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Joe Thomas - Hall of Fame 2023

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Playing with Perfection
No one had a better front-row seat to Joe Thomas’ dominance than the left guards he played with. These are their top memories of what made him a Hall of Famer.
By Anthony Poisal Jul 10, 2023

Eric Steinbach didn't need to see much of Joe Thomas to know he was going to become a special offensive tackle.

When the Browns drafted Thomas with the third overall pick in 2007, Steinbach was ready to do whatever he needed to help him. He was a left guard who had been in the NFL for four years and would be playing right next to Thomas, and that usually meant he'd be someone Thomas could lean on to navigate through the pros.

Steinbach felt even more certain he could tutor Thomas when he learned how much they had in common. They were true Midwesterners — Steinbach was born in Illinois and attended Iowa, while Thomas was born in Wisconsin and played for the Badgers. Their families also owned cottages on lakes in rural Wisconsin.

"We just gelled right away," Steinbach said. "We had the Big Ten and Midwest things going for us and we became friends. He was more on the quiet side, but he had more of a business approach. He wasn't no introvert."

The friendship, though, didn't need to include much mentoring at all.

From the first days of practice that season, Steinbach almost forgot Thomas was a rookie. Thomas didn't unload questions on any of his teammates because, well, he didn't need to ask them.

He might've been a normal Midwesterner from Steinbach's initial impression, but he was no ordinary first-year pro.

"I didn't have to coach him up at all because Joe just had it," Steinbach said. "Back then, I remember me and the other linemen said that the way he studied, played and acted was like he was already a five-year veteran."


What Steinbach saw was what every other Browns left guard realized when they began taking snaps next to Thomas: He was one of the best left tackles in the game.

To play left guard with Thomas was to play next to a robot. The technique was always flawless. The instincts on how a defense would attack were always correct. The body was — literally — unbreakable for 10,363 consecutive plays.

He was, in the eyes of his left guard teammates, the most polished left tackle who had ever played the game.

"Joe had an awesome ability to counter a guy's move or react," Steinbach said. "He just did it in a natural way. He was able to react with footwork or redirecting his hands, whereas other tackles or guards who are very good at their position will get beat once in a while.

"You never saw Joe get beat."

A sack allowed by Thomas was an extremely rare sight — throughout his 6,680 career pass-block snaps, Thomas' opponent sacked the quarterback just 30 times, according to Pro Football Focus.

That's a sack allowed in just .4 percent of his pass-block snaps.

The recognition for Thomas was instantaneous, too, which had rarely been the case for the other best offensive tackles in the history of football. Before Thomas, just six offensive tackles had been elected to the Hall of Fame in their first year of eligibility, but none of them were Pro Bowlers their rookie season.

Thomas, though, was named a Pro Bowler in each of his first 10 seasons.

So by the time Jason Pinkston replaced Steinbach at left guard during Thomas' fifth NFL season in 2011, Thomas was already a four-time Pro Bowler and considered the best left tackle in the league. Steinbach suffered a back injury and was forced to miss the entire 2011 season, and Pinkston, drafted by the Browns in the fifth round that spring, was next up to play guard next to Thomas.


"I was so nervous," Pinkston said. "I wanted to do so well because he was going to play well. It was hard for me at first to get over that starstruck feeling of being a young rookie playing next to a potential Hall of Famer, even at that time."

Pinkston, however, was comforted by Thomas' voice, which Thomas had been using more at the line of scrimmage. He was no longer on the "quiet side," as Steinbach had remembered, and had instead become one of the more vocal offensive linemen in an effort to aid teammates.

To Pinkston, the barking from Thomas helped mute his nerves. As soon as the huddle broke, Thomas always seemed to know what the defensive front was going to do, and he'd share his knowledge by pointing to a player and informing Pinkston where he was going to move once the ball was snapped.

Thomas was rarely wrong, and Pinkston, who started all 16 games that season, began to feel settled into the NFL.

"He knew everything," Pinkston said. "I remember playing Pittsburgh and Baltimore, the teams who liked to stunt and blitz a lot, and he'd know every package they'd line up in based off where Troy Polamalu was lined up or where James Harrison was.

