“This is a day that will go down as the day the fortunes of the Browns will turn around. If we are going to do it, this will be one of those stepping stone days. We were able to add a left tackle and a quarterback who could potentially play a long time. You combine that with the additions of Eric Steinbach, Jamal Lewis, the return of Kellen Winslow and Braylon Edwards. All of the sudden, we’re more legitimate than we’ve ever been. We felt it was worth the chance to go ahead and get Brady.”
Those were the words spoken by then-GM Phil Savage on the day the Cleveland Browns drafted Joe Thomas at #3 in the draft and then traded back in to grab Brady Quinn. It’s easy now to look back and laugh at those words, but in reality, in that moment, almost every Browns fan felt the same way.
No matter what anyone’s opinions of Brady Quinn were in college at Notre Dame, on that day there was more hope and optimism surrounding the Browns than there has realistically been since. It was hope that, per Cleveland tradition, was never delivered upon, however.
The turnover and change since that day is staggering to think about. Phil Savage and Romeo Crennel are both gone, replaced by George Kokinis and Eric Mangini, before Kokinis was fired mere months into his tenure. Then Mike Holmgren was hired to be the Czar of the Browns. Holmgren brought in Tom Heckert to take over as GM and let Mangini hang around a year before firing him and hiring little known and unproven Pat Shurmur as head coach.
Coordinators over that time haven’t been much more stable, with the offensive side going from Rob Chudzinski to Brian Daboll to now Pat Shurmur handling it himself. On the defensive side over the same period they have gone from Todd Grantham to Mel Tucker to Rob Ryan, now to Dick Jauron.
Of the players mentioned by Phil Savage on that fateful draft day, Jamal Lewis has since retired, Kellen Winslow was somewhat surprisingly traded to Tampa Bay, and Braylon Edwards infamously played his way out of Cleveland. Brady Quinn, of course, was traded for Peyton Hillis.
Out of all that optimism that day, the Cleveland Browns and their fans were rewarded with one surprising 10-6 season in 2007 that still didn’t result in a postseason appearance, and subsequent seasons of 4-12, 5-11, and 5-11. Throughout all the chaos, all the turmoil, all the power struggles, all the losing, there has been one constant through it all, and that has been Joe Thomas.
In the NFL it is so painfully difficult to acquire a franchise LT to anchor the line and protect the QB’s back year in and year out. Yet Joe Thomas stepped in and started at LT from day one with the Browns, and he has delivered 4 Pro Bowl season in each of his 4 years in Cleveland. He has been the one player to live up to his expectations over that time, and has never been heard complaining about all the negativity surrounding the franchise during his tenure.
Yet the tragedy is, as much as Joe Thomas is a rare commodity in the NFL, the Browns have completed wasted his value. Now with just one year left under contract, he will soon be a free agent. If there’s a Franchise Tag, I’m sure the Browns would use it on him to keep him another year after, but with the lockout and impending CBA, there’s no guarantee that there will still be a Franchise Tag.
Of course Thomas could always re-sign with the Browns. But despite all the hope and promise that Mike Holmgren and Tom Heckert have brought in the last couple drafts, Joe Thomas has seen this all before. Which is why there is a very real chance that the next season will be his last in Cleveland.
Thomas is already 26 years old and in the midst of his prime. Does he really want to gamble spending the rest of his prime playing for a franchise that continuously trips all over itself trying, and failing, to win? Perhaps he will lean upon loyalty and do just that, but for their own sake, the Browns should look at this next season as their last shot to prove to Thomas that things really are finally on the right track.
The lockout and the inability of a new head coach to work with his team in this offseason and begin to build cohesion and familiarity is tragic in and of itself, but it’s so much worse when you consider what’s at stake. The last thing the Browns want to happen is 3 years from now find themselves a playoff team, but unable to get over the hump because of their inability to protect the QB.
Everyone in Cleveland should hope and pray that Joe Thomas wants to be a Brown for life. And there’s no question the culture inside the franchise is finally showing signs of improving. The Browns have made some downright shrewd trades, some smart draft picks, and have installed an infrastructure that is beginning to resemble a normal, successful NFL franchise. But will it be enough for Joe Thomas or will it be too little too late?