BEREA â€” For a town that watched the Indiansâ€™ Joe Charboneau go from Rookie of the Year to the answer to an obscure trivia question, itâ€™s reasonable that fans be worried about a sophomore jinx for any promising Cleveland athlete. That includes Browns left tackle Joe Thomas.
But Thomas and the team are supremely confident heâ€™ll avoid a letdown following a rookie season that ended with a trip to Honolulu for the Pro Bowl.
The reasons are numerous: quick feet, athleticism, strong work ethic, his position and Midwestern values.
â€œJoeâ€™s biggest assets are his feet and his demeanor,â€ coach Romeo Crennel said. â€œHeâ€™s solid and down to earth.â€
â€œAs an offensive lineman, heâ€™s going to stay Joe,â€ said guard Eric Steinbach, who started 16 games next to Thomas last year. â€œJoeâ€™s Joe. Heâ€™s a simple, laid-back guy.
â€œNow if he was a wide receiver and had the year he had, certain skill guys sometimes have a different attitude.â€
Thomas is the same well-mannered, clean-cut Wisconsin kid who skipped the draft at New Yorkâ€™s Radio City Music Hall to go fishing with his family. Heâ€™s also more comfortable in his surroundings, which lets his personality shine through.
He co-hosts an outdoor sportsman show on television and let out a belly laugh halfway through an answer about handling his newfound fame.
â€œItâ€™s nice being a lineman, because you can kind of fit in pretty well in the community and on the team,â€ he said.
Still, Thomas stood out as a rookie.
Expectations were high after he was chosen with the No. 3 pick, but no one wouldâ€™ve predicted a Pro Bowl. In fact, he was just the fourth rookie offensive lineman ever picked for the Pro Bowl and the first Browns rookie chosen since linebacker Chip Banks in 1982.
He was part of one of the best Browns lines in history, as it allowed just 19 sacks, the third-fewest in the NFL. Quarterback Derek Anderson said Thomas was to blame on just one, but Thomas questioned the statistic.
â€œThereâ€™s always kind of a fudge factor,â€ he said of linemen bragging about allowing a low sack number. â€œUnless you are truly one-on-one with somebody and have no help anywhere, itâ€™s hard to say it was all my fault.â€
Anderson was sure of one sack he allowed, against Buffalo in the blizzard. When a reporter suggested it shouldnâ€™t count because of the snow, Thomas hopped back on his soapbox.
â€œThatâ€™s the thing when people say he didnâ€™t give up any sacks,â€ he said. â€œâ€˜Cause that one didnâ€™t count and this didnâ€™t count. It was snowing, it was a twist.â€™
â€œI couldâ€™ve made a better set, my technique couldâ€™ve been better and I probably wouldâ€™ve prevented it.â€
Accountability is another reason the Browns front office isnâ€™t up at nights worried about Thomas.
â€œIâ€™ve got to get 10-15 percent better,â€ he said. â€œYou can always do things a little better and thereâ€™s always a lot of improvement you can make from year to year.
â€œThis offseason my main goal was improving technique.â€
At 6-foot-6, 305 pounds, Thomas is far from the heaviest tackle in the league. He relies on quickness and fundamentals to neutralize stronger defensive ends.
On Wednesday in a pass-rushing drill, he stonewalled rookie outside linebacker Alex Hall on an inside move, then drove him to the ground. He also stopped Hallâ€™s speed move on the outside and denied starter Kamerion Wimbley.
â€œA rookie like that comes around every once in a blue moon,â€ Steinbach said of Thomas. â€œEvery week he had a challenge and every week he was able to shut down his guy.â€
Thomas credits offensive line coach Steve Marshall and veteran linemen Steinbach, Hank Fraley, Kevin Shaffer and Ryan Tucker for helping him stay focused.
â€œIf you have the right mind-set, if you never think youâ€™re good enough, never think youâ€™ve arrived, thatâ€™s the biggest thing,â€ he said. â€œI just try to be humble and always be a little better.â€
Thomas entered the league with aspirations of reaching the Hall of Fame, and the Pro Bowl was the first step in that direction. If he can make Hawaii an annual trip â€” â€œHe has that ability,â€ Crennel said â€” the drive to Canton could become a reality.
â€œThe Pro Bowl was a lot of fun because youâ€™re playing with guys that when you were a little kid you watched play in the Pro Bowl,â€ Thomas said. â€œTo see all those people on TV and to call them teammates now was pretty neat.â€
He plans on being a staple of the AFC roster for the next decade or beyond.
â€œThe Pro Bowl is the pinnacle for anybody,â€ he said. â€œNow itâ€™s kind of extra motivation to be able to try to go back every year.â€
No sophomore slumps allowed. Not for this Super Joe.
Petrak may be reached at email@example.com or 440-329-7136.