- Jake Trotter covers the Cleveland Browns for ESPN. He joined ESPN in 2011 covering college football. Before that, he worked at The Oklahoman, Austin American-Statesman and Middletown (Ohio) Journal newspapers. You can follow him on Twitter @Jake_Trotter.
JOE THOMAS NEVER won a Super Bowl. He never appeared in a playoff game, either.
But he also never took a play off. And he never came off the field — no matter what — until a torn triceps tendon prompted retirement.
Over 11 seasons at left tackle for the Cleveland Browns — from his rookie debut to his final game in 2017 — Thomas played 10,363 consecutive snaps, believed to be an NFL record.
“It was always important for me to be out there because I knew the other guys needed it. … They were playing for their next contract, playing for their jobs,” Thomas said. “I’d already accomplished a lot in my career towards the end, where if I got banged up or we weren’t playing for anything, it probably would’ve been easy to just hang it up and rest and think about next year.
“But their future was more important. And I knew our offense, our line specifically, was best when I was out there. That’s why I have a lot of pride in [that record]. It was always important for me to be there for them, to be reliable and consistent and always strive for perfection.”
As a tackle, Thomas was nearly perfect. Despite playing for six different head coaches, blocking for 20 different starting quarterbacks and experiencing only one winning season, Thomas was a six-time All-Pro selection and went to 10 Pro Bowls.
“For him to stay motivated and perform the way he did, it’s just a remarkable achievement,” said former Browns general manager Phil Savage, who drafted Thomas with the third pick in 2007. “While all the pieces changed around him, he just stayed the same. To have that kind of discipline is just amazing.”
Ahead of his Aug. 5 enshrinement into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, ESPN went inside Thomas’ unfaltering career. Revealed was the constant pursuit of perfection that both awed and irked teammates, a never-ending string of wardrobe quirks and a love and passion for Cleveland not even Peyton Manning could puncture.
THOMAS COMPARED HIS aim for perfection to 97-year-old Michelin chef Jiro Ono, portrayed in a 2011 documentary, “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.”
“For 70 years, he’s been doing the exact same thing the exact same way every single day,” Thomas said. “If you’re obsessed with the detail and the accomplishment of doing it exactly the same and perfect every time, you’ll find the joy in that.”
Like the sushi chef, Thomas was obsessed with details.
“He always wore the baggiest game pants,” said Browns All-Pro left guard Joel Bitonio, who played four seasons next to Thomas. “Everybody in the locker room is like, ‘What are you wearing? You have no swag.’ And finally he told me, ‘You ever look at a ninja? Are their clothes tight?’ He thought tight pants constricted him. So he had a method to his madness.”
That included spritzing the inside of his cleats with the pre-tape spray otherwise reserved for ankles.
“I was pulling to the left and had planted my foot and my foot slipped within my shoe,” Thomas recalled. “I couldn’t tie my shoes any tighter. The cleats didn’t slip, so nobody would’ve noticed. But I felt my feet slip just a millimeter in my shoe and it caused me to be slow to react to a linebacker that was running underneath. I said, ‘I’ll never let that happen again.'”
Because of Thomas, both Bitonio and Browns All-Pro right guard Wyatt Teller — who joined Cleveland two years after Thomas’ retirement — spray the inside of their cleats to this day.
“I don’t know if it actually helps me or not,” Bitonio said. “But I was like, ‘All right, if Joe Thomas is doing it, I’m going to do it, too.'”
As his career progressed, Thomas kept adding items to his rigorous pre-practice and pregame checklists.
“By Year 11, it took me four hours to get ready for a game because I had so many little things I was doing,” Thomas said. “Honestly, it was mentally wearing me out towards the end. But there was no way I was going on the field without checking every single one of those little boxes.”
Regardless of who objected.
“The coach would get pissed at me because I would have to ask out of meetings early,” Thomas said. “I was like, ‘Dude, I’ve got to start getting ready for practice.’ I wore two knee sleeves, so I’d be spraying the inside of my knee sleeves and I’d have to put baby powder on because they were too sticky to be able to get them over my hair and legs. It was just one little thing after another.
