The Cleveland Browns now must find a way to do the impossible: Replace a player who, from the day he was drafted, was the best player on the team every day he was with the team.
That’s the legacy of Joe Thomas, a guy who did his job to the best of his ability each and every day of his career.
Thomas’ retirement announcement on Wednesday means that left tackle has shot to a position of need for the Browns. That’s the cold and cruel reality of Thomas’ decision.
Whoever takes over at left tackle may do well, but he won’t be Joe Thomas. Nobody can be.
Thomas’ decision comes after his consecutive snap streak ended at 10,363 plays in a row, a Herculean feat that saw him play every snap since he was the third overall pick in the 2007 draft until he tore his triceps tendon on Oct. 22, 2017.
The snap streak alone was meaningful, but Thomas did it at a Pro Bowl level every season he was in the league, and he did it for a team that struggled to win six games. Only once did the Browns have a winning record during his tenure, and only twice did they win seven or more games. In his last three seasons, the Browns won four games.
It didn’t faze him. He played his hardest on each snap, gauging angles and using guile more than brute strength to thwart defensive ends and linebackers. The sight of him trotting back to the huddle after every play, even if the Browns were down 20, was something to see.
Just as his expression was something to see when he was once asked why he stayed in games when the Browns were getting blown out, when they were late in the season and staring at finishing with three wins and the forecast for an 18-degree day.
“You still have to do your job,” Thomas said, almost incredulously, as if anyone would imply he shouldn’t.
Perhaps most amazing of all was that, through losing and struggle, Thomas’ attitude never wavered. He always entered the locker room with a smile, always addressed questions, and sometimes had fun with them.
The week before the Browns’ only win of the 2016 season, a player on the San Diego Chargers guaranteed the Browns would lose. Asked about it, Thomas feigned anger and roared, “I’m gonna kill him.” He then laughed and shrugged it off as NFL confidence.
Thomas can identify types of trees from 200 yards away. He asked his wife, Annie, out for their first date by asking if he could take her out in his canoe (she said yes). He threw Vinston Painter out of the Browns huddle late in a rare blowout win over Pittsburgh when Mike Pettine and the Browns thought he could use a few plays off.
His Halloween parties with teammates at his house became part of the Browns seasons. His practical jokes in the locker room left many shaking their heads. The day he was drafted remains memorable. Instead of going to New York to be part of the festivities, Thomas stayed home and went fishing with his father and a friend.
There are very few plaudits left for Thomas. He has been a pro, a Pro Bowler, a father, a husband, a guy devoted to Cleveland, a major player in charitable efforts and everyman to everyone he’s met.
He began his career with the Browns as a starter playing at a high level; he will end his career with the Browns playing at a high level.
His next career may well be in the media, and he would be excellent.
For the Browns, this truly is the end of an era, an era when a guy who arrived in Cleveland doing obligatory first-round interviews said after his first minicamp that he could hardly wait to go back to “being an offensive lineman again.”
Thomas set new standards for excellence, professionalism and attitude at his position and for his team.
His next stop will be in Canton.
His permanent residence will be in Cleveland Browns history.
It’s tough to imagine another one like him.