The Cleveland Browns' standout left tackle, who grew up in Brookfield, Wis., was a three-year starter at Wisconsin who won the Outland Trophy as the nation's best offensive lineman as a senior. This will be his first-regular season appearance at the Green Bay Packers' historic stadium.
"I've been back to Lambeau a couple times for preseason games and it's very special when you get to come back," Thomas said during a conference call on Wednesday morning. "It's special for everyone on this team because Lambeau Field is such a legendary place to play and there's so many greats that made this game special that have played there. You get to kind of walk in their tracks.
"It's very special for the average guy but me being from Wisconsin, obviously, it means even more because I grew up a Packer fan. Didn't get to go to too many Packers games because we didn't have season tickets but certainly watched every Sunday with my family and definitely followed them. They were kind in their heyday back when I was in my middle-school, high-school years when they were going to the Super Bowl back-to-back years and Brett Favre was the quarterback and the great Reggie White. It's really special because it was the team that I grew up watching and grew up loving."
Of course, there's no Reggie White on this team. And no Clay Matthews, for that matter. Or Nick Perry. Despite the injuries, Thomas insists the Packers have plenty of talent at outside linebacker with Mike Neal, Andy Mulumba and Nate Palmer.
"It's not going to be an easy week, that's for sure," he said.
While Thomas no doubt wanted to avoid providing any bulletin-board material, there's no denying that he'll be facing a watered-down group of pass rushers. However, unfamiliarity is a challenge. There's not a lot of film to study of the Packers' remaining outside linebackers.
"This week, especially, with the injuries that they've had to Clay Matthews and Nick Perry, you're going to have to look at four or five different guys and try to get as much film as you possibly can to try to prepare yourself for whoever they may put out there to rush over you," he said.
Thomas has been a longtime bright spot for a perennially downtrodden team. Thomas was the third overall pick of the 2007 draft, and they just missed the playoffs with a 10-6 record during his rookie season. Since then, however, it's been one bad season after another. From 2008 through 2012, Cleveland went 23-57 and lost at least 11 games every season.
Cleveland shifted gears during the offseason. In 2012, Jimmy Haslam III purchased the Browns for $1 billion. With the sale, Mike Holmgren announced he'd retire as team president following the 2012 season, and Haslam fired general manager Tom Heckert and coach Pat Shurmur on Dec. 31. In their place, Joe Banner took over as CEO, Rob Chudzinski was hired as coach and Michael Lombardi was hired as general manager after spending five years as a television analyst.
So far, so good. The Browns are 3-3. The offense has been so-so, due in large part to issues at quarterback and the surprising trade of last year's third overall pick, Trent Richardson. The defense, however, is a real strength. That unit ranks seventh in yards, seventh against the rush, eighth against the pass and 11th in points allowed.
"We wish we had three more wins but we're right in the thick of things," Thomas said. "With a .500 record right here, this is not something that myself as a Brown has been involved with too often. It's fun being relevant. The season is still extremely young and we've got a lot of games to go but it's fun to be part of a team that's relevant, that's keeping every game close and is in everything right to the end."
Thomas, a six-time Pro Bowler, is a centerpiece for the Browns' rebuilding program. He's started all 102 games in his career. He's a quarterback's best friend – not to mention a best friend for all creating the game plan – because of his ability to neutralize the gauntlet of pass rushers that line up across from him every week.
"Joe's played great this year," Chudzinski said. "He's been extremely consistent. He's stepped up against the best competition and he's really been a leader for us. I was here back (as offensive coordinator in 2007 and 2008) when Joe was a rookie and his first two years, and just to see the growth from that standpoint of how he's become a team leader. He's a great player, obviously, he's going to be a Hall of Famer. Seeing the other part of it and the growth in that area has been real impressive to me."
Thomas is impressed by the program that Chudzinski is building. He's been down this road before, though, having felt the optimism that comes with change, only for it to fizzle in a deluge of lost games. Maybe this time, it'll be different, considering they've tasted some early success.
"I think we're well on our way," Thomas said. "I think we've put together some great pieces this offseason. I think, obviously, the new coaches that they've brought in are outstanding. We've got new ownership, we've got a new front office, brought in some key free agents, we're building (with) some studs in the draft. I think we're building all the pieces we need right now."
Agree or disagree?: Discuss hot Packers topics in our, free forums. Leave Bill a question in the subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum.
Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.