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Mike Pettine confident Browns rookies can rebound, follow example of Joel Bitonio


In an ideal world, every rookie would attack his opportunity the way Joel Bitonio did.

Mike Pettine and the Cleveland Browns are well aware of just how rare it is to see a first-year player work hard enough to land a starting role and improve with each passing game the way the left guard from Nevada did. Amid a slew of questions about some of the Browns' rookies who haven't matched Bitonio's approach and success, Pettine crossed into a different sport Wednesday with his analogy of the unrealistic expectations most rookies face.

"If we, us in this room, unless you have a history of doing it, jumped in a race car and they took us up to 200 miles per hour and said 'have at it,' that would be a struggle," Pettine said. "Once you practice at it, you get used to it, it's just like those drivers. They do it for hours and hours and they're the best in the world at it.

"I just think for some it just takes time to adjust to it, so I'm confident in all of our guys, especially going through a new system in year one."

The transition has been tougher for two of the Browns' most prominent rookies, cornerback Justin Gilbert and quarterback Johnny Manziel.

Gilbert, the eighth overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, didn't log any starts and saw potential snaps go to the likes of undrafted rookie K'Waun Williams and fourth-round rookie Pierre Desir. Manziel, the 22nd overall selection, found little success in his two starts before he suffered a season-ending hamstring injury. He admitted Tuesday he had to "take this a lot more seriously" when it pertained to his off-the-field preparation.

Pettine provided both players, along with rookie running back Terrance West, with a vote of confidence Wednesday as they sit one game away from an incredibly important offseason.

"Are we ready to write both those players off as bust because they didn't produce as rookies? I'm not anywhere near that point. I think that's just a knee jerk," Pettine said. "Some rookies come in and play right away, and others it takes some time."

In recent days, a handful of the team's veterans, including linebacker Karlos Dansby and safety Donte Whitner, have talked at length about what it takes to succeed in the NFL and how some of the Browns' rookies need to personally improve in that regard. Pettine endorsed what they said and how they did it because "we're in the whatever-it-takes business."

"If it takes for that to happen and our guys are confident in saying that because what they're saying publicly is no different than what they're saying to the kid," Pettine said. "As coaches, you have to learn what motivates your guys, and everybody's different. You can't broad stroke it. You can't try to coach everybody the same.

"Part of being a coach is putting on that teacher hat, that psychologist hat. What motivates you might be totally different from what motivates you and what motivates you."

Bitonio's motivation was simple: He wanted to start and he wanted to finish.

Both have been accomplished, as the second-round pick hasn't missed a snap and is set to start his 16th game Sunday at Baltimore. Though Bitonio didn't land a spot in the Pro Bowl, he's No. 2 in's rankings of guards. He received meaningful endorsements from Pettine and veteran left tackle Joe Thomas that he did enough to land a spot in the league's annual all-star game.

Bitonio admitted he was overwhelmed throughout parts of camp, particularly when he was learning and executing a brand new set of plays on a daily basis, but he weathered the storm the way he planned.

"I had to come in ready to play," Bitonio said. "I couldn't mess around from the get go. I'm not really sure what other people think coming into it. For me, that was my mindset and that's how I got over the hump."

Bitonio's support system certainly helped, too, as he began the season lined up next to Thomas, an eight-year Pro Bowler, and center Alex Mack, who is considered one of the NFL's best at his position. Rookies Chris Kirksey, who was a third-round selection, and Desir have been similarly lauded for their maturity and ability to use the advice from their elders to their advantage. Kirksey often can be found chatting with Browns 2014 Man of the Year Craig Robertson while Desir said he often tapped Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden, veteran Buster Skrine and Whitner for tips of the trade.

Dansby rattled off a list of big names whom which he sought advice during the early stages of his career. A spot next to him at his locker is always open for the youngest Browns to do the same.

"I'm going to try to figure out what it is that you're doing to keep you in the game, and everybody says something totally different," Dansby said. "I took it all, and right now, it's the finished product. You're looking at it. I'm squeezing all that; I was being a sponge the whole time soaking it all in."

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