Nos. 95 and 94: Willie Roaf and Joe Thomas
If I asked you, “Can you tell me the difference between the way Peyton Manning and Lamar Jackson played quarterback?" I imagine you would laugh for a while. The two played nothing alike. The two ran nothing alike. The two threw nothing alike. The two led entirely different offenses. The list of differences is endless.
OK, now, if I asked: “Can you tell me the difference between the way Barry Sanders and Jerome Bettis ran the football?” again, you would probably laugh. Apples and oranges. Peanuts and Grape Nuts. Jennifer Lawrence and T.E. Lawrence. Those two were nothing alike on the field.
OK, so now, what if I asked: Can you tell me the differences between the way Willie Roaf and Joe Thomas played left tackle?
Maybe you could. Maybe you couldn’t. I guess it depends on how much you care about offensive line play. “People,” the great football writer Paul Zimmerman once wrote, “have never yet paid to see a great blocker.”
But here’s what I can tell you — the differences between Manning and Jackson? The differences between Sanders and Bettis? Those were NOTHING compared to the on-field differences between two of the best left tackles to ever play the game, Willie Roaf and Joe Thomas. They were both brilliant. They were absolutely nothing alike.
Willie Roaf’s mother wanted him to be a doctor. Or a lawyer. Or SOMETHING … and by SOMETHING, I of course mean “SOMETHING OTHER THAN A FOOTBALL PLAYER.” Andree Roaf was an academic titan. She was an honor student at Michigan State, then when Willie was five she went to law school, finished second in her class, became a partner at her law firm, and, in time, became the first African-American woman to ever serve on the Arkansas Supreme Court.
Academics were everything in the Roaf Family. Willie’s father, Cliff, was a valedictorian, a dentist and a member of the school board. His sister, Phoebe, was a Presidential Scholar, a graduate of Harvard, she earned a Masters’ degree from Princeton and eventually became an Episcopal Bishop for the Diocese of West Tennessee. His other sister, Dr. Mary Roaf, is a graduate of Georgetown, completed her doctoral at Temple, became a school teacher in the inner city, a college professor and a board member for Teach for America.
And then there was Willie Roaf, who would rather be playing football.
There was Willie Roaf, as gentle a soul as could be away from the field but who everybody started calling “Nasty” because of how he was ON the field.
Andree tried everything to spark Willie’s more academic side. She even had her grandfather’s scholarship to Yale framed and put on Willie’s wall to serve as inspiration. But the classroom just didn’t appeal to him the way it did to everyone else in the family. He got a football scholarship to Louisiana Tech, about three hours South of where he grew up in Pine Bluff. Andree dropped him off at college.
“Crying her eyes out because she was giving up her baby,” Louisiana Tech coach told Sports Illustrated’s Gary Smith.
“Believe me,” Andree said when she heard that, “if I’d been dropping him off at Harvard that day, I wouldn’t have been crying.”
She didn’t quite understand that Willie Roaf was a one-of-a-kind talent as an offensive lineman. In fact, she had a hard time believing it. “Is he really as great in football as everyone says?” she asked Smith. “It amazes me. He has no work ethic. Whenever I see him, he’s lying around the house eating pizza and watching videos.”
But he was that great. Even in college. I remember in 1992, when I was a columnist at The Augusta Chronicle, I went to see South Carolina play Louisiana Tech, and I remember the sports information director telling me that they had the best offensive lineman in America. That was interesting to me because the South Carolina sports information director had been telling us all year that a player named Ernest Dye was the best offensive lineman in America.
So I watched them both. I spent the entire game watching Roaf and Dye block; I never even paid any attention to the game itself. And while Dye was typically excellent, Roaf was utterly possessed.
After the game, Roaf would say that he played with particular fury because South Carolina linebacker had said, “If Willie Roaf is an All-American, then I’m a jet pilot.” And this might be a fair reason to get angry, except Dixon never said anything like it. “I didn’t know who he was until last week,” Dixon yelped. “And that was when my coach said he was the best tackle I would see all year.”
But the point is that Willie Roaf was an absolute absurdity. Dye was typically excellent. But Roaf? Every play he just … well, do you remember old Atari football?
In old Atari football, blockers would hit defensive players so hard that they would actually disappear. Offensive linemen would VAPORIZE defensive linemen. And that’s what Willie Roaf was doing. South Carolina ended up winning the game 14-13, but Roaf was just … well, he was the best player on the field by a Secretariat-at-the-Belmont margin. And if I hadn’t been paying specific attention, I never would have noticed.
The NFL, of course, has people whose entire jobs are to pay attention to such things, so Roaf was taken with the eighth pick in the 1993 draft — the first offensive lineman selected — and Dye was taken with the 18th pick. Dye played five years in the league before a car accident prematurely ended his career.
And Willie Roaf became legendary.
