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BEREA — Even in flip-flops, Joe Thomas possesses plenty to offer the Browns on the football field.
The footwear didn't stop Browns offensive line coach Bill Callahan early this week from summoning Thomas, a former 10-time Pro Bowl left tackle who spent his entire NFL career with Cleveland until he retired after the 2017 season.
"It’s so special to me to be welcomed back," Thomas told the Beacon Journal on Friday.
Thomas took the field late in Monday's practice at Callahan's request to demonstrate vertical pass-set techniques for the offensive linemen, a nugget he offered on “Cleveland Browns Daily.” A future member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Thomas spent the week at CrossCountry Mortgage Campus to work on the team's in-house radio show and offer guidance to players. He attended some of the offensive line's meetings.
“You’d have to be crazy not to say Joe wasn’t the best at tackle, especially pass pro,” Pro Bowl right guard Wyatt Teller said. “He had to play a lot of games where we were passing 60, 70, 80% of the game because the Cleveland Browns were down. I wasn’t here yet, but the Cleveland Browns had to pass a lot. To do what he was doing at his level, you’d have to be crazy to not let him in and coach your players.
“Obviously, the techniques are a little different. Joe is an absolute unicorn. You see his set and say, ‘Oh, anybody could do that.' But, no, he’s special. His attention to detail, we’re talking about his preparation, so much other stuff that comes with football other than setting back, getting in his little stance and all that stuff.”
In recent years, Thomas has mentored several Browns players, including starting left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. and backup swing tackle James Hudson III, who had a lunchtime film session with his idol Friday. However, COVID-19 protocols prevented Thomas from being able to visit the Browns and give the players hands-on instruction during Kevin Stefanski's first two seasons (2020 and 2021) as the franchise's coach.
“Joe is always welcome here,” Stefanski said. “I've told him that. He can come every day if he wants. We'll set up a locker for him. He's somebody who's done it at such a high level for such a long time, been through the ups and downs of an NFL season, so I just think he has a lot to offer our guys. So as much as Joe is willing, we're always willing to take him here at Berea.”
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Told about Stefanski's comment, Thomas revealed he recently explained to his wife, Annie, it felt "really good" to be embraced by the Browns this week.
"I didn’t know really how much access I was going to be allowed after retiring," Thomas said. "Then with the COVID, two years, nobody was around. I’m not a coach. I’m not a player anymore. Are they going to let me hang around and throw my two cents in? It really felt special that they were as inviting and welcoming as they have been.
"You never know how welcome you will be because you aren’t on the team anymore. It’s totally within their right to say, ‘Hey, we love you, but this this is our business, and we’d like to keep things close.’"
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“He’s got all the techniques,” Conklin added. “He has a very good way of explaining it, too.
“It’s awesome to have a legend right here that is willing to take his time out of his day to come out and show us a few tips here and there. We try to soak that stuff in.”
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Thomas, however, knows the time commitment required of high-level coaches. It's not appealing to the father of three children, especially not after he lived next door to former Browns coach Rob Chudzinski in 2013 and realized "Chud" only got quality time with his family on Friday evenings and on car rides after home games during the season.
"I love teaching. I love coaching. It’s always been a huge passion," Thomas said. "It was one of the most enjoyable parts of the last few years of my career when I wasn’t practicing [due to wear and tear on my body]. I could just coach, work with the young guys.
"But if you want to be a coach in college or the NFL, you have to basically say, ‘All the things that I love in life, I’m just going to give up on. Family, friends, hunting, fishing, going to nice dinners — you can’t do any of that stuff, and I kind of like that stuff."
Still, Thomas, who remains close friends with Browns four-time Pro Bowl left guard Joel Bitonio, has enough wisdom to benefit all of the offensive linemen, not just the tackles.
“He had this note card system [during his career], which was mind-boggling,” Teller said. “The smallest little details he would focus on and he would write it down. I think at one point he had every single game he ever played in almost down to the snaps of guys that he played and second-team defensive ends that turned into being starters down the road. And he would know exactly what they were working on the year before. His attention to details, his tenacity, his intent — he's a stud.”
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The Browns have what could be a stellar offensive line, but there are question marks. Teller and Bitonio form an elite guard tandem. Nick Harris is positioned to start at center after the team released JC Tretter in a cost-saving move in March. Conklin is attempting to come back from a season-ending torn patellar tendon in his right knee, and Wills is hoping to bounce back from a rough 2021 in which he was plagued by ankle injuries.
"I’m definitely seeing good improvement from him," Thomas said of Wills. "Like with James [Hudson], you see how good he can be. Now it’s just a matter of being that on every play.
"I’ve been really impressed with [Hudson's] progress, especially as a right tackle. He’s really made big strides over where he was last year. Now it’s just for him about consistency."
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Thomas studied the top-rated offensive tackles in the 2020 draft class and was thrilled when the Browns selected Wills 10th overall out of the University of Alabama.
“I think [Wills] working with Joe, working hard this offseason, is only going to help him,” Teller said. “He’s got it. He’s understanding that. He’s putting his best foot forward, and I’m thankful for that.”
Meanwhile, Thomas is putting his best foot forward as a resource for the Browns, even when it's in a flip-flop.
Beacon Journal sports columnist Marla Ridenour contributed to this report.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. On Twitter: @ByNateUlrich..
This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Browns legend Joe Thomas helping Cleveland's offensive line