BEREA, Ohio — This summer, Joe Thomas was grumpy (his word). Another new head coach in Cleveland meant an extra minicamp session this off-season. It also required adjusting to a new schedule yet again because Hue Jackson, unlike Thomas’s previous coaches, prefers afternoon practices.
“In the NFL, you are a creature of habit,” Thomas says. “You are used to doing things a certain way and you are just resistant to change, especially as you get older.”
Entering his 10th season, Thomas has been named to six All-Pro teams and has made the Pro Bowl every year of his career. He says he mastered the left tackle technique four or five years ago. But line play is not the only subject on which Thomas has become an expert. There is also the city of Cleveland, which he introduces to newcomers, showing them where to live, where to eat and where to take the kids on a day off. And speaking of newcomers, Thomas could write a bestselling how-to on thriving under changing leadership. Forget football. How many American workers this decade have served under more bosses than Thomas—who is now on coach No. 6, not to mention numerous offensive coordinators and offensive line coaches—and excelled like he has?
Change can be exciting or intriguing, but it is rarely fun. Thomas has learned that turnover means losing colleagues and friends, returning to square one on the practice field and in the meeting room, and adjusting to someone else’s schedule. His reticence is evident in the quotes that pop up when you Google “Joe Thomas” and the name of any of his former leaders.
In 2011, he said, “We’re really building something special with [general manager] Tom Heckert and [president] Mike Holmgren and I think this program is headed in the right direction.” A year later, those two were gone. In 2013, Thomas was asked about the Browns possibly moving on from then-coach Rob Chudzinski. “I’d be very surprised if they make a change,” he responded. “And disappointed.” Fast forward two more years to this January, and Thomas was advocating for a different soon-to-be-fired coach, Mike Pettine. “I think he’s a good coach,” he said. “I think he’s one of the better ones we’ve had.”
In retrospect, those quotes are notable for their level of sadness. But they also show how quickly Thomas was able to get on board with each new regime and fight for their jobs. This spring, he bought in again.
“Since I got here it’s been my goal to turn the Browns into a winner and I think Hue is just the guy to do that,” Thomas said in May. “It’s kind of a happy ending.” Thomas put on a smile as he gave new teammates and coaches restaurant recommendations. On the field, he took the rookies under his big wing—for their benefit and his own.
“As you get older, the football side might get a little boring and routine, but the coaching side is the one side that’s a lot of fun,” he says. “I get a lot of satisfaction trying to give guys cues and tips and then seeing them use them and seeing them improve.”
And what keeps Thomas going through all the turmoil? What might be the grand takeaway from the business book to come? A commitment to something bigger than himself and those around him, he says. The responsibility Thomas feels for the city of Cleveland has lasted longer than those he has played under.
“There’s a sense of pride that wells up inside of me when I think about the Cleveland Browns and what it would mean to our fans and my fellow Clevelanders to be able to bring success,” he says. “Now I almost treat it as sort of a duty to turn this team into a winner and give this city a consistent winner that it deserves.”
• Some of the realest football of Jackson’s tenure was played Friday night as the team scrimmaged for about an hour. The defense seemed to have the upper hand on run plays, while the offense had success throwing the ball. Corey Coleman was unsurprisingly the star of the show (see below), but Jackson had nice things to say about Robert Griffin III as well afterward. “The most important thing with Robert is protecting the football,” Jackson said. “That’s what’s going to give us the best chance to win games. I’m loving the big plays, and that’s what quarterbacks do in the National Football League.”
• Josh Gordon sat out the practice as he continues to recover from a quad injury he suffered while working out over the summer. Yet he was still one of the last players off the field, mingling with fans as the sun set. “He wants to play,” Jackson said. “He’s been great in the building, been great outside the building. I think he has a burning desire to be a part of this football team.”
Five Questions with Hue Jackson
Q1: We hear a lot about what it feels like for a player to be drafted, but what did it feel like for you to make those calls to each of your first selections in Cleveland?
A: It’s like these are our pieces of gold. These are the people that we are going to try to build our future with. I think we made some great choices.
Q2: What’s the strongest emotion by the end of draft weekend?
A: It’s excitement. It’s not exhaustion because we have a long way to go, but you always want to see the guys you pick and see where they are and where you need to get them and potentially what they can be in the future.
Q3: What did you tell the rookies when you had them all together before minicamp?
A: They are a piece of the puzzle to getting us to where we need to be. They are going to be a part of our legacy. We tell them they are here for a reason. We picked them to help in this process. I would hope those guys accept those challenges.
Q4: What did you learn during your time in Oakland that carries over to here?
A: I don’t think people understand how much goes into being a head coach. It’s a lot of work. There are bumps in the road sometimes and you have to have the proper support to get through a lot of things. Amy Trask was my right hand. I love her for what she did for me. She taught me the National Football League, of being a head coach, what it would take, how to deal with people, how to manage people and get through tough times. I knew I had that lesson learned so the next opportunity I got, it was really going to be about the people who are with me all the time, people like (director of team security) John Frame and (director of football operations) Simon Gelan, people who you don’t know very much about.
Q5: Do you recognize the significance of having African-American men at the executive and coaching levels?
A: No, honestly, I never thought about it that way. I probably should, but I don’t. That’s not my focus. My focus is those coaches and the people who are in those leadership positions doing everything they can to help this organization win.
Biggest Turnaround: Everything
I can say “everything,” right? The motto on their shirts say “turnaround,” for heaven’s sake.
The coach is different. There’s a new quarterback and their biggest draft class in two decades and parts of the biggest personnel overhaul in the NFL on a snap basis according to Pro Football Focus. Even the facilities got a facelift this off-season. Now the question is: Will the results be the same?
Drawing some buzz: Corey Coleman
Coleman has gotten just about every compliment you can give a rookie wideout over the first week of training camp. Quarterback Josh McCown called him “impressive.” Jackson said he’s looked “very comfortable.” Fellow receiver Andrew Hawkins labeled him “an incredible talent.” Even Thomas has taken notice.
“You get the ball in his hands, and all of the sudden he makes somebody miss,” Thomas says. “We’ve seen it a couple times already, where he catches a quick bubble screen or a slant, makes somebody miss and takes it to the house. It’s really impressive.”
After making three long receptions during the Friday scrimmage, Coleman downplayed his night. “I think I did decent,” he said.