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Inside the NFL: The face of excellence in the middle of a disaster

This was the question I posed to Joe Thomas the other day during his conference call with reporters covering the Buffalo Bills: “How many head coaches have you had during your time with the Cleveland Browns?”

The answer said everything you needed to know about the other perpetually dysfunctional NFL franchise along the Lake Erie shore.

“Awww, let’s see,” Thomas said, prompting chuckles from those of us gathered around the speaker phone in the Bills’ media room. “I had Romeo, Mangini, Chudzinski, Pettine … uhhh … Hue. So, five, I think.”

Actually, it was six.

Romeo Crennel for Thomas’ rookie and second seasons (2007-’08), Eric Mangini for his third and fourth seasons (2009-10), Pat Shurmur for his fifth and sixth seasons (2011-12), Rob Chudzinski for his seventh season (2013), Mike Pettine for his eighth and ninth seasons (2014-2015), and Hue Jackson for his soon-to-be-completed 10th season.

Given the head-spinning turnover the Browns have had (Jackson is their ninth coach since 1999, when the franchise got its second life in Cleveland after becoming the Baltimore Ravens), it’s understandable that Thomas would forget Shurmur coached him for a full two years.

But it offers ideal perspective on one of the more impressive NFL playing careers to emerge from one of the least impressive franchises in the league.

One of the very best

Thomas isn’t a good left offensive tackle. He’s a great one. He is, arguably, one of the very best to play the position.

And he has performed at that lofty level for a team with a 47-110 record since he arrived in Cleveland from Wisconsin as the third overall pick of the ’07 NFL Draft. The only winning season during that stretch was his first, when the Browns went 10-6. Since then, the best they’ve done is 7-9, in 2014. They enter Sunday’s game against the Bills 0-13, with a very real chance of going 0-16, and haven’t had a victory in more than a year.

Yet, the 32-year-old Thomas has been selected to the Pro Bowl every season that he has been in the league and has not missed a single offensive snap in his career.

He has overcome dealing with the general-manager changes that have led to head-coaching changes that have led to offensive-coordinator changes that have led to offensive-line-coach changes to establish himself as the gold standard for tackles. Thomas has not allowed himself to be negatively impacted by new systems, new blocking schemes, new terminology, new practice routines or training regimens.

Not to mention new quarterbacks and new linemates and new tight ends and new running backs and new wide receivers -- everything that, in one way or another, influences the way he does his job. There has even been a change in ownership along the way, with Randy Lerner selling the team to Jimmy Haslam in 2012.

Instability = poor performance

“That’s been part of the problem in Cleveland and part of the reason we haven’t been able to turn it around,” Thomas said of the Browns’ revolving door for coaches. “Instability leads to poor performance. There’s very few people in the NFL, very few players – really only the elite of the elite – are able to pick up an offense in one season and be really good at it. I mean, it takes most guys a few years to learn any system, and so when you think about a team of 53 guys, there might be only three guys who can pick it up in one season, whereas your middle 30 guys that are going to be contributing, they need some time to learn it because they just learn differently and at different speeds and they just don’t have as much talent and ability as the rest of the guys.

“And so when you’re constantly changing the system and what guys are being asked to do, it leads to just poor performance as a whole.”

How has he done it? How has Thomas managed to keep himself above the mess?

The easiest place to start is with his talent. Thomas is one of “the elite of the elite.” He was blessed with the size (6-foot-6 and 312 pounds), strength, athleticism and intelligence to provide everything you could want from a tackle. You want a nimble and smart-with-his-angle-taking pass-protector? Thomas is your man. You want a dominant, road-grading run-blocker? He checks that box, too.

Then there is his greatest quality of all: Temperament.

Thomas understands that not every play is going to go as planned. For the Browns, that is a fairly regular occurrence. Someone, including Thomas on a rare occasion, is going to do something wrong and whatever was called will blow up.

But Thomas won’t. Give him different teachers with different teaching styles, from the gruff yellers to the cerebral lecturers and everyone in between. Give him new strategy to learn, including some that hasn’t always been conducive to making linemen look good. Give him new quarterbacks with varying degrees of experience and skill (almost all of which has been bad). He’s the same guy.

'Can't worry about 0-16'

Here are a couple of classic examples of how Thomas’ mind works. He chose to spend the first day of the ’07 draft in a boat, fishing, rather than in New York, wearing a suit and tie and posing for the cameras while holding a jersey. On Wednesday, when a reporter made a reference to him being the “face” of the Browns’ franchise, he laughed.

“As a lineman, for good or bad, we’re never really the face of anything; in this case, it’s probably a good thing,” Thomas said. “But certainly I feel like I can definitely do everything I can during the week to try to help us win. You can’t always worry about 0-16 or the struggles the team is going through right now.”

Those struggles are, in large measure, due to the radical approach the Browns decided to take after an exasperated Haslam felt there was no point in sticking with traditional methods that had repeatedly failed.

He put the team in the hands of staunch believers in the use of analytics to build the roster. The first step? Burn everything to the ground, then run a plow over the dirt. Dump veteran salaries and load up with rookies. The Browns drafted 14 players last April and kept all of them on their roster. They’ll arrive in Orchard Park with 19 rookies.

Doing things this way means you’re going to lose. It means you’re going to look terrible. It means you’re going to be the team that the rest of the NFL and the sporting world in general views as an even larger joke than it did before a career baseball man, Paul DePodesta of “Moneyball” fame, had a major say in picking your players.

But the hope is that, after all of the losing, there will be success. When? No one can say for certain, because no one has ever done this before.

In the meantime, Thomas, who represents football excellence, sits in the middle of one of the NFL’s largest mud pits, trying his best to stay optimistic. The best he can do is to say that he likes the fact Haslam, despite the record, seems prepared “to see it through for several years” with his latest management team and fourth head coach in five seasons.

'I'm a Clevelander'

Earlier in the season, before the league’s trading deadline, there was rampant speculation the Browns would part ways with Thomas. He insists he’s glad that never happened, although he’s realistic enough to know that it ultimately wasn’t his call and that he won’t have any say over what the team does with him after the season when there is bound to be additional purging.

“I think sometimes fans and sometimes people outside of the game, they think you have a lot more control over your career than you really do, specifically, the last few years, the trade rumors coming up,” Thomas said. “I’m in Cleveland not because I said I want to be in Cleveland or because I said I don’t want to be in Cleveland but because the Cleveland Browns decided to keep me and nobody else wanted to trade for me.

“It’s always been really important for me to finish my career in Cleveland. I’ve been here the majority of my whole (adult) life. I feel I’m a Clevelander. This team means more to me than just a paycheck or just a team that I’m playing on. It’s actually my team. When I’m done playing, I’m going to be the No. 1 Cleveland Browns fan. So it’s important to me to retire as a Brown and finish my career where I started in a city that I love, playing for the fans that I love.”

Who knows? At some point during his retirement, Thomas might even be able to remember how many head coaches he had with the Browns.

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