Class of 2023: Joe Thomas — A Hall of Fame rarity, a megastar for losing teams

Enshrinement Published on : 8/5/2023

By Barry Wilner 
Special to the Pro Football Hall of Fame 

When you look at the Cleveland Browns’ record during JOE THOMAS' 11 NFL seasons, you might be tempted to shake your head, then ignore his candidacy for football immortality.

If so, look again. 

Arguably the best offensive tackle of his era, Thomas made eight consecutive All-Pro teams and went to the Pro Bowl in all but his final pro season, when he missed nine games due to a triceps injury. Yes, the Browns were a collective 48-128 (.272 winning percentage) in that decade plus one year – they went 0-16 in 2017 when Thomas was available for only seven games. They had only one winning record, in Thomas’ rookie year after being drafted third overall in 2007 out of Wisconsin.

Yet, every week, despite having little to no hope of earning a championship ring, there was Thomas, performing at a level few have attained.

A runner-up for Offensive Rookie of the Year to running back Adrian Peterson – no offensive lineman has won the award – only Thomas and Peterson received votes. From that superb debut throughout his stellar career, Thomas was as dependable as anyone who has played the game. He started all 167 games he suited up for and, even more impressive, was on the field for every offensive snap. The total of 10,363 is considered an NFL record.

“I want to start by talking about a random number— the number 10,363. Not too random,” Thomas said at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium. “That’s how many consecutive snaps I had in my career. From my first snap as a rookie in 2007 to my last snap when I tore my triceps, that’s how long this journey has been.

“That number 10,363 is special to me in many ways—and not just because it’s an NFL record, but because it shows that I was there for my brothers 10,363 times in a row. They could count on me. Loyalty, consistency, something bigger than yourself, showing up for the man next to you.”
When you look at the Cleveland Browns’ record during Joe Thomas’ 11 NFL seasons, you might be tempted to shake your head, then ignore his candidacy for football immortality. If so, look again.

A member of the NFL’s All-Decade Team of the 2010s, Thomas making the Pro Bowl in each of his first 10 seasons equaled the mark of fellow Gold Jackets Merlin Olsen, Mel Renfro, Lawrence Taylor and Barry Sanders.

That’s pretty good company – and all of them played for championship teams or contenders. Thomas, who blocked for 20 quarterbacks, never had that luxury.

“It’s not Joe Thomas’ fault that the Browns didn’t win and go to the playoffs,” former Browns cornerback Joe Haden has said. “If he was on any other team, he would’ve been a Super Bowl champion. So, it’s like for everybody to notice his greatness and know that he’s a first ballot Hall of Famer, no matter what fan base you talk to. It just shows that greatness like that is going to go noticed by everybody.”

Which means winning championships – or even a bunch of games – isn’t necessarily the abiding criteria to make the Hall of Fame. 

Thomas even found some humor in Cleveland’s overall record while he was with the Browns.

“Yes, I blocked for the more different starting quarterbacks than any player in NFL history, what an honor,” he said. “But no matter who was back there or what the circumstances were, which sometimes were tough, I won’t lie, you guys laid it all on the line for your team, and that is truly special. And hey, if you had a good left tackle you might have survived more than one season; or even survived long enough one game in some cases. At least long enough for me to learn your name.”

Thomas knew the names of all of his fellow linemen, of course.

“We were in the trenches when it was 95 degrees in August, and when it was December and snowstorms were blowing off the sandy beaches of Lake Erie,” he explained. “The misery that bonds offensive lineman as brothers for life is something people who never play the position just can’t understand.

“Alex Mack, Jason Pinkston, Mitchell Schwartz, John Greco, Hank Fraley, Eric Steinbach, and Joel Bitonio, to name just a few guys I played next to, thank you for always showing up for me.

“To all my backup left tackles with the Browns, I’m sorry, but thanks for taking all of those practice reps for me so the trainers could
tape me together like Mr. Potato Head and wheel me out for game days.”

Every single game.


More on the Enshrinement of each class member

Class members are listed in order of their Enshrinement speeches:  

2023 Pro Football Hall of Fame Game