Last year at this time, Joe Thomas felt a bit like Dorothy opening the door to the Land of Oz. It was all new to him – and a bit frightening.
Now he can drive on the yellow brick road to NFL stardom without a GPS Navigator.
It's all coming naturally these days for the Pro Bowl tackle. He no longer has to think about every move on the field. Rather, he performs them instinctively. And the smile on his face comes just as easily.
"Yeah, it's a little different feel now," Thomas said during the recent mini-camp with that ever-present grin. "It's great not being a rookie and the low man on the totem pole."
Low man on the totem pole? That was merely the perception of an NFL novice. Actually, he was considered by the Browns and their fans to be the savior of an offensive line that had been downright brutal since the return of the franchise in 1999. And Thomas took the challenge and ran with it, teaming with free agent guard Eric Steinbach to form a devastating left side.
But as the 2007 season approached, Thomas had yet to acquire the confidence that such success eventually brought. Nor could he carry out his assignments on the field instinctively. The difference between his confidence level, thought process and performance during mini-camps last year and this year are like, well, Kansas and Oz.
"When you're the first pick (by the Browns in the 2007 draft) there's so much pressure on you," Thomas explains. "You wonder if you can do it or not. But now, having a year under my belt in the system and playing next to the guys I play alongside really makes a difference instead of starting at ground zero.
"Now I have the feeling of confidence that I can play at this level, which is a big help because you question yourself as a rookie even though you don't want to. Every rookie questions himself because it's such a big step from college. Plus I've always been a perfectionist. I want to be perfect every play and every game. I was far from that last year, but starting all 16 games was a big goal of mine and I did that."
What he must also do is avoid a sophomore slump that affects many athletes, greatly because of adjustments made to them by opponents. The malady is better known in baseball due to changes in how second-year players are pitched to and batted against. But Thomas is well aware that NFL defenses won't be playing him the same in 2008.
"It's pretty similar to major league baseball in that I have 16 games under my belt that you have on game film that can be studied during the offseason," cautions Thomas. "They know what I do well and they know what my weaknesses are and that's what they're going to try to exploit. In the NFL, everyone knows what you've done poorly, so you have to work really hard on your weaknesses.
"It's not a matter of run-blocking and pass-blocking, it's more a matter of fine-tuning your footwork and hand placement. Plus you learn your plays and you read defenses better. Those are all things that will help you in both run and pass blocking."
Thomas hasn't spent all his time this offseason concentrating on turning one Pro Bowl season into another. He has also frolicked in the great outdoors partaking in two of his favorite hobbies – hunting and fishing. In fact, he is now the co-host of a local outdoors show on cable TV.
"That's been a lot of fun," says Thomas, his smile growing wider. "It's allowed me to take my mind far away from football, which is a great thing to do during the offseason. And it's never bad when someone takes you fishing and you can call it a job."
Thomas' other job? What a difference a year makes.