BEREA – Cleveland fans still scarred by LeBron James’ betrayal and departure to Miami don’t have to worry about Joe Thomas bolting for greener pastures (read: Green Bay).
The Browns aren’t about to let Thomas go anywhere anytime soon. And Thomas doesn’t want to leave.
“I love it here, I love the Browns, I love the fans, I love the organization, and I’m so excited about the direction,” Thomas, the Pro Bowl left tackle whose rookie contract expires after the season, said Friday after practice.
Thomas looks at Mike Holmgren and sees a president clearly in charge of the organization.
Thomas looks at Tom Heckert and sees a general manager with a plan to reconfigure the roster into a playoff contender.
Thomas looks at Pat Shurmur and sees a new coach with a winning personality who shares a philosophy with his bosses and knows his place on the organizational flow chart.
Thomas looks at the Browns and sees a situation he could embrace for the next several years.
That’s a good thing, because signing Thomas to a long-term contract extension will likely be Heckert’s No. 1 priority once the post-lockout craziness dies down. Thomas was asked if he’s open to re-signing.
“I think the staff’s first-class. So I certainly would,” said Thomas, a Wisconsin native who grew up a Packers fan. “But right now my concern is just trying to learn the offense and get the guys going.
“I think sometimes guys just worry too much about the contract thing and they lose sight of if you just play well and you help your teammates win games, those things take care of themselves.”
Thomas didn’t always have so many nice things to say about the operation inside Browns headquarters. He rarely ripped his bosses publicly – namely former coach Eric Mangini – but was stingy with the compliments and his displeasure was noticeable.
Is the willingness to stay new this year?
“Hard to say, because that would be looking back about three years,” Thomas said. “I definitely think the guys we have now are awesome and I love playing for ‘em. That could definitely have an influence on the guys that want to stay here and the free agents that want to come here, because it hadn’t always been that way.”
Thomas’ confidence level in the people making the decisions is certainly new for 2011.
“Just because of the type of people that Coach Holmgren brought in, the way he structured the organization, the way there’s a hierarchy,” Thomas said. “There’s not any confusion about who’s in charge up top and everyone understands who they report to. I think it’s the right way things should be structured and I’m excited about it.”
Thomas has played four NFL seasons at left tackle and been to the Pro Bowl four times. He hasn’t missed an offensive snap. Despite the personal accolades, he’s experienced just one winning season and zero trips to the playoffs.
The best year was his first, when the Browns surprised everyone by going 10-6 in 2007. They’ve gone 4-12, 5-11 and 5-11 since.
Heckert has completed two drafts and is in the middle of trying to turn the roster from over-the-hill to up-and-coming. He refuses to look for quick fixes in free agency and wants to find and keep young talent. Like Thomas, who is 26.
“I think that’s the right way to do it,” Thomas said. “Green Bay is the Super Bowl champs and that’s the way they did it.
“Not to say we’re never going to go after a free agent. But organizations are put together that have great championship runs by drafting smart and re-signing your young guys. Pittsburgh does it. That’s a lot of the reason they’re successful, because you draft guys that fit your system, you train ‘em and then when they get to be free agents, you re-sign ‘em and you don’t try to overextend for free agents that maybe don’t fit.
“So I think that’s a great plan and I’m excited that we have a plan.”
The new collective bargaining agreement contains thousands of rules. One of interest where Thomas is concerned is the continuation of the franchise tag. A team can place the franchise tag on one player a year, guaranteeing the player stays for the average of the top-five salaries at his position. A team can use the tag on the same player for multiple years without restriction.
So even if Thomas wanted to test the market, the Browns could deem him too valuable to lose, tag him and bring him back for several years on one-year contracts. There was talk during the lockout that there’d be a cap on the number of years the tag could be used on a player, but it didn’t happen.
“Would it be great if they didn’t have franchise tags for guys that were going to get tagged instead of a long-term deal? Yeah, sure,” Thomas said. “I paid attention to it, but it wasn’t something that I really got too worried about because it wasn’t something that was within my control.”
Thomas thinks the franchise tag serves a good purpose.
“It gives you the ability so you don’t have a LeBron James that … you cater your entire organization (around) …,” he said. “And it’s great for a quarterback. Everything’s structured around a player and even if you throw all the money in the world at him and you can’t keep him, that’s bad for the game.”
Shurmur knows he’s lucky to have inherited Thomas. Not every coach is blessed with a Pro Bowler at one of the game’s most important positions.
“He’s a very, very good pass protector,” Shurmur said. “I guess what impressed me is that he’s a fine run blocker as well.
“Joe is a pro and you could see that when he came in. He is getting a little bit better each day. You can see that he has a feel for how he’s got to ramp his game up and get ready to play the season.”
Which means Thomas’ focus is on mastering the West Coast Offense, and not on the huge contract that waits around the corner.
“On a personal level right now, this training camp is learn the plays, learn how I fit into the offense, get comfortable with some of the new guys,” he said. “And then once the season starts, it’s strictly winning. That’s it.”
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• PRACTICE: Family Day, 2-4:30 p.m. at Cleveland Browns Stadium. Free admission.