The Pacific Ocean. Palm trees. Sunshine. Hollywood. Rodeo Drive.
A week in Los Angeles in late November, early December is a vacation for most people living in Northeast Ohio. The Browns arrived Sunday night after a 29-12 loss in Denver and will leave a week later after playing the Rams at SoFi Stadium, but they aren’t focused on sightseeing and suntans.
“The idea was never fun,” running back Jerome Ford said Sunday night. “It was always just a business trip. We’re just going to work harder and try to get the job done.”
Coach Kevin Stefanski used the back-to-back games out west to gather his team in an unusual setting. He views it as another opportunity to bond, building on the nine-day trip to The Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia to start training camp in July.
Throughout the season several players have brought up the time isolated in West Virginia as instrumental in the improved camaraderie that’s helped the Browns go 7-4. They had little choice but to hang out together and took advantage of the quality time.
That was Stefanski’s goal, especially after a 2022 season in which communication and chemistry were issues.
“It’s a way of getting guys to hang out with each other, which is hard to do when you’re jumping in the car and you’re heading home after practice,” he said.
The same dynamic is in play in Tinseltown. The Browns will practice at UCLA then head back to the same hotel.
The Browns have been through so much already this season, starting with season-ending injuries to right tackle Jack Conklin and running back Nick Chubb in the first two games and continuing with the season-ending shoulder injury to quarterback Deshaun Watson just when he was playing well and the Browns looked poised to chase down their first AFC North title. This week, which starts with more quarterback uncertainty as rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson is in the concussion protocol, should give them the chance to further close ranks.
“It’s time to lock in and really gain that chemistry with your guys whether it’s offense, defense, special teams,” defensive end Myles Garrett said last week.
He’s expected to face the Rams despite an injury to his left shoulder vs. the Broncos.
“This team has definitely been close,” linebacker Sione Takitaki said. “Just kind of getting a little closer and pushing each other along.”
The week also allows the players who weren’t on the team at the start of camp to experience a getaway and a taste of what they missed at The Greenbrier. Joe Flacco and P.J. Walker are the options if Thompson-Robinson can’t play and were late additions — Walker in Week 1 and Flacco last week. Kicker Dustin Hopkins, left tackle Geron Christian, defensive tackle Shelby Harris, running back Pierre Strong Jr. and punt returner James Proche II also came aboard after the West Virginia excursion.
“The NFL is unfortunately a revolving door of guys getting hurt and bringing guys in,” left guard Joel Bitonio said. “So we’re kind of bringing those guys along, too.
“It’ll be good to be around the guys and hopefully we can have a good time out there.”
The week remains a homecoming for Thompson-Robinson, who starred at UCLA and left as the school’s leader in passing yards (10,710), total yards (12,536), completions (860), touchdown passes (88) and total touchdowns (116). But he sustained a concussion late in the third quarter against the Broncos and could miss the Rams game. Depending on the severity of symptoms, he could be restricted from doing everything he hoped.
“I know it’s going to be a great time,” he said last week. “I’m going to be able to see a bunch of people I know already. Have obviously a bunch of familiarity being around UCLA and getting to use that practice facility and all the things that they have there. So I’m super excited.”
The nine days on the road during the season are a significant change to the usual schedule. Bitonio, who’s from nearby Long Beach, will get to see his mom and siblings but will miss the family back in Northeast Ohio.
“If you asked me when I was like 22, when I first got in league, I was like, that’s great,” he said of spending extra time in Los Angeles. “Now I got kids at home, so it’s a little bit tough to leave the kids and the wife at home for a week. But we’re going to make the most of it.
“As a team, treat it like a normalish week, but we’ll obviously have time to go to dinner and be around each other and just continue to learn.”
Despite some new faces, the team’s circle feels like it’s shrinking with each key injury. The loss of Thompson-Robinson, the scare with Garrett and the poor performance against the Broncos are the latest examples of adversity.
“Pretty much like ‘we all we got’ type of thing. And whoever’s playing, that’s all we got,” Ford said Monday. “And we get behind them and we push them and let them know that we behind them. And we fight to win games.”
“Resiliency is just the common theme around here,” defensive end Ogbo Okoronkwo said. “We’ve been through a lot of adversity and we continue to just keep on getting better, and that’s hard for a lot of teams, and I feel like we’ve done a good job. We have the maturity in this locker room. We have the leadership, and then we have the great coaches that just keep the ship afloat.”
Garrett believes the players will take the proper approach to the time on the coast.
“It’s a matter of using it as a business trip, not going out there and trying to keep up with your friends and get your mind off football,” he said. “Use this to your benefit, not your detriment, and allow this time to be beneficial for all of us. Have another time like this where Coach can believe that we can do the right thing and play the way we’re supposed to.
“I think we’ll do a good job of keeping everyone locked in. I think everyone knows what we’re trying to achieve and what we’re trying to do with this season, and no one’s going there with the wrong mindset or intentions.”