Just a few weeks ago, Blake Hance was doing his best Joel Bitonio impersonation for the New York Jets starting defense.
Just a few months ago, Michael Dunn was dusting off his resume and looking into some opportunities in the real estate business.
An unexpected phone call from the Browns — one in mid-August, the other on Jan. 2 — drastically altered both players' plans and planted the seeds for the unforgettable memories they made Sunday in Pittsburgh.
Dunn and Hance teamed up to fill the shoes of Bitonio, a three-time Pro Bowler, in the Browns' biggest game in 18 years. Not only did they hold their own amid unsavory and improbable circumstances, but they also did so at an elite level against one of the NFL's best front sevens. Cleveland snapped Pittsburgh's streak of 73 consecutive games with at least one sack, didn't miss a beat on the ground with the punishing one-two punch of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt and racked up the second-most points in playoff franchise history on the way to a 48-37 victory.
"It's remarkable," said former Browns LT Joe Thomas, a 10-time Pro Bowler and future Hall of Famer.
"The improbability of what they were able to pull off on offense is insane, especially on the offensive line."
Not bad for a couple of players who entered Sunday night with a combined one snap of NFL experience.
"It really just feels like a dream," Dunn said. "I woke up Monday and was like, 'was that real? Did that even happen?'"
Dunn thought he was done.
It was late July, and NFL players were returning to their respective team facilities for the start of training camp. After months of minimal roster movement around the league because of the COVID-19 pandemic, teams were slowly bringing tryout players in for workouts as they looked to fill the final spots.
Dunn's phone never rang.
As the days went by, Dunn started plotting his next move. Living with his girlfriend's parents in Green Brook Township, New Jersey, Dunn finished his business management certificate and was accepted into a program where he could complete his MBA.
Dunn knew the drill. Radio silence at this point in the NFL calendar could never be spun as a good thing.
At one point, Dunn looked over to his girlfriend and said, "I can't even picture it happening."
"It's a lot of perseverance you need to go through to keep up with your goals," Dunn said. "I kind of just told myself I'm going to keep working out, keep working out. Something might happen."
He'd been at this since 2017, when he entered the league as an undrafted free agent out of Maryland. Over the next three years, Dunn spent time with three teams — Rams, Jaguars and Dolphins — and was cut a combined six times. All of his in-season time with those franchises was spent on practice squads.
Sandwiched in between his time with the Jaguars and Dolphins was a season with the Birmingham Iron of the now-defunct Alliance of American Football in 2019. He wasn't a part of any NFL practice squads in 2019 but got back on the field in early 2020 with the XFL's Seattle Dragons, who selected him 47th overall in the league's inaugural draft. He played in five games before the league was forced to fold in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"You grind away for four years at this ever since leaving college. You get cut however many times by teams. You're just on practice squad and have to go to the AAF, XFL. You really get a sense of 'what am I doing this for?'" Dunn said. "Maybe it's to go to a training camp one more time or maybe, at best, get a spot on the practice squad.
"You definitely face a lot of look-in-the-mirror moments."
A phone call from the Browns allowed Dunn to briefly set down the mirror.
Cleveland was relatively thin on guards as it entered training camp, and the numbers dropped even more after three players penciled in to compete at the position — Drew Forbes, Malcolm Pridgeon and Colby Gossett — opted out for the 2020 season. Dunn signed with the Browns on Aug. 9 as the first of three offensive linemen added to the roster in the early part of training camp.
Four weeks later, Dunn was cut for the seventh time in his NFL career. The next day, he was added to the Browns practice squad. He'd remain there until Week 16, when he was signed to the active roster after veteran Chris Hubbard was lost for the season with a knee injury.
Dunn, who had been elevated to the active roster for a handful of games earlier in the season, played his first and only NFL regular season snap in the Browns' Week 16 loss to the Jets. Hance looked on from a suite at MetLife Stadium.
