If Joe Thomas understood his niche he might already be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The fact that he did not has obscured the record of one of the greatest talent evaluators in pro football history.
Thomas was a failed general manager in both Baltimore and San Francisco but he was a builder of champions in his years as chief personnel evaluator for first the expansion Minnesota Vikings, then the expansion Miami Dolphins and finally the Colts of the post-Unitas Era.
In the first two cases Thomas turned ashes into champions, assembling two teams from scratch that became regular Super Bowl participants. In the third, he rebuilt a decaying team into a playoff contender only to be fired at its height.
In the case of the Vikings, Thomas took over personnel powers in their inaugural season and assembled a team that went from 3-11 in 1961 to 8-5-1 four years later. It would be a few more years before that Vikings’ team became a fixture in the Super Bowl but it was Thomas who built its foundation.
The only reason it took so long, many NFL insiders of that day believed, was that the mercurial Thomas bolted Minnesota for Miami and another expansion team in 1965 after losing a power struggle. It would not be the last time that happened.
The Dolphins were 3-11 in their 1966 inaugural season but by 1971 Thomas had acquired and drafted enough talent to build one of the great dynasties in football history. With Thomas supplying the talent to head coach Don Shula, the Dolphins became a 10-4 playoff team in just five years and in their sixth went 10-3-1 and swept to their first Super Bowl appearance, losing to Dallas 24-3.
Miami would win the next two Super Bowls and go 17-0 in 1972 with the team Thomas constructed but by then he was gone. Gone but not forgotten.
Years later, after Thomas died unexpectedly from a heart attack in 1983 at 61, then Dolphins’ owner Joe Robbie said, “Joe Thomas was the keenest judge of player talent I have ever encountered."
Even Shula, whose demand for full control of personnel led to Thomas resigning in 1972, only a month after the Dolphins first Super Bowl appearance, concedes, “He was a ‘Lone Ranger’ type of guy. He liked to do the scouting, relied on his own reports. He didn’t like it when we joined BLESTO (an early scouting combine). Wanted to do it himself. Obviously he was a good talent evaluator. He was responsible for a lot of the talent I had here.”
Thomas wasn’t out of work long. He negotiated the biggest “trade’’ in NFL history when he convinced a Midwest refrigerator magnate named Robert Irsay to buy the Los Angeles Rams for $19 million and then trade the franchise for Carroll Rosenbloom’s Baltimore Colts. That’s how Rosenbloom became the Rams owner and Thomas the Colts’ general manager.
There he rebuilt an aging team into another contender but he fired three head coaches in the process, including himself after he went 2-9 in 1974 after taking over for Howard Schnellenberger, whom Irsay fired.
Ham-handed and egotistical, Thomas ordered fading legend Johnny Unitas benched in favor of Marty Domres and then traded perhaps the greatest quarterback in pro football history to the San Diego Chargers after the Colts slipped to 5-9 in 1972, Baltimore’s first losing season in 16 years.
Soon after he unloaded John Mackey, Tom Matte, Bill Curry, Norm Bulaich, Jerry Logan and Billy Newsome. By 1976 he’d fired four coaches in five years but he’d also drafted Bert Jones, the quarterback who would lead the resurrection of the Colts.
No one could replace Unitas, of course, but Jones helped return the Colts to the playoffs in 1975 and 1976, Thomas’ drafting and trades having once again built a playoff team and AFC East division champion.
But Thomas by then had lost a power struggle over personnel with the fifth head coach he hired, Ted Marchibroda, and was fired on Jan. 21, 1977.
Thomas was not long out of work however. He landed in San Francisco with the new owner of the 49ers, Eddie DeBartolo, Jr., and what was the first thing he did? Fire popular head coach Monte Clark, who had just gone 8-6, at his introductory press conference because Clark had refused to hand over control of player personnel to Thomas. Said a club employee, "This is the sorriest day in 49er history."
As personnel director in Minnesota and Miami, Thomas chafed under the belief that too much credit for the success of those expansion teams had gone to the coaches and not enough to the guy who found the talent. Whatever the truth of that one thing was clear - if there were 100 guys on a field and only one had the talent to play pro football Joe Thomas would find him.
Thomas drafted Hall of Famers Fran Tarkenton. Carl Eller and traded for Jim Marshall in Minnesota. In Miami he drafted Bob Griese, Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Mercury Morris as well as Jake Scott and Dick Anderson (whom he found playing in Canada and drafted in the seventh round in 1970). Just as significantly it was Thomas, not Shula, who engineered the 1970 trade of Miami’s No. 1 pick for wide receiver Paul Warfield. That’s enough talent to build two Super Bowl teams, which is exactly what he did.
“Joe Thomas, in my mind, is one of the few scouts who didn’t need a computer, notes or anything to evaluate talent,’’ says Upton Bell, who himself ran the personnel department in Baltimore that produced two Super Bowl teams, including the Super Bowl V winner before he left to become at 33 the youngest general manager in the NFL when he left Baltimore for New England in 1971. “In any era, Joe Thomas would have been one of the top personnel men in the game.
“If he’d stayed a top scout he’d be a lock for the HOF in that contributor category but he became a GM and it didn’t suit him. A personnel man’s job is to evaluate players, make decisions on players and acquire NFL caliber talent. There were few better at that than Joe. To me, the GM is not the most important guy in the front office. It’s the personnel director. He provides the talent.’’
Few have done that better in more places than Joe Thomas. It’s a pity that he is remembered as the personification of the Peter Principle – the theory that people are promoted to their level of incompetence – rather than for what he was. A builder of champions.