The Missing Link
Yancey Thigpen's skillful receiving should pump up the Oilers
When Oilers coach Jeff Fisher sat down to contemplate Tennessee's shortcomings following the 1997 season, everything seemed to point to young quarterback Steve McNair's needing the help of a veteran wide receiver. The stat sheet showed that the Oilers' No. 1 receiver in 1997 was their tight end Frank Wycheck. Plus, when several veterans knocked on Fisher's door on their way home for the winter, each had shared the same message: This team is one star player from a deep playoff run.
That player could be Yancey Thigpen, a two-time Pro Bowl wideout with the Steelers, whom Tennessee signed to a five-year, $21 million contract in February, making him the highest-paid receiver in the NFL. "Getting Yancey is very close to being the most important acquisition we've ever had," says Fisher. "After three years of looking, we found the receiver that can take us where we want to go." Adds Oilers general manager Floyd Reese, "For our team, this guy was very, very important."
It's not hard to see why. The 6'1", 180-pound Thigpen, a fourth-round draft pick by the Chargers in '91, blossomed into a star in '95, his fourth season with Pittsburgh. That year he caught 85 passes, to surpass the Steelers' record set by John Stall-worth, and piling up 1,307 receiving yards on his way to Super Bowl XXX and the Pro Bowl. After a string of leg injuries reduced his playing time in 1996, Thigpen bounced back in '97 with 79 catches. He also broke another of Stallworth's team records with 1,398 yards receiving.
It was Thigpen's performance in a 35-24 win against the Broncos on Dec. 7 that really hooked Fisher. Thigpen had six catches for 175 yards and three first-half touchdowns of 33, 69 and 21 yards. It was then that the Oilers, who haven't had a 1,300-yard receiver in 34 years, went into OT (Operation Thigpen). McNair began sweet-talking Thigpen on the field after Pittsburgh and Tennessee met in the teams' regular-season finale. More Oilers cornered him at the Super Bowl. On the plane ride to the Pro Bowl in Honolulu, Tennessee running back Eddie George sat in the seat next to Thigpen and campaigned throughout the flight Oilers safety Blaine Bishop took over when they landed.
Thigpen says he chose the Oilers above 11 other suitors because McNair's passing abilities reminded him of Pittsburgh quarterback Kordell Stewart and because by staying in the AFC Central, he'll face familiar defenses. Shortly after signing with Tennessee, however, Thigpen had surgery to repair a screw that had been inserted into his left foot last year for stabilization. He missed almost all the Oilers' spring practices.
In the middle of Yancey's first minicamp with Tennessee, in early June, his father, Edward, died after a battle with Guillain-Barr� syndrome. "All my life everyone has said how blessed I am," says Yancey. "I'd give all that up to have my father back."
Because of the injury and his dad's death, last week was the first time Thigpen ran hard since the Pro Bowl, and he was sore for two days after the workout. "But it's a good feeling," he says. "It lets me know I've got my feet under me, and even though things have been tough lately, I'm about to go to a whole new level."
The Oilers only hope that Thigpen takes them along.
Shula a Risk in the Front Office