Thigpen strikes it rich, but pay dirt eludes Oilers Ex-Steeler unhappy with his role, losing

October 08, 1998|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

Add Yancey Thigpen's name to the growing list of NFL free agents who have found out that money doesn't buy happiness.

When Thigpen left the Pittsburgh Steelers to sign a five-year, $21 million deal with the Tennessee Oilers last February without visiting any other team, he thought he could make a difference to the Oilers.

"I just felt like this was a good, young team, maybe a player from being in the playoff situation," he said at the time. "Hopefully, now I can be that player."

Instead, Thigpen is now in danger of being a wide receiver version of Cincinnati quarterback Neil O'Donnell, another player

who left Pittsburgh for big money and is now on a losing team.

With Thigpen, the Oilers have the same 1-3 record they had at this point last year without him. They're underdogs against the Ravens on Sunday, and if they lose that game, they'll be off to the same 1-4 start they had last year before rallying to finish 8-8.

On top of that, Thigpen hasn't been happy with the way he's being used in the offense.

After the second loss in New England three weeks ago, he was irate when Patriots defensive back Ty Law said the Patriots "contained" him.

Thigpen made only three catches for 21 yards in that game, but blamed the Oilers' offense instead of giving credit to the Patriots' defense. He said the problem was the Oilers didn't throw any deep passes.

"Who took me out of the game? Nobody took me out of the game. If you get a guy for 5 yards, he's still in the core of everything, all the defensive backs are still behind him. You hit a guy downfield and it's him and a couple of defensive backs. Now you have more of a chance to make a play," Thigpen said.

Thigpen said the team's patterns, not quarterback Steve McNair was the problem.

"We're just going 2 yards out, 3 yards out because we don't have patience to go downfield and defensive backs are just backing off," Thigpen said.

McNair agreed with Thigpen.

"It's out of my control. I run the offense they put in each and every week. I think we should have gone deep a little more. They played back and gave us the little things," McNair said.

It may or may not have been a coincidence, but the Oilers appeared to open it up more in their next game against Jacksonville.

In the first half, Thigpen caught five passes for 92 yards, including a 38-yard touchdown strike when he beat cornerback Aaron Beasley.

But in the second half, Thigpen caught one pass for 10 yards and one of McNair's throws aimed at him was intercepted. It didn't help that McNair was then knocked out of the game with a hip pointer as the Oilers lost, 27-22.

"Yeah, I had a good game, but it's not important. We lost the game," Thigpen said.

Coach Jeff Fisher said it was the way the defenses played, not Thigpen's outburst that prompted a chance in strategy.

"Do you mean are the inmates running the asylum?" he asked. "No."

Even with the improved game against the Jaguars, Thigpen is averaging 14.5 yards a catch after averaging 17.7 last year.

Thigpen said the losing is worse than his individual showing.

"Losing is the biggest thing," Thigpen said. "Anytime you're losing, you're going to look for excuses. We're just not playing very good football right now to sum it all up. You can point fingers in every category of the passing game from the receivers running routes and catching passes to the line protecting. You can't really point a finger at one phase of the game. Everyone has to look in the mirror and get better."

The puzzling thing about the passing game is that teams are jamming the line of scrimmage to stop Eddie George, but the Oilers still haven't got the passing game rolling.

Even though the Oilers are only 29th in the league running the ball compared to 15th throwing the ball, they still need a more effective passing game to stop defenders from crowding the line of scrimmage.

"Teams philosophically approach our offense from the standpoint of stopping the running game. Until we can do things in the passing game to convince otherwise, we're going to continue to see the same types of defenses," Fisher said.

The Oilers could do that if Thigpen can be as effective as he was against the Ravens last year when he played for Pittsburgh.

In the Steelers' two victories over the Ravens, he combined for 13 catches for 292 yards.

Thigpen, though, thinks it'll be tougher now that the Ravens have his former Pittsburgh teammate, Rod Woodson, on the corner.

"I think Rod Woodson is definitely an addition to the team," he said. "A lot of people were saying Rod Woodson was washed up. I think the guy was coming off a knee injury that hadn't totally healed and was causing him to not play as well as he had played in the past. I think he's 100 percent healed now and he's playing extremely well. He's definitely brought a lot of experience to the secondary."

Since Thigpen and Woodson know each other well from the days when they practiced against each other, he said he doesn't think either player has an edge.

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