In the days following the Browns' loss to the Jets, Hance went through his normal routine and helped the Jets prepare for their Week 17 regular season finale against the Patriots. He played the role of a handful of Patriots offensive linemen during the practice week — just like he did the previous week, when he mimicked the actions of Bitonio, JC Tretter and Nick Harris — and was going through one more virtual meeting the day before the game when his phone rang. It was his agent, who had some simple but urgent instructions: Pack your bags and drive to Cleveland.
One day earlier, Browns offensive line coach Bill Callahan and assistant offensive line coach Scott Peters were sidelined by COVID-19 protocols. Though the Browns didn't lose any of their linemen to it in the days that followed, they had to cover their bases, especially with the playoffs on the line against the Steelers.
Because of a recent rule change to the league's protocols, Hance would be able to join the Browns right away if he were able to get to Cleveland without flying commercial. So, within a couple of hours of learning the news, Hance was in his car and on the road to Cleveland. After six and a half hours of driving and only one stop, Hance arrived at the Browns' team hotel.
The next day, Hance, who was listed as inactive, watched the game from a suite at FirstEnergy Stadium as the Browns clinched their first playoff berth since 2002.
"It was definitely a wild turn," Hance said, "to go from a team whose season was ending the next day to all of a sudden, two weeks later, still playing and playing for a shot at the Super Bowl."
As the news broke last week that Bitonio was among the five new positive COVID-19 tests within the Browns organization, Dunn didn't even think about what it meant for him.
"Is he OK? How's he feeling?" Dunn thought to himself. "That's the No. 1 concern when anybody gets put on the COVID list. The world we're living in right now ... it's scary for anybody. My first thought was not necessarily, 'oh my gosh I'm starting.' It was how is my teammate doing? Coach Stefanski tested positive too. How is my coach doing?"
Dunn heard from Peters a few hours later. He was starting.
"It was quick but it definitely let me know, this is for real," Dunn said. "I've got to get ready for Sunday."
In normal times, this would have meant Dunn would be spending a full week inside the team facility doing everything possible to prepare himself for a matchup with not just the Steelers, but, more specifically, four-time Pro Bowl DT Cameron Heyward. Dunn would be the fifth different player to start at one of the team's two guard spots this season, and Heyward has made players with thousands of snaps of experience look like off-the-street players.
These aren't normal times, of course, and the Browns wouldn't have access to their team facility until Friday afternoon. So, Dunn devoured as much film as possible, watching every snap of Heyward's 2020 season, and then got creative.
Intermittently throughout the week, Dunn and his girlfriend got out of their apartment and stationed themselves between two garages. While his girlfriend shouted out different cadences and play calls, Dunn would go through a variety of pass sets he would need Sunday against the Steelers.
"It's not like going against an opponent," Dunn said, "but it's still good to get out in the air."
Hance, meanwhile, rarely put down his iPad as he immersed himself into a brand new offense. When Hance, an undrafted tackle out of Northwestern, saw he was listed with the team's starting field goal and PAT units, he figured he would be active for the first time in his NFL career.
Though he's just a second-year player, Hance came in with some institutional knowledge. One of the three teams Hance was a part of in 2019 was Washington, where Callahan was the offensive line coach before taking on the same position in Cleveland.
It wasn't much, but it was something.
"All of the O-line calls are pretty familiar," Hance said. "A lot of the play calls even had a lot of carryover from other offenses that I've been in. Honestly, I was really lucky there because it's been a lot quicker to catch on than it usually would be when you only have a few days to learn an offense."
Still, Hance hadn't even met most of his teammates or coaches in person — specifically his two offensive line coaches and Stefanski — because of the facility closure. Finally, it opened Friday afternoon, and Hance was able to go through his first official practice with his new team. He primarily helped out with the scout team and worked off to the side with Ryan Cordell, a coaching assistant who has served as the acting offensive line coach for the past two games, whenever a moment presented itself.
