BALTIMORE -- If you are looking for proof into why Jimmy Haslam gave Mike Pettine and Ray Farmer a ringing endorsement, look no further than the effort displayed at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday in Baltimore.
Even in a 20-10 loss, the Browns showed a principle reason for why Pettine's first year should be considered a step in the right direction: They didn't give up.
Andrew Hawkins barely practiced all week because of a thumb injury, and yet he played. Joe Haden could've gone back to the team hotel to rest with a nasty case of the flu, but he laid it on the line. Karlos Dansby could've shut down his season after an MCL injury, but even after the Browns were mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, he returned to the field last week against Carolina.
Because of Farmer's and Pettine's vision together, the larger framework and foundation of the Browns is being molded, players said.
"We have a great core of guys," Hawkins said. "It's something to build on."
The quote from Hawkins was short, but impactful. And without listing everyone that played a part in the Browns' improvement, Pettine reiterated this roster has talent, and even more heart.
"We have guys that we should be celebrating," Pettine said." Jim Leonhard playing his last game, Craig Robertson, Marlon Moore, Joe Thomas, Joel Bitonio, the guys that do it the right way. The [Chris] Kirksey's, the [Joe] Haden's, the [Donte] Whitner's and the [Karlos] Dansby's. There were guys that didn't need to go out there and play. They could have shut it down and didn't."
Perhaps nobody's voice has been as consistently strong as Donte Whitner's since he arrived in March. The Cleveland native knows how desperately the city wants to put a winning product on the field. With passion ringing in his every syllable, he cares as much as a season ticket holder in the Dawg Pound.
Whitner's seen the highs and the lows of the NFL. He saw a losing culture in Buffalo with the Bills and he went to NFC Championship games and a Super Bowl as a Pro Bowl safety for the San Francisco 49ers.
With a quick scan, Whitner can sense the pulse of a locker room. And he's never one to temper any of his commentary.
"It's very frustrating, but progress was made," Whitner said of the Browns' 7-9 record. "Last year, I think they won four games. I think we tried to double that, and we had an opportunity to do that in this game, so I think a lot of progress has been made. People didn't give us a chance to win one or two games when we started this season. Here we lost five in a row, and if we just win two of those, we might have had a chance to win the playoffs, but we didn't. We understand that.
"We are going to take a break here, then come back and hold everybody accountable."
Like Hawkins' comment on the core group being intact, Whitner's quote about accountability wasn't long, but it was heavy.
The safety later said that "distractions equaled losses." Whitner is among the Browns' veterans who can identify problems, communicate issues to coaches and then spend the offseason perfecting chemistry, an absolute must in pro football.
Right alongside Whitner's prognosis of the team comes Joe Thomas' opinion. The now eight-time Pro Bowler has been one of Pettine's biggest supporters since he got to know his head coach in the spring. While Thomas has been outspoken in saying the Browns need stability, his belief in Pettine stretches much further than that philosophy – and it carries weight because of Thomas' experience and position as one of the team's top leaders.
"Guys respect his leadership style," Thomas said. "We had a lot of reasons why we could've just laid down today, but I thought we did a great job going out and fighting really hard. We didn't make enough plays to win but I think it says a lot about the character of the men and the coaching and leadership coach Pettine has."
The one player who knows Pettine the best said his peace in what happened to be his final NFL game. With a gleam in his eye, Jim Leonhard vowed his favorite football coach …
"Mike Pettine is the right coach to lead this team," the 10-year veteran said. "Early on, we really turned things around, but none of us wanted the season to end like this. Nobody is more upset about this than he is. This is the guy that will make this program get better. We haven't accomplished anything yet, but I know the future is bright."
A 7-9 record antagonizes Browns players and coaches who want to make January football a permanent fixture in Cleveland. But it's the same players who also view this season as a springboard.
"We've overcome a lot of difficulty," linebacker Paul Kruger said. "We showed ourselves that we have to be a consistent team each week or else you're going to have an average record. That's what we're working on, to become a great team, and that takes time and a lot of effort from a lot of individuals. That's where we are headed."