It’s certainly been an interesting week in Cleveland sports. The Cleveland Cavaliers kicked off their season in an emotional game which saw not only the return of Kyrie Irving, but also the gruesome injury to Gordon Hayward. We also say the Cavaliers win an impressive road game in Milwaukee against the Bucks only to return home and lay a complete egg against the Orlando Magic, who used the three-point shot to do to the Cavaliers what the Cavaliers have done to other teams so often in the past couple of seasons.
Then Sunday, we saw the Cleveland Browns have yet another winnable game right within their grasp, kick a FG with under a minute remaining to send it to overtime, only to eventually fall in OT. But more importantly, we saw Joe Thomas go down with a triceps injury. That injury not only ended his insane 10,363 consecutive snaps streak, but also, sadly, his season.
So yeah, it’s been a bit of an up and down week in sports for us as Cleveland fans, but above all else, there were certainly a lot of emotions at play between Kyrie Irving and Joe Thomas. It’s funny to really think about the difference between those two players who started their careers in Cleveland. Joe Thomas spent his entire career playing for losing team after losing team. He only sniffed the playoffs once in his career, and that was his rookie season when the Browns went 10-6, but still missed the playoffs.
Kyrie Irving’s career in Cleveland definitely started out rough. While Joe Thomas experienced a winning season his first year, Kyrie’s first season was mostly a disaster for the team. Kyrie would spend his first three seasons on teams that mirror what the Cleveland Browns are now. Of course, then LeBron James came back to Cleveland and the team went on a run of success the franchise has never seen before, going to three straight NBA Finals and culminating in the 2016 NBA Championship.
While the prospects of Joe Thomas ever seeing the postseason were growing smaller and smaller, Kyrie and the Cavaliers were poised for more success and chasing more titles. Yet, it wasn’t Joe Thomas who asked to leave Cleveland. It was Kyrie Irving who wanted to walk away from a successful franchise. It was Joe Thomas who never complained about his situation (not outwardly, anyway) and who made the choice to persevere in Cleveland.
Now, obviously it’s not that simple. It’s not just that Joe Thomas is such a high character guy (he is, though) and Kyrie Irving is somehow a bad person for wanting to leave Cleveland (he’s not). There were surely a lot of things that went into Kyrie’s decision to leave and Thomas’ decision to not leave. Some of the things we can probably take a pretty good guess at.
For Kyrie, he signed his extension to stay in Cleveland believing the team was going to build around him. This was going to be his franchise. When LeBron returned, all of that went out the window. Kyrie and LeBron always had an uneasy relationship and we saw plenty of examples of LeBron’s passive-aggressive attitude toward his teammates. It’s possible it was even worse behind the scenes. And certainly Kyrie had to be growing weary of always being referred to as a “kid” by LeBron. Furthermore, there were issues of playstyles and organizational input. All of that surely played into it, along with countless other factors we can’t even know about.
So to be clear, this isn’t to simply vilify Kyrie Irving for leaving. While, as a fan, I hate it and I’ll probably never stop wondering what could have been had Kyrie stayed and had LeBron and Kyrie worked a little more at developing a deeper relationship both on the court and off it, I have to respect Kyrie’s decision as a man. It’s his life, and he made the choice that he felt was best for him.
Instead, I merely want Kyrie’s decision to ask out of Cleveland to serve as a baseline to further demonstrate just how remarkable it is that Joe Thomas has never asked out of Cleveland. On the surface, it would seem like Thomas would give anything to have a situation like the one Kyrie walked away from. It’s easy to see things that way from the outside looking in.
But really, if you listen to anyone who knows Thomas, has played with him, been friends with him, or even talked to him even in passing, it seems like Thomas staying with Cleveland through everything is far from remarkable. Instead, it’s just who Joe Thomas is. And as this injury finally shatters our illusion that Thomas was unbreakable, we now find ourselves wondering, is this it for Joe Thomas and the Browns?
Joe Thomas has one year left on his contract. Yesterday, he expressed that he wasn’t sure about his future. Facing surgery, it’s hard to blame him for not thinking about playing football next season just yet. But if Thomas returns, could this be the time the Browns and Thomas part ways? Could the Browns either release him or trade him to allow him to go free and chase a season with a team who has the playoffs in their sights?
It’s possible, and frankly, the thought of Joe Thomas’ last play with the Browns and our last time seeing him in a Browns uniform being the play where he hurt his triceps had to leave the game is just downright heartbreaking.
I’m not sure people who don’t follow Cleveland sports could ever possibly understand what Thomas has meant to us. Some might laugh at the way an offensive lineman is so beloved in a sport that often times overlooks linemen for the glory of the playmakers. But Thomas was our one dependable beacon of light in an otherwise dark sports existence. I never played offensive line, so I know nothing about technique. I rarely, if ever, pay much attention to the line when I watch football. But I did with the Browns and Joe Thomas.
Indeed, all those seasons, when the Browns were just painfully embarrassing and hard to watch, you could always just watch Joe Thomas play and be amazed at the consistency of his performance. I may not know how to breakdown technique, but I know what I saw when I watched Joe Thomas play. Snap after snap, game after game, play after play, there was Joe Thomas, single-handedly keeping his opponent away from the Browns QB. You didn’t need a double-team when you had Thomas. It was so fun to watch. Play after play, opposing defensive lineman would try every trick in their arsenal to get past Thomas. It never mattered what they tried, though. Thomas was always up to the task.
I hope Joe Thomas comes back for another season. In a perfect world, I would hope that season would be with the Browns. But a growing part of me also wants the Browns to just set him free. I want him to experience postseason football. I would want that to be in Cleveland, but we know that’s not going to happen. So, unfortunately, if it’s going to happen, it has to happen elsewhere.
No matter what the future holds for Joe Thomas and the Cleveland Browns, I just know that I will spend the rest of my life feeling grateful for having the pleasure of watching Joe Thomas play football and rooting for him. He will probably forever be my favorite Cleveland Brown. I just hope above all else that my days of watching him play, wherever that may be, aren’t over. Here’s to a speedy and full recovery, Joe. Get well soon, we miss you!