Kevin Stefanski has delivered a special announcement to the Browns during practice every Friday this season.
That day is when Stefanski informs his team about which player will be the game captain that week. Due to COVID-19 precautions, the NFL has mandated that teams select just one game captain who is responsible for meeting the opponent's captain, making the coin toss decision and representing the team that afternoon.
Stefanski has used the honor to praise, motivate or shine a team spotlight on a certain player each week. In Week 12 versus the Jacksonville Jaguars, Stefanski selected a player well-worthy of captain status: Joel Bitonio.
"He just said it was my turn," Bitonio said Thursday. "He said that I was a guy who's been here a long time and has put a lot of work in and been through some things."
Bitonio, a seven-year veteran at left guard and the longest tenured player on the Browns, played one of his best games of the season as the team's game captain. He was a key part of an offensive line that helped Cleveland gain 207 rushing yards, and he made arguably the biggest block of the game late in the fourth quarter that helped spring running back Nick Chubb for a first down on third-and-13.
Chubb's first down sealed the Browns' eighth win of the season, a total that has only been accomplished three times in the expansion era of the franchise and hasn't been reached since 2007. Bitonio, however, was the true catalyst of the play's success.
It's a block he's made several times since he was drafted in the second round of the 2014 draft. Since then, he's always been reliable. He's always been a leader. He's always been patient.
Now, he's on a Browns football team in the thick of the playoff hunt. His patience has paid off.
"Joel was outstanding in that football game," coach Kevin Stefanski said. "He is a good football player. He was a game captain (Sunday) – correctly called tails in the air, which was great. He does everything that is asked."
Check out the best photos from the Browns win over the Jaguars yesterday by the Browns photo team
For Bitonio, the success the Browns have gained so far in 2020 feels even sweeter. No other player can attest to the grind Cleveland has endured since its last winning season in 2007, and he's one of just three players left on the roster from 2016, when the Browns went 1-15.
Bitonio has always kept a level-head no matter how a season goes. He's always been supportive of his teammates, showed up for work and has been a consistent force on Cleveland's offensive line.
Now, all the pieces around Bitonio are growing with him. The Browns have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, and there's talent on both sides of the ball that has helped position Cleveland for a shot at the playoffs.
"It feels good," he said. "You want to be a part of that turnaround. We've been through a few GMs, a few head coaches and hopefully this is the norm. The norm wasn't always great, but hopefully we can get this norm back where this team is always playing meaningful games in December."
All five of the Browns' remaining games will carry more significance than any late-season games in Bitonio's tenure. That's largely due to the Browns building the league's top rushing offense, which has averaged 5 yards per carry and has benefited from exceptional play from the offensive line.
Bitonio has been the foundational cornerstone of the unit. He's played at a Pro Bowl level the last two seasons and has helped welcome all new players to the group over the years. Despite the virtual circumstances surrounding COVID-19 protocols, the group has still built unshakeable chemistry both on and off the field, and Bitonio's leadership and reliability is one reason why.
"Obviously, we are blessed to play football for a living, but we do not have those date nights and the O-line and wives getting together and the O-line dinners on Thursday nights," Bitonio said. "Just things that you normally do where you get to know your guys more. We're still around them, but it's just not the same. Obviously, everybody is sacrificing right now so it's a very minute thing for us to sacrifice, but it's definitely something we miss."
But the offensive line — and the rest of the Browns — are still thriving on the field. That's what Bitonio has been hoping to see for the last six years, and now his vision is finally coming true.
He's been a leader through it all. That's why he was tabbed as the game captain last Sunday in Jacksonville, but Bitonio never needs any bestowed honor to shine in Cleveland.
He's always been ready to lead no matter what.
"He plays hard," Stefanski said, "and his teammates know how much this matters to him."