It should go without saying that yesterday’s announcement that Joe Thomas is retiring is a huge blow for the Cleveland Browns, which has spent the past two season rebuilding its offensive line and which now has something of a question mark at the left tackle spot. Left tackle was the only sure thing that they had on the entire roster over the course of the past 11 years.
Thomas’ exiting the game wasn’t just a blow for the Browns, though, but really for the entire league, as he is truly one of the greats at his position to ever play. There are only a handful of players who have achieved what he has, including making the Pro Bowl in each of his first 10 seasons, and he is the only player ever to play 10,000 consecutive snaps. Only a freak injury that also ended his career snapped that streak.
And the whole thing really just got me to thinking how remarkable it is that the Pittsburgh Steelers have had to be the victims of three of the greatest left tackles in the history of the game in a nearly unbroken line from 1980 through the 2017 season.
1980 was the year that the Cincinnati Bengals used a first-round draft pick on Anthony Munoz, who played 13 seasons for them at left tackle. He earned 11 trips to the Pro Bowl during that time and was named an All-Pro nine times, earning enshrinement into the Hall of Fame five years after he retired, his career cut short due to a knee injury he struggled with in 1992.
It would be just a three-year layover before Jonathan Ogden would enter the AFC Central (later the AFC North) as the Baltimore Ravens’ first-ever draft pick in 1996. During a 12-year career, Ogden was named to the Pro Bowl 11 times with nine nods as an All-Pro, including four as first-team. He retired in 2008 and was enshrined five years later.
The final year that Ogden played is also the first year that Thomas played, so from 1980 through 2017, excepting a short respite from 1993 through 1995, the Steelers have had to contend with an elite, all-time great left tackle twice a year from one of their divisional opponents.
While Pittsburgh has had some good, even very good, left tackles over the years, none could compare to the likes of Munoz, Ogden, and Thomas. They have had some of the greatest interior linemen of all time—the likes of Mike Webster, Dermontti Dawson, and Alan Faneca—there are really no comparable tackles.
There was Frank Varrichone of the late 1950s, who was a very good player of his era, recently passing away in January. John Kolb, Larry Brown, Tunch Ilkin, and Marvel Smith are also names that deserve a mention, perhaps even Max Starks.
Nobody would mistake them for a first-ballot Hall of Famer, however. It’s somewhat remarkable that the Steelers had a nearly unbroken period of almost four decades of dealing with the best tackles in the game, and at least with that aspect in mind I find the silver lining of Thomas’ retirement.