There’s an old football cliché that states the best offensive linemen are those whose names are rarely called during a typical Sunday.
Therefore, the absence of false starts and quarterback sacks signifies a sort of backhanded competence. Naturally, the people who would say such things are either really into fantasy football – or just simply aren’t watching.
In the specific case of Browns’ left tackle Joe Thomas, his All-Pro skill in both pass protection and run blocking unfortunately falls under these humble parameters. Yet for a Browns franchise still trying to find its expansion feet, Thomas’ often unsung heroics should become the stuff of legend.
As an indicator of Thomas’ actual value to the franchise, the fifth-year tackle from Wisconsin signed a mammoth seven-year, $84 million contract extension last week.
Despite the obscene nature of these numbers, the question still has to be raised whether the dollar amount truly justifies Thomas’ significance to the Browns.
Or perhaps the answer lies in the following carnage of left tackle past. Before Thomas arrived in 2007, the Browns employed a veteran mélange of Lomas Brown, Roman Oben, Ross Verba, Barry Stokes, L.J. Shelton and Kevin Shaffer and experienced results typical of attempting such a practice.
Thomas' 64 consecutive starts and four Pro Bowls later, he is solidified in one of football’s most important positions and helped transform the Browns’ offensive line into a team strength. Yet, Thomas’ durability is no match for his status as one of the league’s most dominant run blockers. And while Thomas – like any other NFL left tackle – suffers from the occasional lapse in pass protection, he consistently protects his side of the field.
On the surface, Thomas’ contract extension speaks to the immense value of NFL left tackles, while only hinting at the quality of character inherent in the player. After all, considering his true value, Thomas could have easily turned up the volume on contract renegotiations.
Instead, the entire process was quietly completed and announced with the fanfare of a training camp injury report.
Given Thomas’ modest approach to media relations, this made sense. Yet, what followed somehow became a narrative all its own.
Regarding his contract extension and two of the Browns’ current heads of state, Thomas offered the following, as quoted by The Cleveland Plain Dealer.
“Once Coach Shurmur got in here, I was willing to talk about the extension. Being on a winning team is extremely important to me.”
“What I’ve seen the last couple of years is exciting to see where the franchise is heading. That is why I wanted to continue on my journey here. The types of players that Tom Heckert has brought in and the more the team improves, I wanted to sign the extension and stay here.”
Thomas’ professionalism shines through as he offers words both innocuous and appreciative – as any media savvy modern athlete would do after signing such a flush deal.
Yet a short time later, the following interpretation emerged.
"I think Coach [Pat] Shurmur's an awesome person, a great coach, a hands-on coach," Thomas told the Plain Dealer. "That's something I haven't had because we've had defensive coaches here. To have him in every gameplan meeting, running the offensive strategy meetings, that's fun to be around."
Fun is the operative word when players describe the change in offense. Not only the change in scheme to the West Coast system, but also the change in mentality. It appears that years of setting up field goals and protecting field position under the auspices of defensive-minded Butch Davis, Romeo Crennel and Eric Mangini are being vanquished in four weeks of training camp under Shurmur.
And suddenly, a new hero in Pat Shurmur emerges – while Thomas largely goes unnoticed.
Depending on your perspective, Thomas’ contract extension becomes either the effect of Shurmur’s hiring in Cleveland or just a mere coincidence for a player who happens to play for a franchise still operating far below the league’s salary cap.
If the former option holds true, then the Browns have struck gold with Shurmur. While the early returns on the Browns’ 2011 season are beyond tenuous, the rookie head coach has been lovingly characterized by local media – perhaps even to the point of sealing the eventual Cleveland fate of Thomas.
Or, as one of the last remaining delightfully level-headed people in town asked:
Wouldn’t that be something?
"So you probably already know that we have lock first-ballot Hall of Fame head coach Pat Shurmur and Pat Shurmur alone to thank for the left tackle’s new deal…" wrote Peter Pattakos of ClevelandFrowns.com. "…Of course, every NFL franchise has money to print for four-for-four Pro Bowl left tackles. But only one has the Shurminator."
Anyone who is familiar with Pattakos’ thinking already understands the hypocrisy of a local media base that has crowned one coach in Shurmur, while preemptively dismissing another in Eric Mangini.
However, for the uninitiated, connecting Thomas through Shurmur is a bit of a fanciful leap – akin to the first-time coach walking on Lake Erie or shaping Brian Robiskie into a No. 1 wide receiver.
Agendas aside, most rational people could suspect that Thomas was simply praising his newest boss on the heels of signing a second life-altering contract. And while the “savior” portion is a bit much, perhaps the “fun” component could have pushed Thomas a touch closer to finalizing a deal. In most respects, this newest version of the Browns does appear to be both more “viewer-friendly” and subsequently more “player-friendly” than prior incarnations.
Regarding Heckert, Thomas was probably addressing the idea that the Browns have finally gathered some front office momentum for the first time in expansion history – which includes harnessing some elusive continuity. Heckert has appeared to put together solid back to back drafts, but as Pattakos suggests, continuity is also found with the retention of offensive line coach George Warhop – along with the continued development of 2009 rookie Alex Mack.
Eventually, progress will squeeze into the form of regular season success, which again was surely a consideration for Thomas in extending his contract. And as usual, Thomas will deliver performances so consistent that he becomes a football phantom. As the Browns improve as a whole, Thomas will still play a critical role – only from the shadows of the field.
The paradox is that Thomas’ value will likely always be eclipsed in the larger context of the Browns’ return to NFL respectability. Within that structure, a moment like last week – when Thomas became the second significant Brown to renew their vows with the organization – is nearly lost.
What a shame.