go out on top after enduring the pain of coming a downed knee away from winning a national championship. Perhaps, as Oregonian columnist John Canzano suggests, Thomas feared baby-faced backup QB Bryan Bennett beating him out for the starting spot come September. Or perhaps, the decision was purely economic in nature—a prime opportunity for Thomas to give back to his mother who has worked the early shift at Target for the last 16 years.
Whatever the reason, the vitriol and negativity coming from Duck country and the national media must end.
In many ways, the decision does feel premature and a bit shortsighted for an undersized quarterback plagued by accuracy issues. But with all that Thomas has given to this program, how can Ducks fans have any response other than support and gratitude?
Thomas took Oregon places that seemed impossible just 10 years ago. He leaves UO as the all-time leader in passing touchdowns with 66, ranks sixth in total offense and seventh in career passing yards. Most importantly, Thomas went 23-3 as a starter, making him the winningest quarterback in Oregon history.
Only a handful of Oregon quarterbacks are in the mix with Thomas in a greatest-of-all-time discussion. Dan Fouts, Joey Harrington, Dennis Dixon and Kellen Clemens come to mind, but even they never came a field goal away from being the best team in the land.
Thomas probably will be a late sixth or seventh round pick. He may not get picked at all and have to finagle his way onto an NFL roster through free agency. But there’s no telling that another year playing at Oregon would have done much to improve his draft stock.
However Thomas’ career turns out, I have nothing but respect and well wishes for him.
This is not to say that Thomas’ departure won’t hurt the Ducks plenty. His decision is made even more painful by Matt Barkley’s choice to return for his senior year at USC.
But all of these worries permeated through Eugene when a certain laptop enthusiast named Jeremiah Masoli was forced to turn the reins over to an inexperienced young quarterback named Darron Thomas.
The Thomas era now becomes the Bennett era, which may be even more successful, and electrifying.
Bennett brings skills to the field that can potentially make this team faster and more unpredictable than before. We saw flashes of his deceptive mobility and arm strength against Arizona State, Colorado and Washington State this year.
Whether he transforms into a proven winner has yet to be seen, but you have to trust that Kelly knew something about this kid when he recruited him.
So look forward to the future, Duck fans, but never forget that whatever successes the program may enjoy under Bennett came on the back of the most successful quarterback in Oregon history.