CLEVELAND (AP) — There’s nothing Joe Thomas hasn’t experienced during a stormy decade with the Cleveland Browns.
Amid the firings, the hirings, the draft busts, the regime changes, the mistakes, the quarterback conundrum, the losses and, oh yes, Johnny Football, Thomas, a once-in-a-generation left tackle, has personified class and cornerstone consistency while the franchise that selected him with the third overall pick in 2007 has wandered aimlessly as an NFL laughingstock.
The man has seen it all. Everything, except a 0-16 season.
And that’s staring Thomas in the facemask.
But as the Browns (0-12), first-year coach Hue Jackson and his staff mercifully reached their bye week just four losses from infamy and shame, Thomas believes things aren’t as bad in Cleveland as they may look.
“I do see some progress even though, obviously, no wins this year is disappointing,” said Thomas, the eighth player to be selected to the Pro Bowl in his first nine seasons. “But definitely the ship is headed in the right direction.”
The Titanic’s captain muttered the same thing before clipping the iceberg, but Thomas is convinced Cleveland will emerge from these dark days — the dimmest in the team’s 66-year-history, worse even than the 1999 expansion season — into a bright future.
It’s been another one of those years for the Browns, who have lost at least 10 games in eight of the past nine seasons.
It hasn’t helped that Cleveland’s roster, overhauled by a new front office that decided not to re-sign several free agent veterans in favor of stockpiling draft picks, has been shriveled further by key injuries.
Jackson was dealt a dreadful hand, but Thomas, who has never missed a snap as a pro and played on a damaged right knee this season, has been impressed by the way his sixth coach in 10 years has persevered.
“Hue has been exceptional,” Thomas said, noting Jackson’s ability to motivate, his football I.Q. and steadiness.
There are no signs Jackson’s job is in jeopardy. In fact, Jackson, who became emotional when describing the difficulty of this season following Sunday’s loss to the New York Giants, said he has assurances from owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam that he’s not in trouble.
The Haslams have already fired three coaches — Pat Shurmur, Rob Chudzinski and Mike Pettine — since taking over the team in 2012.
“I have trust in the people who hired me,” said Jackson, adding he asked for guarantees before taking the job in January.
“I’m not distracted by what my fate will be because I never would have taken this job if I thought it was going to be anything other than me being here and seeing this through.
“Being 0-12 is hard on anybody. That’s hard, period. I don’t like to lose, and I don’t like being in this situation, but I know we are going to fix it.
“How we’re going to fix it is together. We have to do it brick by brick and step by step. I know we are in the midst of doing that.”
While his players get away, Jackson planned to work through the break, determined to get a victory over the final four weeks. He’ll have starting quarterback Robert Griffin back after the bye — he’s been out since Week 1 — and RG3’s return could infuse some life into an offense that has produced just 39 points in the past four games.
Only five teams have started 0-13 since the 1970 merger, and the Browns are desperately trying to avoid moving into the 0-16 basement as roommates with the 2008 Detroit Lions.
To Jackson’s credit, the Browns are still playing hard despite being outmanned.
Thomas said that fight-to-the-finish mentality is due to a belief among the players that the extensive building project, though unfinished, will not include any more demolition.
“Some of the years past when you’re sitting in this situation with a poor record, the coach is imminently going to get fired, all the players on the team are going to get cut and traded and released and there’s a bomb that’s going to get dropped on the organization,” said Thomas, who has had just one winning season in Cleveland.
“The optimism and positivity and the effort you still see out there on a daily basis is because everybody here knows we’re working for something down the line in the future and it’s not going to get destroyed at the end of the season.”
Thomas has been fooled before. The 2016 season reminds him of 2013, when coach Rob Chudzinski was let go after just one year following the finale at Pittsburgh.
“I thought ‘No way are they going to fire him. That would be idiotic,’” he said. “I couldn’t believe it. But we did, and that’s the way it was, I guess. That was the most shocked I’ve even been.”
Three years later, the Browns, who will face Cincinnati, Buffalo and San Diego the next three weeks, will finish up on the road against the Steelers again. Only this time Thomas feels the end of another demoralizing season represents a beginning.
“There’s a lot still for this team to play for in that regard because we do know these coaches are going to be here,” he said. “A lot of these players are going to be here. So this is our opportunity to start building for next year.”
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