On Sunday, Joel Bitonio got a game ball. As the longest-tenured Cleveland Browns player, the Pro Bowl left guard earned this prize to commemorate his very first playoff berth after six futile and frustrating seasons, four of which saw either the head coach or general manager, or both, get fired.
When he finally checked his phone after the game, Bitonio had around 60 texts, the most postgame messages he's ever received. He'll typically have 15 or 20 after a regular win.
But for Bitonio and the Browns, there is no such thing as a regular win. He's had so few of them over his career that each one matters. Eleven this year, and "none of them got old," he said.
After he talked to the media, Bitonio packed his game ball in his bag and hopped in his white GMC Yukon to drive home. His wife and almost-two-year-old daughter waited for him there. He turned on the Sirius station The Highway, and as he drove the 25 minutes home, he reflected. He looked back on his journey to Cleveland's first playoff berth since the 2002 season. On the 635-day stretch without a win from December 2016 to September 2018.
"I didn't know what it was like to win again," Bitonio said. "We were like, losers, you know what I mean? You had to go home to your friends, and it was like, Oh, you guys went 1-15. You guys were 0-16. That stretch—that was tough."
Now, he was the proud owner of 11 hard-fought wins. Finally, the Browns had lifted the curse.
"When you go through so many losses and so many downturns, and so many times where the ball doesn't bounce your way or there is the one penalty that messes you up," he said, "to have those rolls kind of go your way this year, it was just big."
Bitonio walked in the door to his house and immediately embraced his wife, Courtney. Their daughter, Zoey, ran around them, excited for her dad, but Joel and Courtney stood there in silence. Neither knew what to say. After so many seasons coming home from games in a bad mood, here was an unfamiliar joy.
This season, the Cleveland franchise finally found a formula for success, one that should mean Bitonio's playoff joy becomes familiar to the Browns and their fans over the coming seasons.
"Hopefully we are setting up a culture of winning," he said. "Where it's like, Hey, the Browns are a playoff team every year."
In conversations with 10 sources in and around Cleveland, it is clear how the Browns ended the NFL's longest playoff drought. Sources explained how just a year ago, nobody knew who was in charge, and the coaching staff felt like they were in over their heads. In no time, first-year head coach Kevin Stefanski brought order to that chaos, and despite a truncated offseason program, he quickly installed a structure based on hard work and no excuses.
Yes, you can't talk about this season or, in particular, this week's Browns wild-card game, Sunday night in Pittsburgh, without acknowledging the impact of COVID-19. This week, the Browns are in the headlines because virus issues are sidelining a number of players and staff, including Stefanski and Bitonio. And yes, the timing of all this feels, well, Browns-ish.
"That's the thing with Cleveland: You always wait for something to go wrong," said one former Browns employee. "Anything we did good, something bad was about to happen—injuries or somebody getting in trouble."
But Stefanski hasn't entertained any bit of Cleveland's dysfunctional past since he took the job last January.
"Kevin has done a really nice job of calming the ship there," said one source familiar with the organization. "It is a professional [organization], like, there isn't chaos every day. There was chaos every day."
"They are just an organization and a team right now that is functional and not beating themselves," said a third source close to the team. "You can tell now that they have a—and I respect Freddie [Kitchens] to death—but they have essentially a competent head coach.
"It seems like they jell really well, and they are organized and very functional in what they do. They are playing confident, and that is just something they didn't have last year. It was just a complete mess, and you can just tell that they completely switched the script."
Last season, head coach Freddie Kitchens' inexperience made for a tumultuous year. Kitchens had never been a head coach before and was only promoted to offensive coordinator midway through the prior season after head coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley were fired.
"He was just such a first-timer coach that everybody was in his ear," said another source familiar with the Browns. "Mr. Haslam was in his ear. DePodesta was in his ear. He was trying to please the analytics people with throwing the football, and it really changed him."
In 2016, Browns managing and principal partner Jimmy Haslam hired Paul DePodesta, of Moneyball fame, as the chief strategy officer. DePodesta was to lead an analytics-focused overhaul of the team culture, front office and roster. He has since survived two head coach and general manager firings.
"DePodesta would tell you a four-yard run was worth zero points on the analytical scale and it was about explosive plays downfield," the source added. "Analytics was so powerful with Mr. Haslam that they made Freddie meet every Monday about the game plan. I think it really changed Freddie from who he was when he was just the offensive coordinator."
