Welcome to the club, Joe Thomas.
"Oh, yeah, he's in," longtime Browns Radio Network color analyst Doug Dieken said late Wednesday morning of Thomas, who joined returner Joshua Cribbs as the only two Browns named to the Pro Bowl the previous evening. "He's been in for a long time."
We're talking about The Cleveland Browns Left Tackle Club, one of the greatest groups, along with running backs and kickers, in the rich history of this team. It has four members, so we'll call it The Mt. Rushmore of Browns left tackles.
The charter member is Lou Groza. The Pro Football Hall of Famer is known mostly for his kicking – he was the first great place kicker in the game, as evidenced by the fact the best kicker in college football each year is given the Lou Groza Award – but he was also a great left tackle for the first part of his 21-year career. The Martins Ferry, Ohio native, reportedly signed by the Browns while in a fox hole serving in World War II, was the starter by his – and the Browns' – third season in 1948 and held the job through '59, when he retired for a year because of a bad back.
When the Browns moved from the All-America Football Conference to the NFL in 1950, Groza made the Pro Bowl in nine of the next 10 seasons, as much for his offensive line play as for his kicking (his 16-yard field goal with 28 seconds left gave the Browns a 30-28 win over the Los Angeles Rams in the title game in their first year in the NFL). He was also named All-NFL six times.
The Browns stayed in-state to find Groza's successor, using their second-round pick in the 1959 NFL Draft to take Dick Schafrath out of Wooster, Ohio and Ohio State. Though incredibly undersized – he was just 217 pounds when the Browns got him and used to secretly slip bricks into his shorts before weigh-ins in order to get up to his goal weight – he took over as the starter in 1960 and held it until midway through the final season of his 12-year career in 1971.
Though his fate now rests in the hands of the Senior Committee, Schafrath is a Hall of Fame candidate as well. He was a three-time All-NFL choice and a six-time Pro Bowler.
Dieken, who still has the University of Illinois school record for most career receiving yards as a tight end, was drafted by the Browns in the sixth round in 1971 and immediately converted to left tackle, partly on the advice of Groza, who, while doing some scouting for the club, personally scouted him.
"I was hoping I'd get a chance to try out at tight end, but when the Browns handed me a jersey that had No. 73 on it (the same number Thomas now wears) when I arrived that first day, I knew that wasn't going to happen," Dieken said.
Though Dieken, who played 14 years, though 1984, didn't earn the NFL honors of Schafrath and Groza – he was never all-league and made the Pro Bowl just one time, following the Kardiac Kids season of 1980 – he etched his name in history in other ways, with his toughness and durability. He is the Browns' career leader in most consecutive games played with 232 and most consecutive starts with 194.
Tony Jones began starting in 1991 and did a good job overall, but he didn't play long enough (just five seasons, through 1995, when the franchise left for Baltimore) nor did he play quite well enough to be in the Browns Left Tackle Club.
From when the new Browns first took the field in 1999, there had been a revolving door of left tackles until Thomas was drafted No. 3 overall in 2007 out of Wisconsin. He stepped in as the starter in the opener of that rookie season, and has failed to miss not just a start or a game, but even a play since.
More than his durability, though, he has been outstanding from the moment he first stepped onto the field. He has made the Pro Bowl every season, becoming the first Brown to be so honored in his first three years of professional football since HOF running back Jim Brown five decades earlier (the earliest Browns stars don't qualify since they started their careers in the AAFC). Before Thomas came along, the Browns hadn't had an offensive lineman make the Pro Bowl since Cody Risien following the 1986 season.
Schafrath, incidentally, did not make the Pro Bowl until his sixth season.
From a Pro Bowl standpoint, Thomas had the benefit of playing with a 10-6 team as a rookie, which helped draw attention to what he was doing, but in the last two seasons, he has made it despite being on clubs that have really struggled overall, and even more so offensively. So to get noticed in those types of situations is noteworthy indeed.
From the great start Thomas has had to his career, the question that begs to be asked now is: How does he compare to Groza and Schafrath in terms of ability and production?
Groza was playing tackle so long ago that his contemporaries have mostly all since passed, so that part of the question may never be answered. As for the comparison to Schafrath, we went to Dieken, who, in addition to having been Schafrath's teammate for a season, has watched Thomas on a daily basis.
"I got to the Browns when Dick was at the end of his career, so I didn't see him in his prime," Dieken said. "But in talking to the players left on the team who had played with him, they all said how good he was.
"Dick and Joe are similar in that Joe is undersized, just as Dick was. But Dick had the benefit of blocking for Jim Brown, which made his job easier, and playing on consistently very good teams. Joe hasn't had that here.
"But the big thing with left tackles is if they have quick feet so as to be able to move out to get the fast rushers, and if they can bend their knees so as to be able to get down and block the short 6-1 guys they put out on you now. Joe exhibited both of those traits from the start, so you knew right away that he was going to be a good one."
Dieken added, "Joe's off to a great start. We'll have to see what happens down the road, but the future sure looks bright for him."
Thomas said he has heard of Schafrath and "I may have even met him once, though I don't remember for sure." In any event, he admitted he didn't really know much about him.
But Thomas should get busy on his homework about Schafrath, because he's quickly catching up to him in club status.