Entering his 11th season, Joe Thomas has earned 10 consecutive Pro Bowl trips as the left tackle of the Cleveland Browns. He’s been first-team All Pro seven times, cemented himself as one of the best offensive linemen of his generation and … played on one team with a winning record. Why has the future Hall of Famer stuck around in Cleveland, despite the organization’s ineptitude? Thomas sat down with Yahoo Sports’ Jordan Schultz to talk just that.
Yahoo Sports: What has it been like playing in Cleveland these last 10 years, a city where football really matters?
Thomas: Browns fans are some of the most loyal fans in the NFL and they’re gonna watch you no matter what your record is and it’s important to them. Browns fans are blue-collar people and they like to see their values sort of reflected in the team. A team that’s gonna play hard, that’s gonna work hard, that’s gonna be committed to the game. I think they’re some of the best fans in the NFL.
I definitely think that could be a motivating factor. When you see people in the airport and all they want to talk about is sports, all they want to talk about is their Browns. You walk into the grocery store, all anybody wants to talk about is the Browns. That’s so much a part of people’s lives up here. They could certainly be a motivator for players.
Yahoo Sports: Why has it been so important for you to remain a Brown? You could have left this franchise a long time ago, but have instead chosen to be a part of the solution to building a winner.
Thomas: I think that’s a big point of pride for me. I grew up in the era when players didn’t change teams all that much. I think when I got in the league most of the players kind of had that dream of being able to start your career and finish your career in the same place. For me that was real when I got drafted in Cleveland, it was important for me to finish my career here.
Yahoo Sports: What is your motivation for not only remaining a Brown throughout your whole career, but just your overall excellence and commitment to the organization despite the lack of team success?
Thomas: I think one of the things that motivates me is from the moment I got drafted by the Browns, I wanted to be part of a turnaround. I wanted to be part of turning this team into a consistent winner and that’s kind of been my goal since I got into the NFL. I feel like there’s unfinished business there and for me that’s a big motivating factor. I think another motivating factor is just I don’t want to let my teammates down, ever. There’s this fear inside of me that I’m gonna let somebody down and I think that gets me out there every day and motivates me to be at my best.
Yahoo Sports: Do you notice a difference in the psyche of the city when the Cavs win a title or the Indians reach the World Series?
Thomas: Yeah it definitely improved the emotions and positivity in the city. They are huge sports fans, the Browns are their team first and foremost, but they love sports. They love the Indians, we love the Cavs, those are our teams too so having some success in baseball and obviously winning a championship with the Cavs I think it made everybody in Cleveland feel better — even though we had a tough season.
Yahoo Sports: What drives you to be so consistent in terms of your work ethic and performance?
Thomas: I think for me there is a pride in doing my best and doing everything I possibly can to help my team win. I’ve got all these teammates that are counting on me because our jobs are on the line every single week. I think the pride of being out there and doing your job – for me, I’m very goal-oriented too. It’s important to me to be out there with my teammates, grinding no matter what the score is, no matter what your record is, being there for the guy next to you.
Yahoo Sports: We hear a lot about how rule changes have impacted the game, specifically how defensive players play. Have any of the rule changes altered your style at all?
Thomas: I think the only rule change that has effected what I do is when they moved the umpire from behind the defense to behind the offense because now that there’s two refs behind us and nobody behind the defensive line. The defensive line can get away with a lot of holding and a lot of other things like that they previously weren’t able to get away from and also because there are two refs standing behind you now, I think holding gets called because both refs are right there, right behind you and they got their eyes on that whole offensive line whereas before, there was one behind the offensive line and one behind the defensive line.
How much validity is there to the idea that holding occurs on every NFL play?
Thomas: Well it depends on what your definition of holding is. [Laughs] Because, the refs come to our facility during training camp every single year and we talk to them about rules and stuff. What they said was, ‘It’s not holding if you have your feet between your man and the quarterback. If your feet get beat, then we can call holding.’ Whatever you do, if your feet are not beat, it’s not holding. So, you can grab their jersey, you can grab their arms, you can grab whatever you want, it’s not holding. But as soon as you get your feet beat, that’s when you’re restricting your player from being able to complete his move of beating you. So, blocking in the NFL, you do hold onto jerseys, you do hold on to players – yes, that’s just blocking in the NFL – the key is if you lose your feet.
Are the refs consistent on that?
Thomas: I think it’s pretty specific, yeah.
Being an NFL lineman is often like a game of chess. Do you enjoy the tactical part of the left tackle job?
Thomas: Well, I think even though offensive and defensive linemen tend to run into each other violently on every play, I think there’s actually probably a really deep chess match that is going on that the fans don’t really realize – and even the coaches sometime don’t totally realize it, but just the chess match between one player and the player across, what moves he’s gonna do, what are his tells, what are his giveaways, what does he like to do in certain situations. It’s all of those little moves and counter moves that go on silently between O and D linemen.