“But once I was put together and propped up like the tin man, I was invincible.”
Those small items proved to be a big reason he never left the field.
“The detail I took getting myself ready for a game,” Thomas said, “with how I would tighten my chin strap, how I would go through my wrist tape with my thumb guards and how I’d go through my ankle taping and how I’d put my shoes on, how I would put my socks on. … I had inserts that were custom made for the bottom of my feet. So I never had any of those moments, where you see guys like, oh, their shoe popped off, or their helmet flew off, or their chinstrap came unbuckled.
“I had thought about everything a million times. No little weird thing was going to cause me to miss a play.”
THOMAS DIDN’T JUST strive for perfection. He demanded it from those around him. In turn, Cleveland consistently boasted an elite offensive line despite the losing and turmoil that enveloped the franchise.
“I was the one that was going to set the standard for the room, and they were going to look to me,” Thomas said. “So it was important for me to keep my standard the highest of anybody, knowing that maybe they wouldn’t be able to achieve it, but they would try to hold themselves to that standard.
“The standard was the standard, and it wasn’t going to change no matter who was in there. So don’t come in here thinking that good is OK. Perfect is OK.”
That mentality, at times, could be grating.
In 2014, All-Pro center Alex Mack suffered a broken leg, which forced guard John Greco into the role. The following week in Jacksonville, Thomas grew increasingly irritated with Greco’s pace from the huddle to the line of scrimmage.
“I remember thinking in my head, ‘Give me a f—ing break,’ because I’d never played center in my life,” Greco said. “When I played guard, I would just take my time. But I realized that there had to be a different sense of urgency because everybody was relying on me to get them set.”
During one timeout, with the Browns trailing in a key moment, Thomas and Greco began screaming at one another in the huddle.
“Then we just started laughing,” Greco said. “He was such a perfectionist and had to have things a certain way. I learned that it was better to just do it the way he wanted to avoid any conflict.”
During Mack’s rookie training camp in 2009, Browns offensive line coach George Warhop kept harping on Mack about his hand placement.
“He wouldn’t let it go,” Mack said. “I remember being exhausted and tired, like, ‘I really wish this coach would just stop yelling at me.'”
Believing he was being targeted unfairly, Mack asked Thomas why Warhop never criticized Thomas’ hand placement.
“And he said, ‘Well, have you ever noticed my hands out of place? I have perfect hand placement because I really focus on it,'” Mack recalled. “To have another young player raise your own level of expectation, to just be like, ‘You can fix this.’ … It was such a good learning experience.”
Those learning experiences extended to the film room.
“I saw him grade out perfect [100%] a few times, which is just unheard of,” said Greco, who played six seasons in Cleveland with Thomas. “I’d play the greatest game of my life and maybe get a 91%.
“Everybody gets beat. Maybe it’s a toss [play] the other way, you’re not involved, maybe you don’t have the same sense of urgency. But you never saw that with him. Every single play, it was almost like he was having a competition against himself.”
That level of perfection created a dilemma for Thomas’ position coaches when breaking down tape in front of the players.
“You have to treat everyone equal, so they’d have to try and nitpick things, just to have something to tell him,” Greco said. “Like, ‘Joe, you could’ve gained a little more ground on your first step here and been a little more efficient.’ And you could tell Joe would be pissed off. … He would argue his case, almost like he was in court, saying, ‘This minus is egregious.’ And we’d just roll our eyes. Like, ‘Joe, can’t you just be happy with an almost perfect game? You’re human.’ But he couldn’t settle for imperfection. … Then he would immediately correct it. It would never show up in a game again.”
Bitonio noted that Thomas’ “natural strength and natural ability was out of this world.” But what ultimately made Thomas a perennial Pro Bowler on the field was the work he put in off it. He kept a binder that had “volumes of notes” on every pass-rusher in the league.
