One of the NFL’s greatest records of the modern era ended Sunday when Cleveland Browns left tackle Joe Thomas tore his triceps in his team’s overtime loss to the Tennessee Titans.
After 11 years and 10,363 consecutive snaps for the Browns, Thomas finally had to step off the field due to the unfortunate, season-ending injury. Thus marks the end of an all-time great NFL streak, and a fun tidbit for broadcasters to rattle off whenever the Browns play.
#Browns LT Joe Thomas does, in fact, have a torn triceps, source said. Rough end to his season.
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) October 23, 2017
Thomas’ streak deserves even more credit, given the left tackle gutted it out for years on teams with no chance to make the playoffs, let alone to win a Super Bowl. In the decade since the Browns front office drafted Thomas out of Wisconsin, the Browns have not made the postseason.
In fact, the only winning season Thomas has in the NFL came in his rookie season, when the Browns went 10-6 and still managed to miss out on the AFC Wild Card.
Thomas has played through the pain of endless quarterback changes, including the brief eras of Brady Quinn, Ken Dorsey, Colt McCoy and Connor Shaw. To have that level of love for the game and dedication to go out there week after week knowing your team is nowhere near the favorite takes a special amount of effort.
Joe Thomas will probably never get enough credit for this streak. pic.twitter.com/UkY7Xw8VJz
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) October 22, 2017
With Thomas now out for the year and the Browns in the midst of another potential last-place finish, the question going forward for the 32-year-old future Hall of Famer will be if he retries with the franchise where he has spent his entire career.
It is the classic question for any all-time great player that has spent his career toiling for an also-ran team. Do you retire as a one-team player — a rarity in modern professional sports, when players can dictate their own fate through free agency — or do you invoke that autonomy to make a late-career run at a championship run to go out on top?
Such is the question facing Joe Thomas as he recovers from the first serious injury of his 11-year career. If he decides he does want out of Cleveland, it likely won’t be an issue for the Browns organization or the fanbase to let go of a player who has given everything to the city in order for him to achieve something he won’t be able to during the team’s rebuild.
At the same time, Thomas has to have developed a love for both the city and the Browns that would make it hard to walk away. Even at 32, staying in Cleveland would mean retiring without playing in the playoffs unless the fortunes of the Browns change drastically.
It is an extremely tough position for Thomas to be in and it is a situation where Thomas will have to force his way out if he wants to entertain the idea of playing for a contender.
Under contract to 2019, the most likely scenario is one farewell season for Thomas in Cleveland in 2018 before a decision on if he will retire with the Browns or bolt for an attempt to chase a ring. Past greats like Aeneas Williams, a superstar for some very bad Phoenix/Arizona Cardinals teams, have had to make similar choices. Williams played for a Super Bowl in 2001 as a member of the St. Louis Rams.
If Joe Thomas does decide to leave Cleveland — whether it be before the end of his contract or in 2019 — he will end his stay in the city as the one of the greatest Browns ever, and the greatest player of the Browns 2.0 Era.
Few players would dedicate the amount of effort that Thomas has given to a franchise that has given little back to its cornerstone. That Thomas not only did so, but did it for 10,000-plus consecutive snaps, commands respect.
In a perfect world, Thomas will get his playoff moment before riding off into the sunset; even if it means leaving his beloved Browns to join the long list of legends who have made the difficult choice to leave for greener pastures in the twilight of their Hall of Fame careers.