He’s been a starter from Day One, but Browns rookie guard Joel Bitonio’s learning curve has still been steep, the lessons ranging from how to handle a veteran’s injury to how to answer questions about Johnny Football
BY JOEL BITONIO
My first six months as an NFL player have been full of surprises. Ever since the Browns chose me in the second round of the draft in April, I’ve learned …
… that it rains a lot in Cleveland.
… that mastering a pro playbook is challenging, but doable.
… that cut day is the most depressing day ever, even when you know you’re safe.
… that the career of an NFL player is extremely fragile.
… that you’re lucky if you have a veteran on your team who is willing to mentor you.
… that being a professional football player doesn’t leave you with much downtime.
… that being an adult comes with a lot of responsibilities that you don’t realize when you’re in college.
… that the media loves Johnny Manziel—and that Johnny just wants to be a normal guy.
But the biggest thing I’ve learned so far: Every week, the team you’re facing has great players. It doesn’t matter if your opponent is 6-0 or 0-6. You have to consistently be at your best all the time—every series, every down. If you’re not doing the right technique, and if you slip up just once, well, let’s just say Mondays aren’t as fun.
How did I learn all this? As all rookies do, through trial and error and soaking up as much information as possible.
* * *
The week that Alex Mack broke his leg was tough. I had only been around him for about five months, so I didn’t know him too well. But seeing how emotional guys like Joe Thomas were when they found out he’d be lost for the season definitely resonated with me.
Alex had played every offensive snap since joining the league in 2009. He’s a Pro Bowler who works really hard and loves the game. He wants it so bad. Then just like that, his season is done. It’s not like he did something to make that happen. He got rolled up on, that was it. Alex’s injury shows you can never take this game for granted. The turnover rate in the NFL is so high.
I first realized that this summer. At minicamps and OTA’s, there were 90 of us: all similar-minded guys working hard for the same goal. After training camp, the roster had been cut down to 53.
I was a second-round pick and was starting, so I knew I was safe. But I still felt sick to my stomach on cut day.
Gone are 40 guys who you tried to build relationships with because you thought you might be teammates. A lot of them were so talented. They’re not bad, they just weren’t in the top seven of their position group. The NFL is just a business, and cuts are transactions.
* * *
When people say mastering an NFL playbook is like learning a different language, they’re not exaggerating. At Nevada, our plays were one or two words, and we ran a no-huddle offense, so it was simplistic in that sense.
Here, the terminology and the concepts are so complex. An outside zone can be called 10 different ways. My first few weeks, I was like, ‘Am I ever going to get this?’
I was lucky being the only rookie lineman, which meant I got to work with our O-line coach, Andy Moeller, a lot over the summer. That’s a difference from college: The NCAA has time restrictions on everything. The rules in the NFL are much more relaxed.
Joe Thomas has been an unbelievable help. He’s always saying, “Here’s how I prepare. This is how I take notes on pass rush. Here’s what I look for on film.” The best advice: sharing his mindset before the snap. Each play, Joe thinks to himself, 'What's the worst possible thing that can happen this play?' Then he makes sure that doesn't happen. It seems simple enough, but in the midst of a game there are so many things going on at once that it's easy to forget something that simple.
In college, coaches have to spend a lot of time working on fundamentals. In the NFL, everyone is already at a high level. So the coach-player relationship is different. I was surprised that our O-Line coach often asks Joe for advice: “Hey, what do you think of this play? What would you do here?”
Then again, Joe has been to seven straight Pro Bowls and is a future Hall of Famer. I’m definitely not there yet.
I was put in a great position with so many veterans on our line: Alex, Joe and John Greco. When I’m on the field, I don’t have to worry about what everyone is going to do. Before he got hurt, Alex made all of the calls. A few weeks in, I felt comfortable enough to start helping him. Now that Alex is out, our new center makes most of the calls but both of the guards and even the tackles can help if needed. I'm glad I can contribute. As for understanding the playbook: I’m now at a level where I know what I’m doing on every play. But our offensive coordinator, Kyle Shanahan, puts in new plays every week, so it’s always going to be a work in progress.
* * *
The media is funny. When you lose, they act like you’ll never win a game again. When you win, they act like you’re going to the Super Bowl. I know they have a job to do, but it’s entertaining to see how quickly their attention shifts. Except, of course, when they’re obsessing over a single topic such as Johnny Manziel.
I first got a taste of Johnny Football-mania on draft night. I was getting a bunch of texts from friends offering congrats. Then a couple minutes later their follow up texts were, “Wait, are you going to block for Johnny Manziel?!” and “Say hi to Johnny for me!”
When reporters found out that he and I had been roommates over the summer, it got nutty. “What did Johnny think of the offense? What did Johnny have for lunch? What did Johnny have for dinner?”
I feel bad for Johnny because I don’t think people understand how demanding it is for him. Every day, someone is texting him, “Can you do this for us? Can you do that?” He’s expected to do all these things, and it wears on him. I can see it.
I think he'd obviously love to be playing, but his time will come eventually. Right now, Brian Hoyer has been a good leader for our team. He's pretty emotional on the sideline and in the locker room, always trying to inspire us and making sure our offense is working top notch.
That said, Johnny has never stopped working hard in the weight room and at practice and he seems to be learning the playbook well. He’s here trying to work hard and make a name for himself. For the most part he’s a quiet guy. He keeps to himself in the locker room, and then he goes back to the hotel and wants to relax, watch TV, and talk to his friends—just like the rest of us. In my opinion, he doesn’t want all the extra attention. But he doesn’t have much of a choice.
* * *
Being an adult involves paying bills—more than I realized. In college you paid your cable bill and electricity, and that was about it. Now there’s life insurance and car insurance and all these other things your financial advisor tells you about. It’s complicated and something you need to stay on top of … no wonder some guys lose all their money.
Another thing they don’t tell you before you get to the league: You’re not just rich overnight. Once I signed my contract, it’s not like all of that money was automatically deposited into my bank account.
“To be honest, I thought I’d have more down time during the week. The rest of the season is going to be a nonstop push.”
I want to be smart with my money, and it helps that I’m a pretty low-key guy to begin with. My only major purchase was a 2013 GMC truck. I also put a down payment on the first apartment I saw. It’s a spacious, two-bed, two-bath in the same neighborhood where Joe and Alex live, which was good enough for me. I’ll probably take a trip somewhere this summer. It seems so far away though, and we don’t know how long we’ll be playing, so it’s way too early to plan.
Our bye week was pretty early in the season, during Week 4. We only had four days off, so I didn’t feel like that was enough time to go home to California or to visit Nevada. Instead, my girlfriend and I took a road trip to Niagara Falls. We went to Anchorbar, the famous place that invented Buffalo wings and enjoyed the scenery. Being from California, I actually have never seen much of the East Coast at all. It was nice to get away and relax, because I knew the rest of the season was going to be a nonstop push.
To be honest, I thought I’d have more downtime during the week. Tuesday is our off day, then Wednesday, Thursday and Friday are a grind: meetings, practice, more meetings, trying to recover while trying to prepare for the next opponent. It’s a job, and it’s a hard job, but I know we’re paid a lot of money, and I wouldn’t trade this opportunity for the world.
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