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'It's about the team. It's always been about the team.'
In his own words, Joel Bitonio takes fans through the last few days and explains why he believes the Browns are ready for the challenge they face in the playoffs
By Joel Bitonio Jan 09, 2021
Photographs By Matt Starkey

The longest-tenured member of the Browns is crushed he won't be on the field Sunday but is confident the team can rise to the moment in Pittsburgh

Last Sunday was my best moment as a Cleveland Brown.

I was upset because I jumped offsides a couple times in the game and they were dumb penalties I shouldn't have made. But after the game when I was sitting in my car, I was like, "Man, we're at 11 wins. This is pretty special. We got Cleveland to the playoffs," and I was excited for our next opportunity. We got to play the Steelers again. How awesome is that?

But my happiness and excitement went beyond thinking about this year's playoffs. It was more about how I think we've created a culture here. I don't think it's a one-off thing where this team won 11 games and then will drop back to "normal Cleveland." We're building a special culture and it starts with the standard that Coach Stefanski and Andrew Berry have held everybody to.

The first time I talked to Coach Stefanski, he had just gotten hired and it was before we went into quarantine. I was still in town so I went to talk to him. When I left the meeting, I was like, "Man, this guy's a smart guy who seems like he has an answer for everything." And not a bad answer, either. He has an idea or he has a way he wants to run things for each instance that could come up. And then throughout the offseason, he adapted so well to not having OTAs and not having everybody in the building. I didn't know how he was going to call plays or anything like that, but just from a leadership perspective, I knew the traits were there for us to be successful. And that became even clearer as he helped bring us together as a team even with all of the obstacles that came from the pandemic.


It always takes a while to realize how good of a team you are, but I knew good things were on the horizon by Week 2. We obviously got beat pretty good in that Week 1 game against the Ravens and we had a quick turnaround to Thursday night against the Bengals. It wasn't much time to regroup, but the way we handled that week of walk-through at practice and how we moved on to the next game and understood that the season is more than one game was pretty impressive. Early on, we got to 4-1 one point, and I knew we had to win a bunch more games, but we beat some good teams in that stretch and it seemed like even when bad things were happening to us, we were finding ways to win games. Usually in the past we have been on the opposite end of those things. Even when Dallas was coming back late in the game, we made a play to show we could finish it off. All of those things were like, "Man, this is pretty cool. This is new. This is refreshing."

Anytime you spend so much time with a group of guys, even when it's mostly virtual, you go through the work, you go through the practices, you go through the wins and losses of a season. There is a brotherhood you develop. Obviously, the money is great, and all those things, but people want to win games. We have all these guys from different backgrounds that come together and have a common goal and can push everything else aside to do what's best for the team. That just shows how this team has grown together and they want it for each other. That's been really cool.


So when Coach gave me the game ball Sunday, I appreciated it and I got a little bit emotional because I was just like, man, I've been here for a long time. But the way this team plays, it feels like all these guys have been here for a long time as well and they've been fighting to change the culture as well.

It started as a joke.

At the beginning of quarantine, I went a couple of months without a haircut or shaving my beard. The media would ask me about it, and I'd just laugh and say it was here to stay and not give a definite end date for when I'd trim it back. Really, though, it was symbolic of how seriously my family and I were taking the COVID-19 pandemic. We did absolutely everything to make sure I could stay healthy and stay on the field, and that included keeping people away from my hair.


I literally haven't been to the barber shop. When we do the contact tracing interviews, they're always like, "Oh, man, your life's pretty boring." My wife picks up food and has maybe been to the store a couple of times to pick some things up, doctor's appointments and stuff like that, but on a day-to-day basis we haven't gone out to eat, we haven't gone on date night. I don't know if my daughter knows what other toddlers look like because she's kind of been by herself. My mom came to one game early in the year and we made her quarantine and take two tests before she came to the house. And then after that, we decided even that was too risky.

That's why I was so surprised Tuesday when I got a phone call letting me know I'd tested positive for COVID-19. My immediate reply was, "We need to retest," but it was made clear to me the result was legit.

It would have taken a heck of a lot more to keep me out of a playoff game if it weren’t a contagious freaking pandemic, you know?

