BEREA (92.3 The Fan) – Cleveland Browns left tackle Joe Thomas has heard the stories of what Cleveland is like when the Browns are winning.
But it’s been so long since the franchise was even consistently mediocre that the stories have now become legends.
Thomas got a brief taste of it in 2007 when the town went bananas during a memorable 10-6 season that unfortunately left them out of the playoffs. Earlier that same year, the Cavaliers upset the Detroit Pistons to go to the NBA Finals for the first and only time in team history.
Thomas still remembers the streets flooding with fans who celebrated until dawn after game 6.
He was asked Monday to imagine if it were the Browns.
“It would be unbelievable,” Thomas said. “That’s one of those things that I try to talk to the young guys and let them understand how important that this team is to this city, and we could be legends if we bring this organization back to where it was a couple decades ago or even win a Super Bowl.
“You’d never buy another drink; you’d never buy another dinner the rest of your life if you won a Super Bowl here.”
As the Browns prepare for their 15th season since returning to the NFL, a Super Bowl feels like a distant dream. In fact, the Browns are just 1 of 4 teams to have never even played in a Super Bowl – Detroit, Jacksonville and Houston are the 3 others.
The team is young and once again playing under a rookie coach – Toledo native Rob Chudzinski.
“Having Chud, a guy who grew up here, is awesome because he can help help relate the passion and the intensity of the Cleveland Browns fans to this team,” Thomas said.
Like Chudzinski, Thomas understands the grip that the Browns have on the city of Cleveland – it’s football first and everything else third.
“We haven’t had a winning season in a long time, but you still see the fans coming out and watching training camp and asking for autographs and getting excited,” Thomas said. “The optimism’s there, so you can see the passion. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand how important the Cleveland Browns are to this city.”
The Browns were a natural disaster long before Thomas was drafted No. 3 overall in 2007 but after his rookie year, forget catastrophe – it’s been a 3-ring circus.
Injuries derailed the high hopes for a playoff run in 2008. It turned into 4-12 crash landing and the first of many house cleanings that Thomas would witness over the next 5 years.
“I remember Braylon [Edwards] got injured in training camp and it just seemed like it was one thing after another with injuries,” Thomas said. “And then we just started poorly, and we never could recover.
“Basically everyone knew it was getting blown up, at that point you know 10 games in.”
It’s been blown up 3 more times since.
Entering his 7th NFL season, Thomas has already played for 4 head coaches – Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Pat Shurmur and now Chudzinski.
Even more stupefying is that he’s blocked for 10 different starting quarterbacks – Derek Anderson, Brady Quinn, Charlie Frye, Ken Dorsey, Bruce Gradkowski, Colt McCoy, Jake Delhomme, Seneca Wallace, Brandon Weeden and Thaddeus Lewis.
“Am I surprised we haven’t gone to the playoffs? Yeah probably,” Thomas said. “Six years, that’s a long time especially when you start 10-6 with a fairly prolific offense. Obviously at the end of that year we’re going to be even better the next year, have a better offense cause we had pretty much everybody coming back until we had a bunch of injuries.”
Thomas signed an 8-year, $92 million contract that included $44 million guaranteed in August of 2011 with the hope that before it runs out he will have helped lead the Browns to where they’ve been only once since 1994.
“I think about the day of me running out of the tunnel for a home playoff game, and that’s my dream,” Thomas said. “That’s why I show up everyday. You talk to guys that go through it and guys that don’t even appreciate it, guys from New England and Indianapolis and those teams. They just take it for granted that they’re going every year and they’re getting to experience those things.
“That’s what this game is all about. It’s a team game. Individual accomplishments are great, but they’re not fun because it’s a team game and the fun is in winning.”
Former Browns tackle and current radio analyst Doug Dieken, who played for 14 seasons with the Browns, has told him what it’s like to play in Cleveland in January.
“He relates some of those stories to me and keeps me up on what it was like back in his day when he played, and when they had the success,” Thomas said. “It was unbelievable, and I hope that I get to experience that. Those are all the things that would come with turning this team into a playoff team and consistently being in the hunt every year.”
Ironically, Thomas wears the same number Dieken did and the 2 have become good friends.
Thomas has been one of the few positive constants for the Browns since 2007.
He hasn’t missed a single offensive snap, joined Jim Brown as the only Browns players to make the Pro Bowl in each of his first 6 NFL seasons and is quietly building a Hall of Fame resume that has one gaping omission – no playoff games.
“That’s why I show up everyday is to make the playoffs,” Thomas said. “The individual stuff is nice, but it’s not important to me per se because the fun in this game is winning, and I want to go to the playoffs. I’ve never gone to the playoffs; only 1 winning season so far, so that’s my motivating factor to show up every day.”
He doesn’t even want to think what it would be like to end his career without a post season appearance.
“It’d be hard,” Thomas said. “I grew up playing football since I was 12 years old and at every level I’d been on winning teams pretty consistently. I never experienced a losing season until my second year in the NFL, so obviously that would be a huge disappointment.”
Through the merry-go-round of constant change and losing, Thomas remains as positive and upbeat as the day he was drafted but he admits the thought of never playing in a playoff game when he hangs them up bothers him.
“It’s no fun playing in the NFL when you’re going 4-12 every year,” Thomas said. “It’s just not, it’s drudgery, it’s like covering a team that’s 4-12. It sucks.
“Everybody wants to be on a winning team, and that’s why I show up everyday, and that’s why the guys in the locker room do what they do.”
The day that the Browns return to the playoffs, let alone become legitimate Super Bowl contenders, it’ll be a dream come true for Thomas and northeast Ohio.
Considering the bottomless pit of despair that the expansion franchise has been since 1999, it truly would be a story for the ages – one that legends are made of.
And Thomas wants nothing more than to help write it.
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