Joe Thomas can still remember this feeling coursing through Cleveland. It’s a Thursday in late May, and the Cavaliers will soon tip off the first game of the Eastern Conference finals against Atlanta. The Browns’ All-Pro left tackle was the third overall pick in 2007, not long before LeBron James last dragged the Cavs to the NBA Finals, where they were quickly dispatched in four games. Thomas is sitting down to lunch in the Browns’ cafeteria — a full plate of brisket, potatoes, and a slice of pizza in front of him — and with the Cavs fighting to return to the Finals, each TV in the room is flashing James’s image onscreen.
“There’s definitely a buzz this time of year that there hasn’t been,” Thomas says. “We definitely want that, but I know that as happy as people are about having a good basketball team, it’s still a football town through and through.”
In 2007, it looked like Cleveland wouldn’t have to choose. Before the LeBron high could even wear off, the Browns started what remains their best season in the past 12 years. Cleveland won 10 games in Thomas’s rookie year. He went to the Pro Bowl. And at 23, he figured it would go like this every year. In some ways, it has: Thomas followed that first trip to the Pro Bowl with seven more, making him only the second offensive lineman in league history to go in each of his first eight seasons.1
The first, Lou Creekmur, is in the Hall of Fame.
For the Browns, that 2007 season was the last taste of success before nearly a decade of dysfunction. During Thomas’s tenure in Cleveland, the Browns have had five head coaches, five general managers, seven offensive coordinators, and, somehow, 14 starting quarterbacks.
“There was definitely an excitement in the city,” Thomas says of his rookie season. “You started to hear about Believeland. People would hold posters up in the stadium. It felt like it was coming back. The next year, we had kind of a bad season and fired the coaches. And we’ve been hitting the reset button ever since.”
It hit Joel Bitonio in the first practice of rookie minicamp last season. The former Nevada tackle was lining up at left guard, which meant that when the veterans eventually arrived, the man next to him would be the best left tackle in football. “During our first practice [as a team], I just kept thinking, Don’t step on Joe’s foot,” Bitonio says.
Bitonio says there was a play or sequence by Thomas that left him in awe during every game last season, but Cleveland’s Week 11 loss to the Texans really stands out. By the early part of the fourth quarter, the Browns were down two touchdowns and desperate to mount a comeback. They passed on 21 of their final 23 plays. Their offensive predictability allowed Houston to twist, stunt, and tear toward the quarterback without any fear of being gouged by the run. Despite the deluge of rushers, Thomas never flinched, unshakable and unpassable amid the onslaught. But the Browns didn’t score again, and in the locker room, Bitonio grumbled about having to face an unleashed defense. “He told me, ‘Joel, I’ve been in Cleveland my whole career,’” Bitonio remembers. “‘We’ve been in that situation a lot.’”
Reporters and friends alike constantly ask Bitonio about Thomas, and he tells them all that it’s impossible to overstate what his left tackle represents, both to his line and the organization. Greatness for offensive linemen is rarely communicated in the numbers. But even there, Thomas is an exception. In eight seasons, he’s given up more than five sacks just once, according to Stats LLC. Given the tumult at quarterback for Cleveland, that’s even more remarkable. “He has a quarterback who might set up at 10 yards instead of eight, and that changes everything for a tackle,” Bitonio says. “He has all these changes, but he’s been the consistent factor. He deserves more credit than people give him.”
Thomas hasn’t just started every game since he got to the league. He’s played every snap for the Browns offense since his rookie year. Through ligament strains, blowouts, and lost seasons, Thomas has been on the field for 7,924 consecutive offensive plays.
The top half of the 2007 draft was an all-or-nothing proposition. Half of the players were spectacular failures, some who flamed out of the league before even finding a second team. It’s full of names like JaMarcus Russell, Amobi Okoye, Jamaal Anderson, Justin Harrell, and Levi Brown. The other half consists of some of the decade’s most iconic players. Thomas was taken one pick behind Calvin Johnson, four ahead of Adrian Peterson. Patrick Willis went 11th, one spot before Marshawn Lynch. Darrelle Revis was taken two picks later. It isn’t difficult to build the argument that the defining players of this generation at five positions — wide receiver, left tackle, running back, inside linebacker, and cornerback — went within a span of 13 picks. And it also isn’t difficult to argue that among all of them, Thomas has built the best career to date.
