The best offensive lineman of my lifetime announced his retirement today after 11 seasons. Throughout those 11 seasons Thomas made 10 pro bowls, was selected to 9 all pro-teams ( 7 1st’s and 2 2nd’s), and perhaps most famously, never missed a snap from the second he stepped into the league until October of his 11th and final season. He is universally regarded by teammates, coaches and football analysts alike as one of the greatest to ever do it. My college o-line coach used to refer to Joe Thomas and various anecdotes surrounding his career so much that it became a running joke in our room. Simply put, Joe Thomas epitomizes everything and anything that means to play offensive line: tough, consistent, deceptively athletic, humble, team-oriented and did I say tough?
To never miss a snap for 10+ years at a position that involves contact on every single play is outrageous. To do that and then consistently play at all pro level is one of the greatest accomplishments in the NFL of the last decade. Unfortunately for Joe, his entire career was spent in Cleveland, with a rotating cast of characters at QB and only one winning season. He even famously met one of the Browns quarterbacks for the first time when he ran out to the huddle. Yet, despite that, Thomas always stood behind Cleveland, never complained and went to work every single day.
It’s hard to truly understand just how special Joe Thomas was as a player. You can point to his snaps played streak, or the fact that he only allowed 30 career sacks on 6,000 career snaps in pass protection (Jesus). But, offensive line is not a position with any real statistical output so it’s hard to measure him versus other lineman. To understand you have to watch him. You have to see how consistent he is in his technique and see how he goes entire games without ever being challenged at a position that, outside of the quarterback, is arguably the most demanding in the sport. I will do my best to try to convey this in a few clips:
Khalil Mack’s bull rush/long arm has routinely made offensive tackles across the league look like fools over the past few seasons. Not Thomas. The play starts and Thomas takes, as he always does, a few beautiful kick slides to cut off Mack’s angle. Because he lined up so wide, Thomas has to kick nearly straight back. The problem is, for most o-lineman, once you meet the rusher at his angle this deep in the pocket, you are merely a sitting duck for him to bull rush into the lap of the QB. Instead, Thomas keeps his feet apart, snaps his hips on the punch and is the one delivering the blow, not the defender. For those who have not played the position, I cannot stress enough how difficult it is to be as violent as Thomas is here against a pass rush without over-extending and getting swum past. Amazing stuff.
Watching that pass set as a fan of offensive line play is the equivalent of watching Roger Federer hit a forehand for a tennis fan. It just looks so easy. Yet, if you were to watch film of most other offensive tackles across the league, you come to learn that it is not and that stopping some of the best athletes on the football field as you pedal backwards is, in fact, very hard. Yet, as the tweet above reads, this what the majority of Thomas’ pass protection reps look like. Smooth, patient and when the time is right, snapping a punch that disrupts the defenders rush.
The offensive tackle on the play-side of an outside zone play has a very, very difficult task. He must either a) run his guy wide enough where the ball has a chance to ‘stretch and puncture’ and go inside of his block or b) reach his man, giving the running back a chance to run the ball outside of his block. The responsibility of the defensive end is to keep everything inside of him, so, in the NFL, where defensive ends are quite good at their jobs, the ball, more often than not, goes inside. Not here. In legitimately three steps, Thomas has the end reached and the ball easily makes it outside for a nice gain. ‘Making the Difficult Look Easy: The Joe Thomas Story’
The same sentiments from the Khalil Mack play work for this one as well. A gorgeous vertical set against a wide rusher (against another pro bowler too), followed by a bull rush that is completely stonewalled.
The ole’ shove the defensive tackle 5 yards the other direction, then block the linebacker play, see it everyday! When you double team a down lineman, you must have also have awareness for the LB that you are responsible for. Many times, the LB does not get blocked because you are so focused on moving the DT and settle for the 3-4 yard gain, and rightfully so. Here, Thomas does what is so difficult, get significant movement on the down lineman and still block the second level defender. If the same happened on the other side of this play and #52 was blocked, this run breaks loose.
To finish, I will leave you with this quote from Joe:
“But something I’ve found comfort in is, Just do your job. I’ve got people in my family who get up and go to work every day and they don’t complain. Regardless of the record, I get to play a kids’ game. I am blessed to do what I love to do so much.”
Cheers to you Joe.