Browns tackle Thomas again a pillar amid ruins of season

BEREA, Ohio (AP) Amid the rubble of another demoralizing, soul-crushing season in Cleveland, Joe Thomas endures.

The towering tackle.

Despite the Browns' 0-12 record, despite a knee injury that keeps him from practicing, and despite not knowing which quarterback he'll be playing in with on a week-to-week basis, Thomas has continued his remarkable streak of not missing a start (156 and counting) or snap (9,864 and counting) in his career.

Beyond that, he's a civic treasure, which is why for the third time in the past 10 years, Thomas is the team's nominee for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award, given for playing excellence and community service.

''It's really special,'' Thomas said Wednesday.

And really deserved.

For Browns coach Hue Jackson, there has been one reward in a painful, winless season: getting to know Joe Thomas.

''If there's been a silver lining in all this,'' Jackson said, ''it's the time and conversations that I've been around him. Because he's taught me a lot, what being a pro truly is.''

Thomas has been the standard for excellence since his arrival as a first-round pick in 2007. But with the Browns in the midst of another rebuilding project, the 32-year-old will continue to be mentioned in trade rumors. He was nearly dealt to Denver before the 2015 deadline, and his name will likely pop up again both before and during next year's draft.

Not if Jackson has any say.

''That is not happening. Or I am going with him,'' Jackson said. ''I guarantee you that. I am going with him. No, Joe Thomas means too much to this organization and to this football team.''

Thomas, who has racked up nine straight Pro Bowl invitations - the first offensive lineman in history to do so - and has been voted to the AP's All-Pro team eight times, including six first-team honors, laughed when told about Jackson's promise.

''Oh, that's nice of him,'' Thomas said. ''Where we going, the Bahamas? I'm in.''

Thomas has adopted Cleveland as his home. He's raising his family here, and it's where he wants to spent the rest of his career, however long that may be.

The 6-foot-6, 312-pounder has no intention of stopping, and won't consider leaving the game until he knows it's time.

''It really doesn't change for me,'' said the father of three. ''I want to play as long as the Browns want me, as long as I'm healthy enough to play and as long as I still love it. I know as of right now all those things are still there and I still love this game even more than I did when I was a rookie.

''I think that's going to be kind of the checklist whenever the time comes, but right now I don't see anything changing.''

As Jackson attempts to change the culture around the Browns, Thomas represents the ideal player: durable, selfless and consistent. He epitomizes class on and off the field, serving as a role model to younger players.

Wide receiver Andrew Hawkins has spent three seasons with Thomas and has grown to appreciate him.

''It's an honor to play with him, one of the best left tackles ever to play the game,'' he said. ''He's everything you want in a first-round pick. When you are making those selections, that's the kind of career, that's the kind of attitude, the kind of work ethic, the kind of perseverance that you're getting. If you get one of those guys you're lucky.

''I've seen him fight through injuries. He doesn't complain. He doesn't gripe. He doesn't take plays off. Hue always says football players should display courage at all times and Joe is the definition of that.''

And yet the awards and admiration can't mask a sad truth for Thomas. Since going 10-6 his rookie season, the Browns are 37-103, a record almost too startling to believe.

Jackson has made it his mission to change that.

''I want us to do right by him,'' he said. ''Right by that is, let's go get this man some wins. He deserves that. He deserves to be on a winning football team and have a chance to chase playoffs and championships. Joe Thomas means a lot to me personally and a lot to this organization and this team and this city.''

NOTES: While it appears QB Robert Griffin III will start on Sunday against Cincinnati, Jackson said he has not made any decisions. RG3 hasn't played since breaking a bone in his left shoulder on Sept. 11. ''Trust me, he wants to be out there,'' Jackson said. ''I am just not ready to nail that down yet for our football team.'' ... Rookie D Derrick Kindred broke an ankle during the bye week. Jackson did not reveal how he was injured, but added ''he did not do anything out of sequence that is going to cause us to feel different about him.''

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