"Anyone who lined up against him, he knew exactly what they were going to do."

That's because Thomas had started building an encyclopedia about every edge rusher he had faced in the league.

Whether he battled someone for a full game or only a few snaps, Thomas assembled a notebook of observations detailing what moves worked against the player and what holes they had in their game. Some players' notes — like AFC North edge rushing stalwarts in Harrison and Terrell Suggs — lasted multiple pages. So did their backups.

Thomas' book naturally grew thicker every year, and in 2012, the book caught the eye of John Greco, a five-year veteran who was a right tackle his first year with the Browns in 2011 but moved to left guard the next year due to an injury to Pinkston.

"There would be times where we would be playing, say, the Titans, and there'd be a guy on the scouting report and he'd say, 'Well let me check my notes,'" Greco said. "He would have notes on the guy from when he played in Cincinnati, or Minnesota or whenever we last played him. He was able to know his opponent better than the opponent probably knew himself."


Part of Thomas' legacy, of course, will always be about the Browns' constant fight — and shortfalls — toward becoming a playoff team. Thomas blocked for 20 different starting quarterbacks, none of which were able to push the Browns into the postseason.

Without Thomas, the product would've looked even uglier, but his dominance and dutiful preparation could easily be overlooked by the casual football fan due to the offense's struggles to move the ball.

For Greco, a large collection of his Hall of Fame memories of Thomas occurred on forgettable plays.

"He would get a tip from what the defense was showing, and we would maybe adjust something in our protection because of what he saw or something we got right in the change of our protection," he said. "In our own little world, we might've picked up a blitz or prevented someone from getting killed, and it could've been an incomplete pass and no one would've known about it — but it happened."

It happened because of Thomas, and those moments continued all the way through his final four years in the league when he was united with another guard: future Pro Bowler Joel Bitonio.

Like Pinkston, Bitonio couldn't ignore the pressure that came with being a rookie who was immediately paired with a player considered the best of all time at their position. Bitonio was also an early second-round pick in 2014, so the pressure was even higher for him to meet his own expectations and become the Browns' left guard of the future.

For Bitonio, though, playing with Thomas was arguably the best scenario a rookie guard could want to start a career. His Hall of Fame-worthy technique and preparation could rub off on him, and he could always be comforted knowing that Thomas had a nearly 100-percent success rate of doing his job every play.

But as those first spring practices began, Bitonio's first priority was ensuring he stayed out of Thomas' way.

"I was like, 'All right, let's just not step on this guy's foot,'" Bitonio said. "Let's not do any of that stuff and hurt him in any way. That was my main concern those first days: do the right thing, go the right way and don't step on Joe's foot."


If Bitonio considered that the minimum to succeed next to Thomas, he certainly met that goal — and more.

With Thomas and Bitonio, the left side of the Browns' offensive line remained one of the most formidable duos in the league. In the 2,850 total snaps Thomas and Bitonio took together, they allowed just 11 sacks. Their sacks-allowed percentage of 0.4 is, coincidentally, the same as Thomas' career percentage.

And the effects of playing and preparing with Thomas still permeate through Bitonio's game today.

One tip Thomas always followed that spread to Bitonio was writing down the worst possible thing that could happen on a play. Often, it's making sure a defender doesn't go unblocked or that a gap doesn't open that could lead to a sack.

The answer to the question is usually easy to identify, but writing it down helped Thomas memorize the bare minimum he needed to achieve on a play. The practice is still something Bitonio, who's been voted to five straight Pro Bowls as he enters his 10th NFL season, has on his to-do list each week.

"It just gets me in the mindset of, 'Don't let this happen,'" Bitonio said. "I still do it through my first 15 plays of the game, and we have certain calls where it's like, 'Hey, let's not let this happen to us right here.' It's definitely something that's a big part of my game."

And he only had a chance to learn it because he played next to one of the game's greatest players, a label that quickly became apparent for any left guard who crouched next to him.

"The level of preparation, where he put himself in the best position to succeed, was what always jumped out to me," Greco said. "That made me a better player, and I think that elevated the play of everyone around him.

"He was a leader, and everyone saw what it took to be that good."

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