From Joe Thomas: Not Your Average Joe, by Marc Bona and Dan Murphy
This excerpt from chapter 17 is told in Joe’s own words.
I don’t think anyone really knew how tough it was actually going to be.
Being on a bad NFL team is miserable. It is particularly miserable at the end of the season. At that point, everyone is trying to save their own job. They know change is in store. Lots of people will be fired. That’s the reality of this business. Everyone is miserable.
The players know they may get cut. The media is on you to explain why things have gone sour. Fans are irate. It’s not fun.
When things are going bad, which happened a lot during my playing days, the main thing is keeping the main thing the main thing. Yes, you read that right. That means you focus on doing your job. You do your job and trust that man next to you will do his. You have to focus on that play, that day. Just worry about your own house. You can’t focus on all the external noise.
We had some rough seasons during my time with the Browns, and 2016 was one of the worst. It was Hue Jackson’s first year as head coach. To say we had a young team would be an understatement. During the offseason we let multiple starters leave via free agency, including center Alex Mack, right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, wide receiver Travis Benjamin and defensive back Tashaun Gipson.
Alex had been selected to multiple Pro Bowls. Mitch was widely considered the best right tackle in the league. Travis was coming off nearly a 1,000-yard season and set numerous team records as a returner. Tashaun was among the league leaders in interceptions and was a Pro Bowler. To see those guys leave plus other key contributors like linebacker Craig Robertson and special-teams ace Johnson Bademosi leave was tough.
It hurt more because Alex and Mitch were close friends of mine. We spent so much time together and developed a real bond. We had been together for years. They were my best friends on the team, but they were also great players and they just walked out the door and signed with other teams. It was tough because I knew the Cleveland Browns got worse.
You have people who say, “Well you were 3-13 with those guys, you can be 3-13 without them.” But if you want to be better than 3-13, you have to keep your good players. That is just the way it goes. You can’t keep getting rid of good players and think you are going to get better.
The decision was made to tear the foundation of the team down to the studs and rebuild with young players. They wanted to build a core, a young nucleus of players with the emphasis on “young.”
We started 0-14 — the worst start in team history at the time. We had three different starting quarterbacks in each of the first three games, but it wasn’t like we were getting blown out.
We were hosting the San Diego Chargers at home on Christmas Eve, and we finally came together and played a complete team game that resulted in our lone win of the season.
I remember all three phases played a crucial role in the victory. The Pierogi Prince of Parma, Jamie Meder, a kid who grew up a Browns fan and embodied the toughness of the city, blocked a field goal late in the fourth quarter to maintain a 20-17 lead. The Chargers got the ball back and drove down the field and attempted a game-tying field goal as time expired. After the kick sailed wide right, tears sailed down my face.
I didn’t expect it to be emotional, but I think that’s one of the beautiful things about the game of football. Sometimes you’re just overcome with emotion and it’s totally unexpected, but I think it’s a great thing. Football is the ultimate team game. You’re putting aside any personal ambitions for the good of the team and everyone pulled together and we got that first victory.
I didn’t know it at the time, but it would be my last NFL victory.
The game ended, and I was on the field looking for people to hug. I was really happy. It was a genuine feeling of joy. Our PR guy grabbed me and told me I needed to do the on-field interview with CBS. I must have been the first lineman in league history to do the postgame interview. It’s usually the starting quarterback, but Robert Griffin suffered a concussion during the game and wasn’t able to do media so I think they just said they would take whoever they could get and they got me. I’m sure the ratings went through the roof for that one.
Because of the interview, I was one of the last people off the field, and as I entered the locker room our head coach Hue Jackson had already started his postgame speech. The team was huddled around him and he called me right into the middle. Things got emotional. We were all so happy. The tears kept coming.
When you look back at it, you feel a bit silly crying over 1-14 as your record, but I think with all that we went through and as much as we put in every single day, it was such a relief to get that win. It’s a moment I will never forget.
I kept telling myself, “You shouldn’t be this happy. This is not that big of a deal. We just won a game and it doesn’t even matter.” But it definitely felt like it was more than just a win. You don’t want to say it was like our Super Bowl, but it really was. Everyone was excited — players, coaches, you could feel it in the stadium with the fans. The season didn’t go our way, but we battled every week. We didn’t pack it in. We stayed the course and bought in. I couldn’t have been prouder in that moment.
To be honest, part of the reason the team didn’t quit on that season was because we were so young. Everyone had something to prove. That’s one of the benefits of being young and dumb.
I wish we had more wins, but that being my final one is something I’ll always cherish.
(Photo: John Kuntz, cleveland.com)