The first thing I thought about was my wife and daughter. They're thankfully healthy, and I'm living in the basement for the foreseeable future to keep it that way. Then, I started thinking about Sunday's game.

"I'm not going to be able to play in the game. It's done. It's over."

That's the frustrating part. I've spent seven years working and trying to get in that playoff game and I'm going to end up missing it. The thing is, I feel pretty good right now. It would have taken a heck of a lot more to keep me out of a playoff game if it weren't a contagious freaking pandemic, you know?

But if we take care of business Sunday like I know the team is capable of doing, there's another chance for me and a number of my other teammates to return and make our 2020 playoff debuts. That's why I'll be watching — from the basement, of course, with the sound off — and I'll probably have just as many nerves going as I do when I'm on the field.


The last few weeks have been crushing, and as a team we've had to show some resilience. I don't think we've had a normal week of practice in the last three weeks. You don't know who's going to be up or who's tested positive or really what's going on, and it's tough. The hard part is, I feel like the protocols are being followed and guys are doing a good job wearing their masks. I've never seen Coach Stefanski without a mask. It's one of those things where it's like, "how is this happening to us?"


That was one of the things Coach mentioned earlier in the year. He said it so many times about hitting a curveball. I don't know if he realized how many curveballs we'd get this year, but it's been quite a few and it's just about resilience and next man up.

The thing they've done a good job with as a staff is just creating a standard of play. There's the standard of play, and it's not always going to be perfect, but your effort, your will, your technique, your fundamentals, all those things matter. If you go out there and try and compete to that standard, we feel like we have the right guys that can go out there and still get a win.

I don't think it's a one-off thing where this team won 11 games and then will drop back to “normal Cleveland.” We're building a special culture and it starts with the standard that Coach Stefanski and Andrew Berry have held everybody to.

That's why I believe in us Sunday, no matter how much adversity we're facing.

From the top down, it starts with Andrew Berry and Coach Stefanski. It's all about the team and it's all about what can we do to put the team first. Offensively, I think it starts with Baker and the way he can lead those guys and make plays for us. And then on defense, I think it starts with Myles and the difference he can make as a player. I think the team rallies around those two guys and has a chance anytime we go out there.


We've watched the film on Pittsburgh, we've battled them, we know their defense, we know that they have explosive weapons on offense, but it's a division game and you see it every freaking year. Division games are different and you really never know the outcome.

I know we have guys we can bring in and help and we can pick each other up. We missed guys this year on the O-line and we've done a good job of picking those guys up. I'm still in the meetings right now and I feel fine, so I've been handling that and understanding our game plan. I've been trying to talk to our guys that are going to play in my place and give them any tips I can.

It's been a little awkward this week to hear all of these people saying how sorry they are for me. Let me be clear: I'll be fine. I appreciate it and I appreciate Coach and the guys saying those things, but I'm a left guard. I'm not supposed to be in the spotlight like that. I just try to do my job every time I get a chance to go out on the field. When I'm out on the field, I do my 1/11th of a job and try to do my best at that.


For me personally, it's a little bit overwhelming because it's appreciative and I understand where they're coming from, but it's about the team. It's always been about the team and what we can do as a group of players.

It's also about the fans, who deserve this more than any in professional sports.

The cool thing about Browns fans is no matter how good or bad we did the year before — mostly not great, mostly bad — that first home game would be a packed house. We're talking 67,000 as loud as possible like we had just come off the Super Bowl. As a player, I always appreciated that they were giving us a clean slate every year. They respect that we're playing hard and trying to get this thing on track. And for the road games. I always felt like there was a huge amount Browns fans. That's always cool, especially when you get a win on the road and there's probably 10,000 fans that are sticking around and kind of fill the lower bowl up.


I know for a fact this last Sunday would have been 67,000 packed in FirstEnergy Stadium. When Baker scrambled for that first down in the game, you probably wouldn't be able to hear anything. We probably would have had to take a delay of game penalty. It would have been pretty epic. I don't think the players would have been able to get out of the parking lot.

Browns fans deserve this, and it's unfortunate that, of course, this is happening in a pandemic. But make no mistake, I'm not feeling sorry for myself and the team isn't, either.

The culture is changing here and everybody's moving in the right direction for a night like Sunday to become the norm.

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