Is Joe Thomas a Darkhorse Candidate to Replace Jon Gruden on Monday Night Football?

Is Joe Thomas a Darkhorse Candidate to Replace Jon Gruden on Monday Night Football?

NFL

Is Joe Thomas a Darkhorse Candidate to Replace Jon Gruden on Monday Night Football?

Joe Thomas is in Bristol this week appearing on several programs, and there are those that believe it is a meet-and-greet that allows Thomas to audition for future employment with ESPN after he retires. That would not be a surprise–as ESPN often does this kind of thing with athletes they are looking to hire. Thomas getting the “car wash” treatment ahead of the Super Bowl is no accident.

When the Jon Gruden-to-the-NFL rumors began swirling, we ran our list of 10 potential replacements, and included the future Hall of Famer among them, even though he is still a member of the Cleveland Browns.

Here’s what we said:

The Browns just gave him a raise, and he hasn’t indicated his retirement is imminent. But, whenever it happens, he is a slam dunk to be phenomenal in broadcasting. Could ESPN entice him to move up his timetable rather than return to the Browns if a “once-a-decade” top job came open?

One of the biggest factors, though (in addition to whether ESPN would have interest) was Thomas still playing. ESPN having Thomas appear today on SportsCenter and NFL Live (and other shows, no doubt, this week) is some indication of interest, though not automatically for a position as lofty as the Monday Night booth, or as quickly as this offseason. But here’s what Thomas had to say when asked about his football future by David Lloyd:

Lloyd: “Let’s get to you, you had the torn triceps tendon this year. There are questions whether you are going to return or not. Where are you in that process?”

Thomas: “I’m still going through the process, still spending time with my family, my friends. Talking about the pros and the cons and talking about whether my body can withstand another NFL season.”

Lloyd: “What do you look for to try to figure that out?”

Thomas: “I wish there was a simple answer-‘hey, this is the thing I’m looking for?’ But really, I’m trying to feel out my body, see where I am as I go through my rehab process. See where I am as I start my workouts. And if I can survive that NFL season.”

Lloyd: “What’s the timetable? When do you have to make that decision?”

Thomas: “Well, I’m trying to make it as quick as I can. This is one of those things where you can’t really rush it, because it’s permanent. I’m not a guy that’s going to say ‘I’m going to retire, or I’m coming back’ and change my mind. I want to make sure I’m ready for the finality of that retirement-or-not-retirement decision.”

One factor that could impact that decision is moving to a prime post-playing-career gig. If Thomas wanted to play five more years and be this generation’s Bruce Matthews, that would be one thing. But if he’s already at least thinking of moving on, this could be the impetus to make it final.

We saw CBS make the move of going straight to Tony Romo to replace Phil Simms in the #1 booth this season. Thomas isn’t a star quarterback, who are normally the ones that tend to get the earliest opportunities to move into the booth, so there’s some question as to whether he would be the exception. I met Thomas four years ago at a community event with several pro bowlers at Kaneohe, Oahu, prior to the Pro Bowl. I can say that he is funny and engaging, and would have been on my short list of players likely to ascend to the broadcast booth, among the players I met.

While rare, top linemen like Merlin Olsen and Dan Dierdorf did get the opportunities to broadcast and became lovable and key figures for their networks. Olsen moved directly into the NBC booth in one of the top two pairings and was calling the Super Bowl by his second year with the network. Dierdorf worked Cardinals games for a year after his retirement, then moved to CBS for two years (behind the Madden/Summerall team) before joining the Monday Night booth in 1987. Thomas has that kind of potential based on both his career accomplishments and personal attributes.

It will be interesting to see how Thomas is used this week at ESPN, and who he is paired with to test chemistry. We all know that Peyton Manning would be the dream replacement for ESPN, but that’s a doubtful get. Richard Deitsch talked to ESPN senior vice president of event and studio production Stephanie Druley, who confirmed that Matt Hasselbeck is in consideration for the Monday Night analyst position.

But I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of a three-person booth, as everything is on the table for ESPN (and Gruden’s very large salary is off the books). It has to be attractive to ESPN to find their own guy that could move directly into the booth and be a staple. It also has to be attractive to get someone who is not going to use each offseason to engage in rumors of returning to coaching. (And as an aside, if ESPN wanted to go with a three-person booth they could bring in someone like Thomas without putting the full weight on him, and have a quarterback like Hasselbeck who could continue with the QB Camps that Gruden had made popular leading into the draft.)

Thomas is trying out now, something he hasn’t had to do for awhile as the one constant in Cleveland over the last decade. How he does may have a big impact at ESPN. I wouldn’t rule him out as a dark horse candidate to be in the Monday Night Football booth after hearing his comments leaving the door open to retirement today.

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