Thirteen years before he was named Wisconsin’s head coach, Paul Chryst was the Badgers tight ends coach, and the man tasked with luring a high school lineman named Joe Thomas to Madison. It’s typical for coaches to see a recruit compete in a different sport as a sign of moral support and a show of commitment, so in the spring of Thomas’s junior year, Chryst went to a Brookfield Central High School track meet. That afternoon, Thomas launched the shot nearly 64 feet. Chryst didn’t know much about shot put. Thomas’s reaction was his only hope for context. When it was lukewarm, Chryst moved past the throw without thinking much of it.
The next day, Chryst went to see another recruit compete at a different high school. After the shot flew barely 50 feet, he walked over and patted the young man on the shoulder. “I told him to hang in there, and he looked at me and said, ‘Coach, I just set a school record and a personal best.’”
Thomas’s athletic brilliance was always easy to spot, but even now it has more to do with the way he moves than the way he looks. Players at his level tend to look like they’re born of a different species, but those who don’t know Thomas would likely never guess he’s Canton-bound. Sitting in the cafeteria, he’s wearing a gray Browns T-shirt; a tuft of wet hair hangs down the middle of his forehead, obscuring the rest of his hairline, which seems to be headed in the other direction. He’s tall, but not overly wide. His arms look like they belong to someone who knows his way around the gym but doesn’t live there. Some of the tackles that Thomas idolized when he was young — Walter Jones, Willie Roaf, Jonathan Ogden — were built like mountains. Thomas is very much a man.
It may be why he’s free to navigate Northeast Ohio without much harassment. He lives in Westlake, a suburb about 15 miles from the Browns’ downtown stadium. At a sporting event, where people might see a 6-foot-6, 310-pound frame and infer what he does, he’ll sometimes hear people call his name. But at Target? Or the grocery store? It rarely happens. “And I like it that way,” he says, laughing. He figures a portion of the anonymity comes from his position — where a lack of recognition can be a virtue — but Cleveland’s lack of success certainly hasn’t helped. “If we win a couple Super Bowls,” Thomas says, “maybe I’ll get some commercials.”
Thomas rarely appears self-serious, even when talking about his career. When asked whether he’d want people to one day refer to him as the best left tackle ever, his response is downright casual. “Sure,” he says. “I’d like them to, but I’m not going to lobby for it.” Thomas says these days that fear is among his most effective motivators. He tells stories of former Wisconsin and Steelers center Mike Webster, 12 years into a Hall of Fame career, running the stairs at Three Rivers Stadium two days after the season ended, convinced Chuck Noll was bringing in a kid to take his job.
Whether it’s conjured self-doubt or his everyman face, Thomas has long been an approachable superstar, someone others feel they can emulate in small ways. One week during his sophomore year at Wisconsin, Thomas took his lunch into a meeting reserved for the quarterback and center to plan their calls. “The next week, I had a full offensive line meeting going in there,” says Jim Hueber, the Badgers line coach at the time.
At first, Bitonio was surprised Thomas would take the time to help him with anything. Now, he asks him everything, from how he spends his off days to what schedule he follows in the spring. “We’re different people,” Bitonio says, “but if I can replicate his career in any sense, I’ll be happy about that.”
A bus ride like this typically would have been quiet. The Browns had just finished a 4-12 season with a two-score loss in Pittsburgh, but as they rolled away from the stadium, the chatter began.
When Rob Chudzinski was hired as Cleveland’s head coach in January 2013, there were hopes of replicating that fleeting but magical 2007 season. Chudzinski was the offensive coordinator for the 10-win Browns team when Thomas was a rookie. That offseason, Thomas figured that the Chudzinski era would finally usher in a period of stability. “I think everyone had the impression that it would be this way for four or five years,” Thomas says. “I kind of thought that would be the last coach I ever had.” By the time the bus parked, the news had already spread. Chudzinski had been fired, 350 days after taking the job.
