Monday, March 19, 2018

Not your ordinary Joe

Joe Thomas is an outlier.

For 11 National Football League seasons, he labored in relative anonymity with a team that played football as badly as humanly possible.

Year after year after maddening year, his peerless performances went unrewarded. Unless, that is, you consider the first 10 seasons when he was recognized as one of the best offensive tackles in the business. Ten Pro Bowls in 10 seasons says it all.

In 2007, Thomas’ rookie season, the Browns finished 10-6, yet failed to make the playoffs. He didn’t know it at the time, but that was the pinnacle of his career from a standings standpoint.

The team never really came close to a winning season after that and yet Thomas, whose annual performance epitomized the blue-collar work ethic of the city he represented, labored on at an All-Pro level.

It was the only way he knew how to play. Hard, smart, head down, mouth shut and full of hope that next year would be better. It would be the year.  It had to be. Couldn’t get any worse. That next year never arrived.

Thomas, who officially retired Monday, experienced more next years than someone of his considerable talent and desire and hard work deserved.  Hope kept him in Cleveland all these years in spite of the constant losing.

New head coaches came and went; six came, one still remains. But the losing never stopped. It got worse. Historically worse. Agonizingly worse. And yet, he chose to remain.

He certainly didn’t have to. He had opportunities to leave through free agency. He could have demanded a trade, seeking to finally experience what it was like to play for a winner.

Isn’t that what most athletes want? Why waste that talent on a franchise that was disturbingly dysfunctional? That looked hope in the face and laughed. This was a team that constantly kept getting in its own way. 

Thomas was the one constant. Coaches knew he would deliver. He never failed them. And he did it from the opening kickoff to the final play of the game. Every game.

He began his professional football career as a starter in his rookie season. Until he tore a triceps muscle while blocking in game seven last season, he never knew what it was like to watch a game from the bench. After a remarkable 10,363 consecutive snaps, he was finally brought down.

Playing a position where injuries happen suddenly and often, Thomas was like a man of steel. Trench warfare is not much fun and yet nothing seemed to bother him. At least not outwardly.

He got dinged more than just a little in those 10,000 plus snaps. Whether it was preventing a defensive end from mauling his quarterback or providing running lanes for his backs, he was the dependable one on the offensive line.

Despite all the losing, Thomas head-scratchingly chose to stay. Browns fans were that much richer for it.

He follows in a long line of outstanding offensive left tackles this franchise has produced. From 1947 through 1995, the Browns employed only five men at that position – Lou Groza, Dick Schafrath, Doug Dieken, Paul Farren and Tony Jones.

And then along came Joe with the new Browns. In spite of all the losing, the future first-ballot Pro Football Hall of Famer has ultimately emerged a winner.

No, this Joe is hardly ordinary. He is a pro’s pro. A coach’s dream.

He was – and still is – exceptional.

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