Yahoo Sports: The physical toll of an offensive lineman can be gruesome. How has that toll changed from your first few years to now?
Thomas: I think I definitely feel more sore now. One of the other big things is that you’re more sore now and for a longer time. When you’re 23, 24, 25, you’re really sore on Monday, but by Tuesday you’re really feeling a lot better. Well, when you’re 32, on Tuesday you still feel terrible, Wednesday you feel probably just as bad if not worse, Thursday you feel awful, and Friday you’re beginning to feel a little bit better. You’re just hoping that by game day you feel OK enough to play. It takes a lot to get you ready on game day, from a physical and a mental standpoint.
The book on DeShone Kizer – even at Notre Dame – was that he’s a guy who deeply cares about understanding the game. About thinking about the game. Have you picked up on that as well?
Thomas: There’s no doubt about that. From the moment he was named the starter he’s got his nose in the books, he’s up meeting with the coaches trying to make sure he understands all the adjustments, all the intricacies and all the details of his position and he really has taken on that leadership role that your quarterback has to have.
Yahoo Sports: He seems like a worker, like he enjoys the process. Have you been around another quarterback with a similar approach?
Thomas: It’s hard for me to compare him with anybody but the quarterbacks that I have been around that have had successful careers, the Jake Delhomme, the Josh McCown, who’ve had success in the NFL, they know what it takes to be a professional. They understand the preparation it takes and the level of commitment it takes to be a quarterback. I think he’s right along that line. To be honest, if you want to be a starting quarterback in the NFL you have to have a level of commitment that far exceeds every other position on the field because the amount of understanding and knowledge it takes to be ready on Sunday to play quarterback, far surpasses any position in any sport, really. If you’re not fully committed every hour of the day to thinking about being a quarterback in the NFL, then you just can’t succeed. If you pull a half day or even regular hours as a receiver or a running back or a defensive player or even an offensive lineman, you can do that. It just doesn’t take the level of preparation. But as a quarterback you just can’t be successful unless you sleep, eat and breathe quarterback.
Finally, clarify your stance on the NCAA and its athletes. You don’t believe they should be paid, but you do believe they should be able to earn money from endorsements and likeness. Is that correct?
Thomas: It was funny, I don’t even know why I started. Maybe I saw an article that made me tweet about it. I didn’t have a chance to finish my thoughts on Twitter yet, I was interrupted when everyone woke up [his kids] from their nap which is great – hopefully I’ll finish it tonight.
But my full thoughts on that are, there’s no way to equitably pay college athletes. Because as everybody knows, OK, I play track and field I don’t think that the track athletes should be paid because they’re not bringing any revenue. As a track athlete I’m doing it because, if I’m a walk-on it’s because I love being a track athlete, and there’s really no other alternatives for me to go work in the track-and-field industry – for the most part. If you’re a scholarship track athlete, you’re probably being reimbursed way more than you’re worth to your school, but when you talk about football and basketball, it’s a totally different ballgame and that’s OK. It’s great they’re making all this money for the schools and the coaches and the NCAA. But obviously the quarterback is worth more than the walk-on punter; there’s no way to negotiate salaries like we do in the NFL and there’s no need to.
I think the fix is just let players make money on endorsements and let them make money on their likeness. If when Johnny Manziel was in college and he wanted to go sign autographs at the mall and people wanted to show up and pay for it, why in America are we restricting the movement and trade of goods and services among two free and willing people entering into an agreement and come to almost villainize athletes who have done this. We almost talk about them as if they’re immoral for going out and trying to make money off of their own name and likeness and endorsement.
The way I make a parallel on this, and you’ll understand this being a writer, if I’m in a journalism school, and I happen to be a really good writer, and the local newspaper says we’ll give you $5,000 or $10,000 to write 20 articles for us this year, why would the NCAA step in and say, ‘You can’t do that, it’s immoral, you’re an amateur!’ God forbid you try to make money in your profession. Why is it a double standard with athletes where they say, ‘Well, you can’t make money off your own self, and these gifts that you were given from the school, you can’t sell those. They’re not actually yours, you’re just holding on to them for the time being.’ It’s this double standard that does not make sense to me and if people look at it through that lens, they’ll understand the way things are in college sports right now that could use some adjustment.
I’m not going to say it totally needs to be thrown out or anything like that. I do understand how we got to this place, 80 years ago, when the NCAA was formed, we didn’t have these issues. The rules were put in place in a certain manner because of the climate that sports were being played in. But the climate has changed. Our world has changed.
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