“Willie Roaf was the finest offensive lineman that maybe ever played the game,” his coach in Kansas City, Dick Vermeil, would say. “He was the most explosive big man … he’s 325 pounds and could run. He had a tenacious attitude, maybe the only offensive lineman I ever coached who could dominate another good player.”
These are the words. Tenacious. Nasty. Explosive. Willie Roaf was no technician out there. He aimed to destroy, to wipe defenders right off the Atari screen. There probably has never been a better run-blocking tackle. Once Willie Roaf got in motion, he was a runaway truck plowing over anything and everything in his path. He played for terrible New Orleans Saints teams where he was the team’s best player more or less every year. He was a tackle on the 1990s All-Decade team.
And then he went to Kansas City, where I got to watch him play every game, and let’s just say that even in his 30s, even after his body had worn down, he was every bit as awesome and mind-blowing as he had been when I trained my binoculars on him in college. In 2002, he and guard Will Shields powered an offense that was the highest-scoring in the NFL — and Roaf led running back Priest Holmes to an extraordinary season: 1,615 yards rushing in 13 1/2 games, 70 catches, a league-leading 2,287 yards from scrimmage, 24 touchdowns, incredible.
Then, the next year, Holmes set an NFL record with 27 rushing touchdowns. The next year, three Chiefs running backs — Holmes, Larry Johnson and Derrick Blaylock — ran for a combined 2,000 yards and scored an impossible-to-believe 31 rushing touchdowns. And in his last year, Larry Johnson ran for 1,750 yards and scored 20 touchdowns.
The Chiefs behind quarterback Trent Green could throw the ball too — they scored more points over those four seasons than any team in the NFL — but with Willie Roaf leading one of the best offensive lines ever put together, they had more rushing touchdowns than any team in NFL history. In fact, take a look at the highest rushing touchdown back-to-back seasons:
Most rushing touchdowns, back-to-back seasons:
2003-04 Chiefs: 63.
1948-49 49ers: 61 (14-game seasons; these were the 49ers with Joe “The Jet” Perry).
1962-63 Packers: 58 (Lombardi’s Power Sweep teams).
2002-2003 Chiefs: 58.
2004-2005 Chiefs: 57.
Those Chiefs teams? Willie Roaf was the driving force for all of them. He wasn’t the purest offensive lineman, wasn’t the most technically sound. That wasn’t his thing. He was just the one who mashed people. As one coach told me, “You wouldn’t give a Willie Roaf tape to high school coaches as a teaching tool for how to play offensive line. Some of the things he does out there, nobody else can do.”
Joe Thomas was too good to be true. I don’t know that there’s another way to say it. If you put every single admirable quality into one athlete, you would get Joe Thomas. There are a million examples of this, but the one I like to point to came on Sept. 17, 2017, when Joe Thomas played his 10,000th consecutive snap.
Nobody in NFL history had ever done that before and nobody has done it since and, I would guess, nobody will ever do it again. It’s a mind-boggling mathematical achievement, 10,000 consecutive snaps of getting smashed into by enormous defensive players who are as fast as freight trains (“Every game is like being in a car accident,” Thomas has said).
But here’s the thing: Joe Thomas did it in Cleveland, for the Browns, when that team was a mass of mayhem and self-destruction. There are no words to describe the sheer awesomeness of an offensive lineman playing 10,000 straight snaps for that team. Thomas’ streak was like Cal Ripken Jr.’s … if Ripken had been forced to play half his games on molten lava.
Anyway, Thomas passed 10,000 snaps in a game (and a loss, obviously) in Baltimore. The play was a nine-yard run for Isaiah Crowell, one of eight feature backs Thomas had the fortune of blocking for. And at the end of the play, nobody stopped the game to give Thomas a game ball or a standing ovation. Of course they didn’t stop the game — it was in Baltimore.
Still, it was jarring to see Thomas’ incredible achievement just go by like it didn’t mean anything. Thomas deserved that standing ovation. Heck, he deserved the Nobel Peace Prize. And, undoubtedly, he would have gotten some of that love had the game been in Cleveland, so that was the natural question: Was he sad that he set this numerical monument on the road?
Here’s what he said about that: “Having it in Cleveland I think would have been cool probably for the fans. But I really am happy to just act like it wasn’t even there.”
I really am happy to just act like it wasn’t even there.
That was Joe Thomas.
He was, in my view, the purest pass blocker in the history of the NFL. If Willie Roaf was violence and power and grace, Joe Thomas was art and science and technique. You WOULD send his tapes to all the high school football coaches in America; it would be the only instructional video they would ever need.
There are numbers that show Thomas’ excellence — 10 Pro Bowls in 10 full seasons, first-team All-Pro six times, etc. According to Pro Football Focus, Thomas played in 167 games and did not allow a sack in 130 of them. It’s hard to put that in perspective, but one way is to point out that those 130 sackless games were 13 more than any other offensive lineman over that same stretch.