“He was so meticulous with watching film,” Greco said. “He had a book on everybody.”
Mack, who played seven seasons in Cleveland, still marvels at the depth of planning Thomas devoted to every game.
“He would always be most stressed out when he was going up against a rookie that didn’t have any film because he couldn’t do that part of his prep,” Mack said. “It was weird seeing him have to face [former Indianapolis Colts All-Pro pass rusher] Dwight Freeney and then almost being more concerned with the third-string guy.”
THOMAS DECLINED TO attend the 2007 draft, opting to go fishing on Lake Michigan with his dad. Thomas was still on a boat when Savage and the Browns called to say they were drafting him.
“I went home, got changed up, got the fish gills off my hands and flew to Cleveland,” Thomas said.
With so many coaches and players coming and going through Cleveland, Thomas proved to be the lynchpin.
“He was always the guy you could depend on,” said former quarterback Brady Quinn, who was in Thomas’ draft class and roomed with him their rookie season, until Thomas finally pleaded for his own room due to Quinn’s heavy snoring. “He always stepped up to the challenge. That was the one thing, just as a teammate, you always loved about him.”
Thomas welcomed players by taking them hunting and fishing, including Mack, who had never been hunting before. The year Mack broke his leg, Thomas would carry him onto the boat for their trips.
Thomas and his wife, Annie, also threw the biggest party of the year at Halloween, turning their basement into a mini haunted house.
“You move to a new city, it’s a new world for you,” Bitonio said, “and Joe just invited you to be part of his family.”
In 2013, Thomas’ first born, Logan, attended her first game, in Minnesota. In the final minute, Thomas and the line picked up the all-out Vikings blitz, allowing Brian Hoyer to find tight end Jordan Cameron for the winning touchdown. Thomas’ teammates still vividly remember him breaking down on the sidelines in a way they’d not seen.
“It was just an emotional experience knowing that my first child was watching me play football, doing something that I’ve loved my whole life,” Thomas said. “Knowing that someday I’d be able to tell her, ‘Hey, I put it all on the line and went through the misery and dealt with all those injuries, it was for you guys. … My teammates, the fans, my family, they’ve always been really important to me. … Just a very special game for me.”
Two seasons later, those emotions would resurface. The Denver Broncos needed a blindside protector for Manning for their Super Bowl run and targeted Thomas.
“We were excited for him,” said former Browns receiver Andrew Hawkins, who later co-hosted a podcast with Thomas. “Joe was such an incredible dude to everybody. He worked his ass off so much. It felt like, ‘You deserve this.’ Everybody in the locker room felt that way. The only person who didn’t was Joe. You could tell how sad he was.”
Manning led the charge to try to get Thomas on board with the trade.
“It was obviously flattering and tempting to play with Peyton Manning and play on a team that ended up winning the Super Bowl,” Thomas said. “But it was nerve-wracking because I wanted to stay in Cleveland and finish what I started. I was not ready to uproot my family and start over in Denver, especially because of how much I loved the Browns. Maybe we weren’t good. But I still loved coming to work.”
The two sides edged closer to a deal. But Manning realized the only way then-Cleveland general manager Ray Farmer would part with Thomas was if Thomas forced the trade.
Thomas said Manning called him to say, “You need to leave them something special on their desk and tell them, ‘I’m out of here.'”
Hawkins remembers Thomas eating alone in the cafeteria the day of the trade deadline, which “wasn’t like Joe.” But when the deadline passed without a deal, the Browns immediately “got the old Joe back.”
“As athletes, we say s— that people expect of us, like I’m part of the community and I love it here and I love the fans,” Hawkins said. “And to be honest, 99 times out of a hundred, it’s bulls—. … We’re going to the highest bidder.
“But for someone like Joe, he was so happy to stay. He wanted his legacy to always be a part of the Cleveland Browns, period. Not a Super Bowl ring somewhere else. Not chasing accolades. Everything here had just meant so much to him. It just didn’t feel right to him. And that’s Joe.”
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