Of all the changes, this was the most frustrating, especially for the aging players on Cleveland’s roster. With each transition, Thomas realized the setback wasn’t just for a season. This meant three, maybe four years of rebuilding ahead. “When you’re in charge of an NFL franchise as an owner or president, sometimes you feel like you have to take that step back to get where you want to go,” Thomas says. “And guys like that have a lot longer timeline than a player in his eighth or ninth season.”
A group of Browns veterans — 10 or 12 starters and captains, Thomas estimates — met with owner Jimmy Haslam and team president Alec Scheiner. Both sides presented their positions, with management laying out its case for the change and the players making it known that the constant turnover was a barrier to building a consistent winner. They felt heard, but that was all. The cycle had started again. “Once you fire a coach,” Thomas says, “it’s over. It’s not like we were gonna convince them to keep the coach.”
Cleveland is entering this season with the same head coach and general manager as last year — but again, Thomas and the Browns offense have a new offensive coordinator and quarterback, with Josh McCown starting Week 1 and Johnny Manziel hoping to eventually erase the memories of last year’s disastrous debut. Thomas says other coaches were surprised when last year’s coordinator, Kyle Shanahan, chose to leave for the same job in Atlanta. But nothing shocks him anymore. “I can’t think of a year,” he says, “when we’ve had the same staff, top to bottom.”
In the cafeteria at the team facility, Thomas knows nearly everyone by name. He’s the longest-tenured Brown, suddenly the old guy in the room, but in the past few months, it’s felt like time has gained even more ground. In the second game of Thomas’s career, the Browns beat the Bengals in a 51-45 shootout in Cleveland. Most of the afternoon, Thomas was forced to deal with a 290-pound wrecking ball named Justin Smith. When he held his own, Thomas felt like he belonged. After nearly a decade, Thomas’s first true obstacle has retired. Time moves fast in the NFL.
“I’ll tell you the weirder one, though,” Thomas says, “is Patrick Willis.” Thomas doesn’t watch much TV, but he was reading the news on his phone when he saw that Willis, who was selected eight picks after him in 2007, called it a career. The two weren’t close. They’d run into each other at Pro Bowls and Under Armour events. But when an elite player from his draft class decided to walk away, Thomas got a glimpse of his own NFL mortality. “I know I’m not playing forever. And I know I’m getting closer to the end than the beginning. But that was like, ‘Wow.’ That was an eye-opener.”
As he’s grown older, Thomas has paid close attention to how the league has changed. He understands the new collective bargaining agreement and knows that young, inexpensive draft picks have become more important than ever. Teams going young means players near the tail end of their careers are even less likely to earn a free pass in their final seasons. “How your career ends … ” he says, “I haven’t talked to anybody who said their career ended just the way they wanted.” Great players are no exception. He cites Brett Favre, who he grew up watching in Wisconsin. The hardest part, he says, is no longer being who you’ve always been.
“You’re the first kid picked in playground football,” Thomas says. “You’re the first kid picked in Little League. You’re the first pick in the NFL draft. Every team wants you in free agency, so your team throws a boatload of money at you. Everyone has always wanted you, and suddenly, you wake up one day and nobody wants you anymore. There’s a competitor inside of you that says, ‘I’m going to prove them wrong,’ but eventually, one day, you just can’t prove them wrong anymore.”
If Thomas sounds anxious, it’s because he is. But he swears that angst comes from looking forward and not back. The idea of ending his career on someone else’s terms is frightening, but the thought of leaving Cleveland without having built a winner is worse.
“Since I got drafted, one of my goals was to help turn the Browns into a consistent winner,” he says. “That’s always been a driving force for me. There’s going to be a lot more satisfaction when the Browns play a home playoff game than it would be to just go to the Patriots. ‘Well, you’ve made the playoffs every single year, and now you’ve made the playoffs. Doesn’t it feel great?’ Yeah, it does, but it just doesn’t feel the same.”
He swears he’s never thought about what it would have been like if he’d landed somewhere else. Cleveland is home. It’s all he knows. And all he ever will.