'Not everybody's Joel Bitonio': Experience, perspective bolster Browns All-Pro's talent
"Everything's just like, you know, moving so quickly for you at that time," the Browns' All-Pro guard told the Beacon Journal. "I just wanted to know what my play is, which way to go and don't mess it up. I remember telling myself vividly the first time we practiced, I was like, 'Don't step on Joe Thomas' foot, don't step on Alex Mack's foot and I should be good to go if I go in the right direction.'"
Bitonio figured out the right direction to go. He also managed to not step on the feet of the two Pro Bowlers' on either side of him.
Now, as Bitonio's ninth season gets underway, he's no longer the rookie just trying to figure things out. Instead, he's the one from whom younger players walk into the Browns locker room and seek out advice.
Bitonio couldn't help but be struck by that fact as he reflected with his own mentor during training camp.
"Joe was here this summer and I was talking to him and I was like, I'm pretty sure when I came into the NFL, he was going into year eight," Bitonio said. "And so now, I'm in year nine and I was like, when I first got in the league, I was like, Joe's so old, like this old guy, you know, just comparative, and I'm like the old guy, 30 years old I'm the old guy. So it's quite a difference."
The difference for Bitonio isn't just his standing in the locker room as, along with Charley Hughlett, the longest-tenured players on the Browns. It's natural that younger players are going to seek out wisdom from the more experienced.
What makes that advice so valuable to those younger players is the perspective from which it comes. It's a perspective built over literally thousands of plays over dozens and dozens of games.
It's not just about how to handle a specific block or some kind of technique. It's a perspective on how to just be a professional football player.
"They talk about how time slows things down and stuff," Bitonio said. "Now it's like, you kind of see the process and you can understand, like, when to push yourself. When to, you know, you need to prepare for a season and how to prepare, where as a rookie, you're just going full-out the whole time."
One doesn't even have to be a rookie to learn those lessons. In fact, you can be a borderline All-Pro or Pro Bowl selection and still take in those pointers.
That's something Wyatt Teller has learned in the three-plus years since the Browns acquired him from the Buffalo Bills. For Teller, who has formed arguably the best guard tandem in the NFL with Bitonio, it's the little things his teammate does to keep himself on the field that sets him apart.
"Not everybody's Joel Bitonio who get better every year going into year nine, 10, and he's an absolute stud and one of the best to play," Teller said during training camp. "I can learn something from him and how he takes care of his body. How he trains, what he's eating, his therapy, all these different things I can kind of note and jot down and kind of see how, he's not old, but someone that's at that year, that year-nine, year-10 mark, can take that next step."
It's not, though, done with a pretentiousness. There's nothing diva-like with Bitonio, a 6-foot-4, 320-pound Nevada product.
That's also what endears Bitonio to those around him.
“What you love about Joel is he is himself every day," Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said. "He works very hard. He is a guy who does things right on the field, in the meeting room and takes care of his body. I think he is just someone who, more than anything, the guys see an example of how to be a pro."
Perspective has also given Bitonio an ability to step back a bit and take in things. It's an appreciation that you more often seem to hear not from players who are still in the midst of their careers, but from those who are looking back on a career completed.
Despite still being in the midst of a career as one of the NFL's premier guards, Bitonio is also willing to see the big picture.
"You just realize how lucky you are to play the game," Bitonio said. "You know, you come in as a rookie and barely know how the NFL works and then you've been through it nine times now. Cutdown days, trades, all of those things, so you don't take anything for granted because you never know when someone's going to play their last snap next to you or with you and you know who you're going to line up with the next time you're out."
Bitonio's seen that plenty in his time in Cleveland. He just needs to look at the two individuals whose feet he spent his first practice trying to not step on.
Seven games into Bitonio's fourth season, in 2017, Thomas suffered a season-ending torn triceps after 10,363 consecutive snaps. That would prove to be career-ended for the future Hall of Fame left tackle.
Of course, those injuries were part of two seasons which have epitomized much of what the Browns have experienced in Bitonio's nine years. In his rookie season they started out 7-4, only to bottom out with a season-ending five-game losing streak. Thomas' injury came in the midst of the infamous 0-16 season.
"I think early in my career, you almost get emotional with things," Bitonio said. "Like decisions that are made and the way things go, it's almost like a fan would. It's emotional like, 'Oh my God, how could this happen,' or 'What are we doing,' or 'Oh my gosh, how can that guy do that?'"
There were also the highs, such as the chase for the playoffs that just fell short in 2018 and the 2020 season in which the Browns went 11-5 in the regular season, ended an 18-year playoff drought and won their first playoff game since Jan. 1, 1995.
In a twisted bit of fate, the only game Bitonio has missed since 2016, when he missed the final 11 games on injured reserve, was that wild-card win in Pittsburgh. Although that also has added to the perspective he's gained.
"I think the longer you play you realize, like, you're part of this team, you're part of the organization and you have to do your best individually to make this organization a better place," Bitonio said. "So, for me, it's such an internal focus of like, how can I be the best Joel, on the field, in the meeting rooms, in the locker room leading the team? Hopefully that carries over and then you try not to ride the wave of emotions. I mean, don't get me wrong, there's times I go home to my wife and I'm like, Oh man, you another day or another crazy moment but you try and just be the same guy."
That goes for dealing with the business side of things as well. Bitonio's watched close friends such as Mack, John Greco, Mitchell Schwartz and, most recently, JC Tretter, depart for one reason or the other, be it free agency or just being let go by the team.
Every time a move like that happens, there's the obvious personal impact it has on him. But Bitonio learned very early that, like Michael Corleone says in The Godfather, "It's not personal, it's strictly business."
In fact, Bitonio received that lesson before he even got to his first regular-season game. He was the lone drafted offensive linemen in his rookie class with the Browns, but there were a handful of other undrafted linemen among the 15 or so in training camp.
According to Bitonio, when cutdown day came and went, all that remained from that original group were basically the five starters − Thomas, himself, Mack, Greco and Schwartz − and Paul McQuiston. A few more would eventually come back either on the practice squad or, eventually, the active roster, but the impression was made on the rookie.
"I think from that moment on, I realized like, Hey, this is a business," Bitonio said. "We're going to try and put our best guys out there, and it's not always the decision you want made. I think there's times like when John Greco got released and I thought he still had a year or two left in his body. That one hurt a lot because he was such a good mentor with me. Guys can choose to leave, like Alex Mack chose to leave in free agency, Joe Thomas retired. So those things hurt. JC, that one hurt, too. You realize this sucks, but hopefully you have those friendships … and those things can last a lifetime."
Contact Chris at email@example.com.
On Twitter: @ceasterlingABJ
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