To the lay person and even veteran media, it doesn’t make a lot of sense why a player the caliber of Browns left tackle Joe Thomas would rather remain in Cleveland than be traded to a contender, as he maintained through Tuesday’s trade deadline.
Thomas is a generational left tackle, a franchise cornerstone. Six times he has been a first-team All-Pro, and he has been selected for the Pro Bowl after each of his first nine seasons. He is a master technician, durable and a pillar of the community. NFL players don’t come any better than Joe Thomas.
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And yet the team he plays for is a punch line. The Browns finished 10–6 when he was a rookie in 2007 but didn’t make the playoffs. That was the high-water mark. Since then, the Browns haven’t sniffed the postseason, going 37–99. There are no signs that the Browns will improve. They’re 0–8 so far this season under a new coach, and could go 0–16. The team doesn’t have a quarterback, is now being run by a former baseball executive, and barely made an effort to retain some if its best free agents (including Thomas’s buddies and linemates C Alex Mack and RT Mitchell Schwartz), and looks to be at least a few years from even contending.
It doesn’t take a football expert to know that there’s a lot of bad offensive line play around the league, and many teams would be better with Thomas as their left tackle. Teams like the Seahawks, Panthers, Giants, Texans, Broncos, Patriots and Colts would all be vastly improved if they acquired Thomas. The Browns could gain valuable assets for their future. Thomas, who at 31 doesn’t have forever to wait, would get a chance to play in the postseason and perhaps win a Super Bowl. A deal for Thomas would seem to be a win for everyone, yet the trade deadline came and went, and Thomas is still a Brown—sentenced to be a Brown, in the opinion of many.
There has to be a reason why so many players, like Thomas, choose to remain in their current downtrodden situations, and it has to be more than comfort and family considerations. Players like Thomas didn’t play football for money and glory, they played to compete and win games. If you’re stuck on the Browns, how can that be a good situation?
I recently got a chance to ask Thomas about his desire to remain with the Browns while working on a story about Mack, his former teammate and one of his best friends. I think Thomas’s answer sheds a lot of light on his thinking, and I now understand why winning is not always everything to some players.
“For me, I would say that the overarching reason that it’s important for me to stay in Cleveland… when I was drafted here I really kind of embraced being a Clevelander,” says Thomas. “It feels like home to me. It almost… I wasn’t born here (he was born in Wisconsin), but I can identify with the people that live here and that chip on that shoulder, and how they feel about their football team. They have so much passion and pride for the Cleveland Browns and we’ve been bad for so long.
“Imagine if you grew up in a place and the team was bad for a long time and there’s almost like a pride in being able to stay here and stick it out, knowing that you’re going to get to where you promised yourself and you’ve been promised at some point. You don’t know when it’s going to be, but you know the payoff is going to be so great and so amazing that you want to finish your career there. I feel in many ways that’s the most important thing to me. When I was drafted in Cleveland, I wanted to turn this team back into a perennial playoff contender and to win the Super Bowl. And I feel like that obviously hasn’t happened yet. For me I’m very goal oriented and I want to make that happen. I feel like that’s unfinished business and that really irks in my craw, that I need to do this before I can be done. I think that’s kind of how it is.
“The analogy I tried to make was your home team was bad forever, you wouldn’t just switch allegiances to the team that was good at that time. You’re still cheering for your team. When I was a kid, the Packers were terrible until was like 12 or 13. Suddenly they get Brett Favre and Reggie White and they got to the Super Bowl with Mike Holmgren and they’re awesome and it’s like the greatest thing on Earth. And that’s kind of how in my head I am. I’m a Cleveland Brown, that’s who I am and I’m not going to change allegiances just to get a Super Bowl title. I want to do it as a Cleveland Brown because that’s who I am.”