When Browns defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil and his assistant coaches watched film from Cleveland's final game of the season against the Ravens, there was a little more intrigue than usual.
At the beginning of the season, O'Neil implemented a unique rewards system. Similar to how Ohio State gives "Buckeye" helmet stickers for the players, O'Neil contrived an idea with dog collars and dog bones.
Every time a Browns defender made a "Play Like a Brown" play, he would be rewarded a dog bone tag to their collar. We detailed the competition amongst the players is this article.
When it was all said and done, Donte Whitner earned the most dog bones on his collar to win the inaugural Play Like a Brown award.
Some Browns fans might be confused on how it wasn't Paul Kruger, who boasted 11 sacks, or Joe Haden, whom the coaching staff lauded as the best cornerback in the NFL.
But Playing Like a Brown is all of the little things that encompass winning. It's being passionate, relentless, tough and accountable.
"Donte excelled at critical plays on third down, knocking the crap out of a wide receiver, or a big hit early on that sets the tempo of the game," O'Neil said. "Even bigger with him was all the communication pre-snap that would allow somebody else on defense to make a big play. Donte could sense what the other offenses were doing."
O'Neil is working with equipment manager Brad Mellon to present Whitner with either a humongous dog bone trophy or some type of wrestling championship-style belt. Linebacker Craig Robertson and defensive lineman Desmond Bryant joined Kruger and Haden to round out the top five of the competition.
Overall, O'Neil was pleased with how the entire defense bought into this Play Like a Brown concept and it will continue to be a treasured tradition inside the walls of the Berea facility. Players would stare at a standings sheet on a bulletin board in the hallway by the practice field and banter about how they could get more dog tags.
"It became a competitive thing within the locker room," O'Neil said. "We saw the results on the field with how guys played."
Whitner was thrilled with receiving the award even though he contended it was Buster Skrine who "Played Like a Brown" the most during the season. The 29-year-old's first season in Cleveland didn't end up how he wanted it, but Whitner explained the Browns are further along than outside experts had predicted.
"We didn't meet our expectations because we didn't make the playoffs," Whitner said. "But if you understand where we started as, being in our first year as players together, first-year coaching staff, first-year general manager – all the way down – you understand that having an opportunity to go 8-8 was a huge accomplishment around here. Especially since everyone outside of this building didn't even expect us to win two or three games. It gives us something to build on going into next year.
"Next year, we can come out and understand the system, understand each other and enable ourselves to win a few more games."
And Whitner's fellow defenders will have an extra incentive to thwart that Play Like a Brown championship belt from his locker.