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The Relentless Excellence of Joe Thomas

Cleveland’s 10-time Pro Bowl left tackle announced his retirement on Wednesday. Long the lone bright spot on a franchise marked by mediocrity, he walks away as one of the greatest NFL linemen of all time.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Every so often, there comes along an athlete whose accomplishments are so outlandish that his greatness becomes difficult to comprehend. Joe Thomas was one of those. The 10-time Pro Bowl left tackle announced his retirement on Wednesday, bringing to a close one of the most decorated careers an offensive lineman has ever put together. Thomas was named All-Pro nine times in 11 seasons. He was named first-team All-Pro six times. The Browns selected the Wisconsin product with the third overall pick in the 2007 draft, a class that included Calvin Johnson, Adrian Peterson, Patrick Willis, Darrelle Revis, Marshal Yanda, and Marshawn Lynch. Among a group of likely Hall of Fame inductees, Thomas may have been the best one.

The 6-foot-7 311-pounder was a damn-near perfect left tackle. He’s an athletic marvel who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.92 seconds and posted a 33-inch vertical leap at the NFL combine. He was as physically gifted as offensive linemen come, but that was far from what made him the best tackle since Jonathan Ogden. To watch Thomas as a pass blocker was to watch a master. Footwork, hand placement, and understanding angles all came second nature. If he wasn’t flawless, he sure was close.

Thomas may take offense to this, but the game appeared easy to him. No tackle in my lifetime has ever seemed more comfortable. Left tackle is probably the most refined position in football outside of quarterback, and Thomas always looked as if he were born to play it. His genius was so methodical that it could be easy to take for granted.

Overlooking his standing in the league was even easier considering where he played. Thomas’s plight in Cleveland is well-worn ground by now. One of the truly special talents of his generation spent more than a decade toiling on a franchise that epitomizes ineptitude. And while his lack of team success undoubtedly mars his career to some, it also makes clear just how staggering Thomas’s numbers really are. From September 9, 2007, to October 22, 2017, he played 10,363 consecutive snaps. In 11 seasons — on 6,680 pass-blocking snaps — he surrendered just 30 sacks. (That’s one every 223 snaps.) Thomas was named to 10 straight Pro Bowls to open his career. The only other players to accomplish that are Lawrence Taylor and Barry Sanders.

Sadly, another set of numbers is just as striking. Over Thomas’s final 10 NFL seasons, the Browns won a combined 38 games. They finished in last place in the AFC North nine times, and were outscored by 1,118 points — which comes out to an average of almost exactly seven points per game. The standard Browns game for nearly his whole career was a loss by at least a touchdown. And through it all, through 20 mediocre quarterbacks, a steady stream of general managers, and nine straight losing seasons, there was Joe Thomas, manning the blind side as the top left tackle in football. His relentless excellence came in the face of never-ending incompetence.

No matter how bad it all got, Thomas never missed a beat. That notion, more than a résumé filled with Hall of Fame credentials, should be his lasting legacy.

There is no debate about whether Thomas will wind up in Canton. That was settled long ago. He’s the rare player whose place in NFL history can’t solely be compared with his contemporaries. Sizing up his career evokes names like Ogden, Anthony Munoz, and Walter Jones — some of the best to ever do it. There just haven’t been many guys like him.

I’ve met Thomas once. It was the summer of 2015. I wanted to write about his unceasing production for a franchise mired in dysfunction. We had lunch together in the cafeteria of the Browns’ facility in Berea, Ohio, and even back then, he sounded like a man who understood the end comes for all players, no matter how great. “You’re the first kid picked in playground football,” Thomas told me about the eventual twilight of his career. “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.”

In the moment, the sentiment seemed somber. Three years later, it speaks to the giant Thomas actually was. We never had to watch him fade. Thomas is walking away on his own terms, as one of the greatest players the NFL has ever seen.