Ten thousand, three hundred and sixty-three.
That’s the number of consecutive snaps offensive tackle Joe Thomas played for the Cleveland Browns without ever taking a play off.
That streak came to an end Sunday when Thomas left the team’s game against the Tennessee Titans with a torn triceps. The injury will end his season.
Thomas’ achievement is one of the most underrated accomplishments, not just in the NFL, but in all of sports.
Playing on the offensive line, one of the least-glorified positions that exists, where your job consists of getting poked in the eye, getting fingers in the nose, getting fingers stepped on and bent in unnatural ways and much worse — to never come out of the game for even a single play is astounding.
To do so for a team that hadn’t won a game all year and had not so much as sniffed the playoffs since his rookie year in 2007 (the team went 10-6 and lost out on the postseason due to a tiebreaker) makes what he did all the more impressive.
Players in the league check out of the game for a multitude of reasons, from small injuries to getting blood on their uniforms to shoes coming untied. Yet Joe Thomas never did for more than 10 full seasons. Instead, he plowed his way to a Pro Bowl selection every single year he’s been in the league. Through good games and bad, mostly bad (the Browns have gone 48-119 since Thomas joined the team), Thomas never yielded a down for 166 straight games.
Now, you measure that up against the 2,632 straight games that Cal Ripken played for Major League Baseball’s Baltimore Orioles. Ripken’s stature in sports culture vastly dwarfs that of Thomas, as does the number of his steak, which lasted for more than 16 seasons.
I don’t mean to take a thing away from Cal Ripken, whose effort was also nothing short of phenomenal to go out there each and every day.
However, Ripken could take innings off and still continue his record streak. In fact, his longest stretch of consecutive innings was 8,264. While still astonishing, that comes out to 918 games in a row without taking an inning off, or a little more than 5 1/2seasons. Thomas went almost 10 1/2 seasons. While both records are grueling testaments to the endurance and will of both men, I find Thomas’ mark much more impressive.
Maybe that’s just the offensive lineman in me. Though I never played above Class 1 high school football, I spent four years playing in the trenches myself. The worst I ever got was a small broken bone in my hand after getting stepped on in the bottom of a pile and getting my ankle taken out from under me by a dirty slide. The stories of the things that go on at the bottom of a football pileup, where linemen spend a great deal of time, only get worse the higher up you go.
The injury Thomas suffered Sunday is expected to keep him out at least six to nine months. He reportedly told Fox 8 Cleveland ahead of surgery to repair the torn muscle Tuesday that he is unsure if he will be back next season.
One thing is for certain though. In NFL history, only five players have made the Pro Bowl in each of their first five seasons, according to ESPN — Barry Sanders, Lawrence Taylor, Mel Renfro, Merlin Olsen and Joe Thomas. Each of the first four names on that list are already enshrined in the NFL Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
So, Joe, even if you never play another down in the NFL, you have undoubtedly earned your place among the all-time greats.