For much of his distinguished NFL career, left tackle Joe Thomas was about the only link between the Cleveland Browns and respectability, between the Browns and honest-to-goodness professionalism, between the Browns and on-field greatness.

Now the Browns are showing signs that maybe, just maybe, they might be getting there. They might be about to turn things around under the steady stewardship of their new general manager, John Dorsey.

But the one guy who deserved most of all to be part of it couldn’t last long enough as a player to have a firsthand glimpse of it. Thomas announced Wednesday that he is retiring from the NFL after 11 seasons and 10 Pro Bowl selections.

“This was an extremely difficult decision, but the right one for me and my family,” Thomas said in a written statement posted on the team’s website. “Playing in the NFL has taken a toll on my body and I can no longer physically compete at the level I need to.”

The next stop for Thomas as a player will be Canton, Ohio. He is almost certain to be first-ballot choice for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In the meantime, he is likely to become better known nationally as a broadcaster than he was as a player toiling for bad teams in Cleveland, if he indeed chooses to take that career path. He is candid and insightful. He might not be quite as coveted as Tony Romo or Peyton Manning are by the TV networks, but he might turn out to be every bit as good on air.

“Joe has been a pillar of our organization and one of the greatest to put on a Cleveland Browns uniform,” Jimmy and Dee Haslam, the owners of the Browns, said in a written statement. “We want to thank him for everything he has done for the Browns and the Northeast Ohio community. We should all strive for the standard Joe has set to always be available, put the team above yourself and always give maximum effort. One of the first ways we will acknowledge and honor his accomplishments is to enshrine the number 10,363 to recognize his consecutive snaps streak in the team’s Ring of Honor at a home game this season. It also won’t be long before he takes his rightful place down the road in Canton at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.”

Thomas’s remarkable consecutive-snaps streak ended last season when he suffered a torn triceps. That, as it turned out, ended his NFL career.

The Browns were winless in Thomas’s final season and had a record of 1-31 over his last two seasons. He may be remembered as the greatest quarterback protector in NFL history who never had a real quarterback to protect.

Dorsey now must put a new anchor to the Browns’ offensive line in place. Just add it to the lengthy list of roster-construction tasks that must be completed to go from 0-16 to even mediocre status.

The new GM made a flurry of trades last week for quarterback Tyrod Taylor, wide receiver Jarvis Landry and defensive back Damarious Randall. The Browns have lined up a series of free agent deals for a group of newcomers that will include running back Carlos Hyde and offensive tackle Donald Stephenson. They still have plenty of salary cap space and a handsome collection of picks in the NFL draft, including the first and fourth overall selections.

Their roster already is much improved. There is, for a change, reason to believe that they will get there, not necessarily next season but if not then, perhaps not too long after that. Hope seems justified. That is extremely un-Browns-like.

It’s just too bad that Thomas will not be there to experience it for himself and see it firsthand.

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