There was some extra juice to the Browns' OTA on Thursday. Joel Bitonio noticed it and immediately understood why.
Before the practice started, Mike Pettine revealed to the team it wouldn't go through a traditional OTA on Friday. Instead, the Browns coach told the players to prepare for a morning full of paintball to officially close out the OTA portion of Cleveland's offseason workout program.
"I think they were a little unsure because a lot of guys hadn't paintballed before, but they were excited," said Bitonio, Cleveland's second-year left guard. "Anytime a coach throws you a bone like that and says we're going to have fun as a team, it helps with morale of the team."
This was a new wrinkle from Pettine in his second year as the Browns' coach, but it wasn't the first off-field team bonding exercise he's implemented. After a training camp practice last year, the players went as a team to the movies.
With a number of new faces, both young and old, dotting the 90-man roster, Friday's excursion proved to be another important step toward building the intangible unity that holds strong on and off the field.
"I think it helps the team in a couple of senses," Bitonio said. "The teamwork aspect of it, I think we're kind of working together in atmospheres we haven't been a part of. That kind of helps you put things in perspective. If you can do it out here, maybe we can do it on the football field a little better. Another thing is it kind of shows the team if you work hard and are dedicated, the coach is going to give you some time and throw you a bone and help you out."
The teams were a mix of players, support staff members and coaches and they transcended the typical groupings that work together on a daily basis. Bitonio said his team included two familiar faces in fellow offensive linemen Mitchell Schwartz and Joe Thomas, but also included defensive lineman Ishmaa'ily Kitchen, running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery, assistant offensive line coach George DeLeone and a mix of other linebackers and defensive backs. To the surprise of few, Thomas emerged as the team's leader, Bitonio said.
There was just no beating Pettine's team, which was "really loaded" with players such as defensive lineman Billy Winn and offensive lineman Ryan Seymour, who had sizeable paintball experience.
"They kind of really didn't tell you about it so you kind of get out there and learn to cope with your teammates," Bitonio said. "We weren't the greatest team. I was kind of a moving target out there but it was fun."
Establishing a positive culture within the team has been one of Pettine's top goals since he arrived in Berea last year, and the progress has been noticeable. It goes far deeper than one day of paintball, too.
"We're in Year 2 of the Pettine regime and I think people are buying into understanding what it takes," Bitonio said. "We won seven games, which is a big step for the Browns, but it's not where we want to be. I think people understand if we do the right things around here, we can turn things around and win some football games."