"It was basically going over the most base fundamentals," Hance said. "Day 1 install types of fundamentals."
Dunn stuck to his fundamentals and all of the hours of preparation he logged throughout the week as he went through what would become the game of his life.
The surrealness of the moment wore off when the Browns scored their second touchdown of the game, a 40-yard catch-and-run touchdown by Jarvis Landry that staked Cleveland to a lightning-quick 14-0 advantage.
That's when it hit Dunn like a sledgehammer: He was doing more than just holding his own. He belonged.
"It was my first kind of real pass set and I knew (Heyward) was going to give me his best rush," Dunn said. "I felt good on it, I got hands on him and next thing I know we score a touchdown. It was like, 'oh, I can do this. This is football. Let's go.' I felt like that really kind of gave me the confidence of going out and playing the rest of the game that same way."
That's exactly what Dunn did, as the Browns dominated the Steelers at the line of scrimmage and had some of their best rushing plays go directly behind him. Pro Football Focus gave Dunn a grade of 81.0, the fourth-best of any offensive player.
"I thought he was outstanding," Stefanski said. "Really, really great in his technique, in his effort and in his assignment. He did a great job, among others."
The only hangup: Dunn couldn't finish the game.
Dunn went down with a calf injury early in the fourth quarter as the Browns were driving to put away the Steelers. He tried his best to stay in the game, and even briefly attempted to return, but the pain and pull of the strain was too much to bear.
With Kendall Lamm filling in for RT Jack Conklin — who suffered a hamstring injury in the second quarter and was lost for the game — one of the only remaining options to fill the void was Hance. Though he'd gotten on the field for special teams, Hance would be experiencing his first in-game, live-speed snap on offense since the 2019 preseason.
"I was trying to stay warm over on the sidelines, but when (Dunn) went down, it really happened so fast," Hance said. "I didn't have many thoughts about it. I had to run out there."
Hance was immediately greeted by Tretter, who encouraged him to ask him anything.
"I don't care if they know what we're doing," Hance recalled Tretter saying. "Just make sure we're on the same page here."
The Browns ran right behind Hance on the first play, a 1-yard run by Kareem Hunt. From there, the chains got moving with a 17-yard completion to Landry and a key third-down conversion on a pass to Austin Hooper. Cody Parkey capped the 13-play, 59-yard drive that took 6:40 off the clock with a field goal that extended the Browns' lead to 16.
Hance wound up playing the final 14 snaps, including the final one in victory formation.
"It's already been a crazy journey for me. It's my second year and this is my fifth team already. Obviously every time there's turnover like that, it makes you doubt it a little bit," said Hance, who celebrated his 25th birthday Monday. "Getting here and being up for that game and seeing the excitement from all of the Cleveland fans and the team, it's been awesome.
"This is why everybody plays football their whole life to be in the NFL playoffs when there's only eight teams left. It's a special experience, for sure. Hopefully it doesn't end soon."
The fanfare certainly hasn't.
Hance's popularity among Browns fans and beyond grew when QB Baker Mayfield, speaking with NBC's Michelle Tafoya, revealed he met "a guy named Blake" in the locker room before the game. He's since had his name added to countless headlines and did an interview with NFL Network's Andrew Siciliano on Tuesday.
"It was pretty surreal to have that and then all of a sudden look across the huddle and he sees me there," Hance said. "It was cool, though, and his comment has definitely made my phone blow up a little bit."
Dunn's season unfortunately came to an end at Heinz Field. The Browns placed Dunn on injured reserve Tuesday, making him the third Browns guard to go down with a serious injury since Week 15.
Dunn, just like Hance, became a name Browns fans won't soon forget. A moment like Sunday's — both for him and those who have loyally rooted on their favorite team for generations — was a long time coming.
"I knew in my heart I didn't want to give up football … but at some point, you've got to know when to hang it up," Dunn said. "I'm just grateful the Browns called when they did.
"Thankfully it led to Sunday and what happened then."