Those Monday afternoon meetings with Haslam, DePodesta and first the offense, then the defense and then special teams, carried on for so long during the previous two seasons that former general manager John Dorsey and some other staffers jokingly called it "Marathon Monday."
Kitchens would often miss offense meetings on Mondays because he'd be in the full series of other meetings. Sources said Haslam (and sometimes his wife, Dee, and son-in-law JW Johnson) peppered each position coach with specific questions about why things weren't working, which became more difficult as the losses piled up.
Coaches came to each meeting braced to defend their decisions. Haslam asked nearly every week why Odell Beckham Jr. wasn't more involved in the offense, which sources say created an unhealthy pressure to force the ball to Beckham even though he wasn't fully healthy and was often double-teamed.
Sources said that last season, those long meetings with Haslam weren't productive. They wasted time going over the same questions each week, which took away from game-planning for the next opponent and learning from the previous game.
Haslam has still been a regular fixture at practices and games this season, but special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said he hasn't been in meetings with Haslam this year, and all indications from current sources are that meeting days aren't of the marathon nature or involving as many people as previous seasons. With the stricter league protocol that all teams have been operating under since late November, all meetings have to be virtual. Coaches are allowed in the team facility on Mondays, but they have to remain in their individual offices.
"There are only football people in the building, bare bones," said Browns long snapper Charley Hughlett. "If you don't have anything to do with football, you aren't in there. On top of that, we really can't go out and do anything, so I think that helps keep everything football-first."
Hughlett, who spoke to Bleacher Report in the week leading up to Cleveland's Week 17 game, added: "All we have to do right now is football, and by virtue of that, we are staying focused. But I do think that everything else, the protocols and the way things are, I do think that has all helped us for the better."
Because Kitchens had never been a head coach before and had limited experience as an offensive coordinator, he didn't have his own offense.
For 2019, he essentially pulled ideas from three different playbooks to create Cleveland's offense. He took from Bruce Arians' system, which he knew from his time in Arizona, and from offensive coordinator Todd Monken's RPO system, and he implemented run-game and pass-protection concepts from offensive line coaches James Campen and Jeff Blasko, who came to Cleveland from Green Bay.
"Never could get on the same page from Day 1, till even going into training camp," said the third source close to the team.
Kitchens' offensive coaching staff was so out of sync with each other and with the quarterbacks that the discontent trickled down to the rest of the team, as summed up in various reports around the end of the season, such as this one by Mary Kay Cabot at Cleveland.com. The third source said Beckham initiated an hourlong meeting between the quarterbacks and offensive coaches during the 2019 bye week (with the Browns at a disappointing 2-4). The idea was to air the grievances and try to repair the broken relationship between Monken and quarterback Baker Mayfield. Monken was also at odds with the other quarterbacks and Kitchens.
"Odell called everything out," said the third source close to the team. "He went and had this private meeting with Monken saying, 'I see what is going on with the relationship between you and the QBs, and even Freddie. We need to get this fixed or else this thing is not going to turn around.'"
Spoiler alert: The thing never turned around.
The source says Mayfield vented his frustrations toward Monken, and Monken tried to patch it all up and sell himself, promising they could get the offense working. "Once you get on Baker's bad side, you are done. That's it," the third source said. "Odell tried to piece it together, and nothing came out of it."
A current Browns source says that this season, Stefanski is the singular voice for the offense. There's no question as to who is calling the shots, and so there's harmony for the unit.
The former employee who described the meeting with Beckham says Mayfield is at peace this season, and that's why he's played better as the season has progressed.
"Baker is the type who loves structure," the third source close to the team said. "He loves having an agenda, he loves having a great idea of what is going on and why you are doing this and that, and you can just tell they have structure there. They are all on the same page."
Another reason for the Browns' fast transformation from chaos to control is that for once, all three pillars of the organization are aligned: head coach, general manager and analytics, the powerful department headed up by DePodesta. In recent years, there was always a battle waging between any combination of the three.
Former general manager Dorsey, known for being a gruff, old-school football guy, wasn't a fan of analytics, and he and his staff didn't get along well with Haslam. Kitchens was Dorsey's guy, and he also didn't embrace analytics. DePodesta was widely reported as wanting to hire Stefanski in 2019, not Kitchens.
