A typically painful routine for Cleveland Browns fans is cycling through a list of great first-round draft picks the team has made since the franchise returned in 1999. The reason this is so grueling is simple – said list often starts and ends with offensive lineman Joe Thomas.
Sadly, Cleveland’s last remaining first-round pick from 2007-2015 announced his retirement earlier today. Though the decision isn’t terribly surprising, it’s certainly bittersweet. In Thomas, Browns fans found a symbol of consistency on a franchise which isn’t known for such a concept.
On the surface, seeing a left tackle as a team’s best draft pick and franchise player isn’t ideal. Of course, this says less about Thomas than it does the brutal mismanagement he’s had to witness since being drafted by the Browns in 2007. However, while Cleveland dealt with toxic front offices, frequent losing and a quarterback carousel which is still spinning as we speak, Thomas remained the lone constant. If Browns fans could count on one thing every Sunday, it was seeing him on the field, giving his all despite having plenty of excuses not to.
Outside of his rookie year, when Cleveland won a surprising ten games, Thomas experienced losing more often than not. His career is littered with four or five win campaigns, and now wraps up after the Browns notched one victory over the past two years. He took part in only a handful of December games which meant something besides playing out the string in another losing season.
Despite this, Thomas was never called out for loafing. He could never be accused of phoning it in as one more fruitless year was winding down.
Instead, Thomas went to the Pro Bowl every season from 2007 to 2016. He logged a Hall of Fame-worthy resume for a team which has more quarterbacks than victories over the past few years. He never complained, nor did he become an issue in the locker room.
Not to say he’d be wrong in doing so. If anyone earned the right to vent about Cleveland’s sad state of affairs, it was Thomas. Had he demanded a trade or become a voice of discontent in the locker room, could anyone have blamed him?
If this even slightly occurred over his long career, we never heard about it. Instead, Thomas continued being as positive as anyone could be while dealing with the most negative of circumstances.
In the end, it’s tough to accurately sum up Thomas’ career and what he meant to Cleveland. All I can honestly come up with is this – he deserved better.
Thomas deserved the opportunity to experience more than just one winning season, which occurred eleven years ago. He deserved better than having to work with six different coaching staffs in ten seasons. He deserved better than being forced to greet a new starting quarterback two to three times per year. He certainly deserved the chance to play in at least one playoff game.
Above all, Thomas deserved a better end to such a prolific career. Instead, after playing an astonishing 10,363 consecutive snaps, a mid-season triceps injury essentially signaled the beginning of the end. After everything Thomas had to endure in Cleveland, and everything he gave the Browns despite that, he earned the right to end his career on his own terms.
As we know, this wasn’t the hand Thomas was dealt. That, despite the chaos and negativity surrounding him, he still played just as hard on the field while continuing to be a leader off it is a true testament to how important he was to this franchise.
For this, all we can do is thank him.
Thomas stayed in Cleveland under the belief his loyalty would pay off in the form of the Browns becoming a contender. That they never did is unfortunate. That he continued believing, and continued playing his ass off until his very last down, is something Browns fans will always appreciate.