The trouble with those numbers, though, is the same thing that makes it hard to fully comprehend just how awesome an achievement those 10,000 snaps in a row: They just don’t capture that turmoil and confusion and bedlam that surrounded him at all times.
Joe Thomas spent his career protecting the blind spot of chaos.
You can’t easily sum up just how dysfunctional the Browns were over his career. It’s one thing to say that the Browns went 48-128 over his career and never made the playoffs. But what made them special was how many different ways they stunk over those years.
Playing left tackle and protecting the quarterback on the left side is plenty hard even when that quarterback has a quick release and a keen sense of the game and you have developed a chemistry. Run and pass blocking is plenty hard even when you’re playing in a sound offensive system where everyone is on the same page and adjustments can be made easily and in real-time.
Joe Thomas had NONE of that. None of it.
He played under eight different offensive coordinators — Rob Chudzinski, Brian Daboll, Brad Childress, Norv Turner, Kyle Shanahan, John DeFlippo, plus two head coaches who doubled as offensive coordinator, Pat Shurmur and Hue Jackson. The Browns were basically that guy from Memento, starting over every year like nothing before had even happened. Who could have blamed Joe Thomas if he had tattooed the new playbook on himself every year? The Browns ran more schemes than the Oceans 11 crew.
And even more to the point, he blocked for, get this, TWENTY different starting quarterbacks. I’ll list them off for you in alphabetical order just so you can get the full and gory picture, and as you go over the list ask yourself: How in the world could Joe Thomas have known where his quarterback would be on any given play? How could he pass block so brilliantly when he barely even knew what his quarterback looked like.
Here are the Joe Thomas 20: Derek Anderson; Jason Campbell; Austin Davis; Jake Delhomme; Ken Dorsey; Charlie Frye; Bruce Gradkowski; Robert Griffin III; Kevin Hogan; Brian Hoyer; Cody Kessler; DeShone Kizer; Thaddeus Lewis; Johnny Manziel; Josh McCown; Colt McCoy; Brady Quinn; Connor Shaw; Seneca Wallace; Brandon Weeden.
You’re probably not seeing any Hall of Famers on that list.
Let’s go back to that consecutive snap streak — it ended up at an astonishing 10,363. Now think about the fact that many of those snaps came in the third and fourth quarter of games that were already lost. You know the coaches wanted to take Thomas out of the game and make sure he didn’t get hurt.
“It’s like, ‘OK, why don’t they take Joe out?’” Joe’s father Eric told the New York Post’s Steve Serby. “I never understood what was going on. And now I know it was Joe saying, ‘I”m not coming out.’”
Repeat: He was not coming out.
The score could be 49-0. He was not coming out. The Browns could be feuding on the sidelines. He was not coming out. His body could be breaking. He was not coming out.
I love seeing interviews with Eric and Joe’s mother, Sally. They are so wonderfully Wisconsin. You hear them talk, and you can see how Joe Thomas became the player and person he became. They talk about how Joe was offered “a boatload” of money, how he has the “constitution of a horse,” how he has a “real stick-to-it-iveness.”
No, Joe Thomas didn’t become a down-to-earth superhero by mistake. In 39 years, Eric never missed a single day of work as a banker. “They may find out they can do without you if you miss a day,” Eric says about that.
“Both him and my mom instilled in me that you just get up and go to work and you don’t make a big deal about it,” Joe said.
He never did make a big deal about it. His preparation was intense; he watched video like he was the team’s quarterback (which, in many ways, he was). He made it his business to know what every other person on the offense was doing on every play. He worked with all the other linemen to make their game better; future All-Pro Mitchell Schwartz will talk forever about the impact Joe Thomas had on his life and career.
And what a career, from start to finish. Thomas was an extraordinary high school athlete who played pretty much every position on the football field — Thomas would likely have been an All-Pro tight end if he had not grown so large — and he set the school records in the shot put and discus. He actually had some Olympic aspirations, which turned off some NFL scouts at first, but they got turned back on after he won the Outland Trophy and became, in the words of Barry Alvarez, the best offensive lineman ever to play at Wisconsin. The Browns took him with the third pick in the 2007 draft.
And then, in his first year in the NFL, he didn’t allow a single sack.
On and on it went from there. While Willie Roaf was a run-blocking masher who obliterated defenders, Joe Thomas simply moved them out of the way. While Willie Roaf held off pass rushers through determination and force, Thomas was a professor of pass-blocking with perfect craftsmanship that he developed over countless hours of practice.
And no matter how bad the Browns got, how screwy their decisions, how pointless it all seemed, Joe Thomas was always there, and he constantly triumphed and he did it all silently, without even the slightest bobble. The guy just went out there in Cleveland winters, in the mud and the snow, in lost season after lost season, and blocked his man, protected his quarterback, got the job done.