Football is the ultimate team sport. Nothing works if all 22 starters are not executing properly. There is perhaps no greater example of that than the Cleveland Browns. Their car crash of a franchise has gone 48-129 since 2007.
That year is important, because it was the last time the Browns had a winning record, and it is also the year they selected Joe Thomas third overall in the draft.
The 2007 class was stacked with future hall of famers like Patrick Willis, Adrian Peterson, and Darrelle Revis. The Browns passed on all of them for Joe Thomas, and it was the last time the Browns made the right choice on draft day.
In 11 years Thomas was named an All-Pro nine times. He was a first-team All-Pro six times and a Pro Bowler ten times. He was the kind of athlete whose greatness became so routine that people just stopped talking about him. Tyron Smith, Jason Peters, and Andrew Whitworth all had great seasons, occasionally one of them would put together a better 16-game stretch than Thomas, but no one was as consistently brilliant as Cleveland’s #73.
The perfect protector
6’7″, 311-pound people shouldn’t move like Thomas did. A 4.92 40-yard dash and 33″ vertical at his Combine underscored the athleticism he possessed, but it was flawless technique and a mind for the game that was remarkable.
Thomas’ footwork, angles, and hand-placement were, for want of a better word, easy. Like the greats of any sport, he never looked rushed or hurried. He was never scrambling into position. He was always where he was supposed to be, and much to the annoyance of defensive ends, it was always between them and the quarterback.
For 11 seasons Thomas toiled. Treading the path to Canton that Jonathan Ogden and Walter Jones pounded before him. He played through injury, as many offensive linemen have, and it seemed that nothing but the worst franchise in modern sports could hold him back.
Thomas protected 20 quarterbacks in his time. He played for six head coaches. That’s an average of just 29 games per head coach and 8.8 games per quarterback. He played 10,363 snaps before, on the last one of his career, his tricep tore on October 22, 2017.
Thomas surrendered just 30 sacks in his career. That is 345 snaps between sacks and just 2.7 a year. All that brilliance, and he never took a snap in the playoffs. Thanks Cleveland.
Loyal to a fault
Thomas’ decision to stay in Cleveland in 2011, when he signed a record seven-year, $84 million contract, is one of the greatest what ifs in football. What if the best left tackle of his generation had hit the open market. What if instead of drafting Tyron Smith or Nate Solder that year, Joe Thomas had signed in Dallas or New England?
Thomas never seemed to regret his decision. He was always vocal about his belief that Cleveland would turn their fortunes around. And always adamant that he wanted to be there when it happened.
Good players have come and gone from Cleveland during Thomas’ tenure. Alex Mack was drafted in the first round in 2009 and for a period was the best center in the league on the same line as the best left tackle, and the Browns still couldn’t win. Mack escaped to Atlanta, where he went on a playoff run and nearly won a Super Bowl. Jabaal Sheard, a 2011 second-round pick, found himself winning the Super Bowl that Mack lost.
During the buildup to Super Bowl LI, Mack credited Thomas with helping him become the player he was, Thomas did with that what he had done to pass rushers for years. He deflected, he turned it away.
His place in history
Thomas’ bust going up in Canton was a no-brainer long ago. His place in the pantheon of football greats is as well. Only Barry Sanders and Lawrence Taylor managed the ten straight Pro Bowls that Thomas did. Only Anthony Munoz, Ogden, and Jones survive comparison to him.
Thomas may have strong seasons left in him, but he has chosen to walk away at the top of his game, and the bottom of Cleveland’s. The Browns have won one game in the last two years. Thomas deserved better. He deserved the rings of a Tom Brady or Troy Aikman. He joins Dan Marino, Tony Gonzalez and Barry Sanders as the best to not win the big one.
Thomas’ career is one of unerring brilliance. His legacy is one of bittersweet greatness. In five years Thomas will be in the Hall of Fame as the greatest left tackle of his generation. Despite all the losses and all the disappointments in Cleveland, he will be remembered and sorely missed.
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