Before that, Dorsey inherited Hue Jackson as head coach. Jackson wasn't his guy, and Jackson himself didn't agree with the analytics viewpoint.
Before that, Jackson was at odds with executive vice president of football operations Sashi Brown and DePodesta, who had a strategy of amassing draft picks for a later rebuild when Jackson wanted to win more immediately.
Every year, it seemed like somebody was getting fired. But until last year, it hadn't been the head coach and general manager at the same time. DePodesta's contract was also up after last season, so the three all signed or re-signed at the same time.
Stefanski had been the runner-up in 2019, and new general manager Andrew Berry had a relationship with Haslam and DePodesta from his first go-round in Cleveland from 2016-18 as the vice president of player personnel. Both are more open to the analytics-first mindset DePodesta fosters.
"For the first time," the second source familiar with the team said, "Haslam has people that are aligned with [DePodesta], who buy into him."
Hughlett, the long snapper, has been around nearly as long as Bitonio. He won only four games in his first three full seasons with the team, but he says last year's 6-10 finish was the hardest season, more difficult than when Cleveland went 0-16.
"The amount of talent we had, and the expectations I know we all had as players, I know the coaches had it," he said. "I was excited to finally freaking win. And then when we didn't really do it last year, it was the most disappointed I've been."
Hughlett said he knew during the virtual offseason program in June that Stefanski was different, and that he'd be the guy to get them over the hump. Stefanski made an effort to get to know his players and make sure they knew each other. Hughlett said his former head coaches sent players to the movies, but how well can you get to know someone at a movie?
Instead, Stefanski had players take turns sharing their personal stories in team meetings through an exercise called "the four H's," in which players are prompted to explain their history, heartbreak, heroes and hopes.
When it was Bitionio's turn, he talked about his father's unexpected death from heart disease during his freshman year in college. He was surprised to hear cornerback Denzel Ward talk about his own father's unexpected death from heart disease when he was in college.
"O-line to DB, you don't know the guys as well as you probably should," Bitonio said. "And you hear things, and you're like, Man, that is legitimately the same thing that happened to us. Same points in our lives, same experiences, and you go through those things and you connect with people like that."
Even with this year's clarity and togetherness, Cleveland's path to the playoffs wasn't as easy as it could have been.
For Week 16, the wide receiver group was ruled out under COVID-19 close contact protocol, and the Browns couldn't beat the then-one-win New York Jets to clinch. On Sunday, the Steelers were a two-point conversion away from tying the game in the last minute. Even Bitonio admits to jaded thoughts creeping in.
"I would be lying to you if [I said] there wasn't a small percentage of me, like a very minute thing," he said. "But it crossed my mind for half a second where it was like, of course, Week 16 and 17, we have to win a game, like we're getting hit with our COVID protocol issues and our team is getting decimated, our coaching staff. We are team-based people in the NFL, and for two weeks, in the most important games of our season, we are getting thrown out of our routine and we are missing players."
But Bitonio silenced any nagging Browns doubt because for once, he knew his team had a coach capable of managing the mounting challenges.
"Right or wrong, Stefanski puts himself in the line of fire no matter what," he said. "He is the first one to point to himself and say he didn't call good enough plays even if we know as a team that we didn't execute well enough or there were chances for us to win. There is a leadership component, like, Hey, this man is taking responsibility."
No matter the score against the Steelers in the Wild Card Round on Sunday night, when players pack up their lockers at the end of this season, they'll know exactly what they'll be walking into next season.
"That is definitely a calming feeling to know that," Hughlett said. "It is nice to have some continuation and know you are going to be working with the same people and with the same system."
Priefer, who will serve as the Browns' acting head coach for Sunday's game, is a Cleveland native. He and running back Kareem Hunt, also a Cleveland native, have a corny skit they've been perfecting all season. After every win, they find each other to revel in the novelty that their hometown Browns have a winning record.
"Hey, Coach Priefer, can you believe the Cleveland Browns are 6-3?" Hunt would say.
On Sunday, it was Priefer who delivered the line.
"Hey, Kareem, can you believe the Cleveland Browns are in the playoffs?"
Both men laughed. Yes, the Cleveland Browns are in the playoffs. You can say that again.
Kalyn Kahler covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow her on Twitter for NFL musings and thoughts: @KalynKahler.