I reacted to the Darron Thomas news in much the same way that everyone else did. @@http://www.goducks.com/ViewArticle.dbml?DB_OEM_ID=500&ATCLID=205361039@@

It popped up as a simple tweet on my computer screen at 5:39 p.m on Sunday:

@mcnamaraUO: “Darron Thomas will forgo his senior season and declare for the NFL draft #goducks.” @@https://twitter.com/#!/[email protected]@

I was on the phone at the time, peering off and on at what was going on in the Twitterverse. The message came up, and it took just a few seconds for me to jump into reporter mode.

“Wow. Darron Thomas is leaving for the NFL,” I said into the phone. “I have to go.”

It didn’t make any sense. Why would he pass up a shot at an unprecedented fourth straight Bowl Championship Series berth, his last chance to be the undisputed leader of a nationally recognized team? Would he even be drafted in April? Was I missing something here?

Most people — reporters and fans alike — seemed to share my feelings. On the surface it felt like a shortsighted decision, something Thomas would regret later on down the line. You only get one chance to be in college — and few are granted the opportunity to be the starting quarterback of a major Division I football team. An NFL future was anything but guaranteed, especially for a quarterback whose accuracy was inconsistent. @@http://www.goducks.com/ViewArticle.dbml?SPSID=3378&SPID=233&DB_LANG=C&DB_OEM_ID=500&ATCLID=1550474&Q_SEASON=2011@@

About half an hour later, once I had completed my frantically cobbled together story about Thomas’ departure, I began to reflect a bit more. Oregon was coming off its first Rose Bowl victory in 95 years. Thomas had already compiled a school-record 66 touchdown passes, and ranked as one of only three players in Oregon history to throw for at least 30 in two different seasons. What more did he have to prove in Eugene?

As a quarterback, Thomas is what he is. He’ll never be the perfect pocket passer, a la Tom Brady, and he’s not nearly fast enough to make up for those shortcomings on the ground like, say, Alex Smith did on Sunday. Another year in school wasn’t going to change any of that. @@http://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/redskins/saints-vs-49ers-alex-smith-vernon-davis-lead-san-franciscos-thrilling-rally-past-new-orleans/2012/01/14/gIQARomWzP_story.html@@

What Thomas does have to offer mostly comes from underneath the helmet. Behind that gleaming smile is a considerable football mind, one that made very few miscues under center over the last two years. If Thomas’ decision-making off the field wasn’t always perfect (and in college, whose is?), he rarely made egregious mistakes on Saturdays and showed a complete mastery of Oregon’s complex offense.

Even more importantly, Thomas was Oregon’s undisputed leader — always looking at the positive side of things, shoving praise toward his teammates, even promising to win back the starting role if need be when Bryan Bennett replaced him in the second half against Washington State this year. He never wavered, and that will certainly count for something as he is evaluated by NFL teams. @@http://www.goducks.com/ViewArticle.dbml?SPID=233&DB_OEM_ID=500&ATCLID=205324696@@

Whether Thomas is indeed drafted and finds sustained NFL success, I don’t know. No one does, even the most strident of Thomas critics. As Thomas’ high school coach Bob Jones reminded The Register-Guard’s Adam Jude, T.J. Yates won a playoff game for the Houston Texans just over a week ago. To paraphrase Kevin Garnett, anything is possible. @@http://www.registerguard.com/web/sports/27467931-41/thomas-oregon-ducks-quarterback-darron.html.csp@@ @@http://www.houstontexans.com/team/game/2011/postseason18/@@

In a way, it seems fitting that Thomas would leave this way. He was always underappreciated by fans who assumed he was a product of Chip Kelly’s system and little more. It took fewer than two quarters of uneven play from Bryan Bennett for people to call for Thomas’ head, and talk of a quarterback switch did not truly abate until the final whistle blew on the Rose Bowl. Never mind that Thomas had led Oregon to its first ever BCS National Championship Game in his first season as a starter, that his teammates loved him and Kelly called him one of the toughest players he’s ever coached. Bennett threw a crisper spiral and ran faster, and that was all that mattered.

And now, just like that, Thomas is gone. No tearful press conference, no pointed questions from reporters — just a tweet from the athletic department, followed by a press release. Maybe this is what we had coming. Thomas never got the credit he deserved, and so he left before anyone could have anticipated.

Oregon is in Thomas’ past now, nothing more than a fond memory as he prepares to face a brand new horde of doubters.

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