BEREA — Joel Bitonio was a mess Sunday as the Browns dispersed for the offseason.
His right foot was in a walking boot after a high ankle sprain Saturday in the playoff loss to the Texans and his left middle finger in a splint. He already had a balky knee, back and oblique.
“Didn’t feel good this morning when I woke up to go to the bathroom,” he said of the ankle that didn’t keep him from returning to the game, “but I got a lot of time now so I’ll be able to get it right, fix my body and be ready to roll when the time comes.”
Bitonio, 32, completed his 10th season, which included arthroscopic knee surgery over the bye that sidelined him for a game and ended his streak of 102 regular-season games without missing a snap. He earned his sixth straight Pro Bowl selection, but his All-Pro streak was snapped after two years.
“It was honestly very frustrating for me this year,” he said. “I came into the year and I felt great. I was like, ‘Oh, I’m not feeling old, Year 10, best year yet.’ And from the jump my knee just wasn’t there and obviously had to get the surgery. Coming back from that, it didn’t allow me to train, practice the way I wanted to and I think that just snowballs into the back, the oblique.
“I have high standards for myself. And I want to live up to those standards for my teammates, for the coaching staff. And being hurt this year definitely took its toll.”
Despite the pain, frustration and all the miles on the body, Bitonio will come back for Year 11.
“I want to play and I want to show and I can still play at a very elite level,” he said. “I still feel like I played well this year, but I think there’s always more and you always want to push yourself to be at the top of your game and I still feel good. I’m going to use this offseason to get my body right.”
The high ankle sprain happened in the first quarter Saturday when the leg got rolled into. He needed help limping off the field, then jogged into the locker room. He was inside for a while but ran back onto the field and re-entered the lineup.
“He’s unbelievable. He’s unbelievable,” coach Kevin Stefanski said. “And that’s kind what I was talking about earlier when you talk about guys fighting for each other, he did not have to go back in that game with a high ankle sprain and most people couldn’t and most people wouldn’t and he was not going to let his guys down. He battled to the end, he’ll rest up and heal up, but he’s the quintessential teammate.
“That’s what we’re talking about when you talk about the Cleveland Browns, guys that will do anything and everything they can for their teammate.”
The finger is the least of Bitonio’s ailments, but he’s trying to prevent permanent deformity.
“It got messed up, so I’m trying to make it so it doesn’t get stuck like that,” he said. “So I just wear this thing.”
A LOST SEASON
Safety Juan Thornhill also had a frustrating season, his first in Cleveland. He missed six games with left calf injuries and said he wasn’t 100 percent healthy after sustaining a Grade 2 strain in Week 4 against the Ravens. He continued to play on and off but wasn’t himself.
“I came back too fast,” he said. “I didn’t have that time to let it heal, so I kept trying to come back and get back on the field, but every time I got out there, I was just reaggravating it, straining it over and over again.”
H signed a three-year, $21 million contract in March, leaving the Chiefs as a free agent. He started the 11 regular-season games he played, totaling 54 tackles, two quarterback hits and a pass defensed without a turnover.
“I’ll tell you right now that Cleveland will get the best version of Juan Thornhill next year,” he said. “I didn’t play to my standard. I know I’m so much better as a player than what I showed this year.”
D IS FOR DISASTER
The No. 1-ranked defense laid an egg vs. the Texans, giving up 286 yards and 24 points in the first half. It was hurt by misdirection from the Texans.
“I’d give them credit. They had some good schemes,” Stefanski said. “They got us on some big plays and for big plays to happen, it’s typically a miscommunication or falling out of your gap. So it’s all little things that add up to the big thing.”
Cornerback Greg Newsome II was in coverage on at least one of the long gainers.
“It’s definitely on us,” he said. “I feel like a lot of the plays, if you really watched the game, a lot of it was eye control. It wasn’t really their scheme just outschemed us or just beat us. I just felt like we didn’t hone in on the little details and that’s what we’ve been focusing on the whole time.”
END OF THE ROAD?
Linebacker and captain Anthony Walker Jr. is among the many players in the final year of their contracts and eligible to become a free agent in March. He’s spent the last three years with the Browns, all on one-year deals.
“Any time I’m able to play this game of football, wherever it is, I’m going to take that opportunity and run with it,” he said. “Whether that’s here or anywhere else, those decisions aren’t up to me. That’s my agent, that’s front office, in this building or anywhere else.”
Walker, 28, finished the year on injured reserve, missing the final four games of the regular season and the playoff game with a knee injury that required arthroscopic surgery. He also ended last season on IR after a torn quadriceps tendon in Week 3. The knee injury was much less severe and he expects to be back to 100 percent shortly.
Other key free agents are: quarterback Joe Flacco, defensive end Za’Darius Smith, punter Corey Bojorquez, defensive tackles Jordan Elliott, Maurice Hurst II and Shelby Harris, running back Kareem Hunt, offensive linemen Nick Harris and Geron Christian, linebackers Sione Takitaki and Matthew Adams, safeties Rodney McLeod and Duron Harmon and tight end Harrison Bryant.
HARD TO SAY GOODBYE
The finality of the last game hits hard, especially when it comes in the playoffs.
“These days are no fun,” Stefanski said. “It’s very abrupt when the season ends. All our guys really put in so much work and to not be playing is tough and hard for our guys and hard for us as coaches. So that’s the immediate emotions and the first thing you think about when you wake up on a day like this. And then you also have to step back and express gratitude. Because I am extremely grateful for this football team. They work like crazy. They did everything I asked them to do and they fought for each other.
“I’m really proud of this football team. Disappointed in how it ended, of course. Disappointed when it ends, but I don’t want to lose sight of the accomplishments of this football team and I give them a ton of credit for that.”
- Running back Nick Chubb stayed with the team to rehab after two knee surgeries to repair torn ligaments.
“I don’t have an update other than to say he’s doing great, he’s progressing, he’s doing everything he’s supposed to do if not more,” Stefanski said. “So we’ll see how it goes.”
- Stefanski left open the possibility of changes to the coaching staff.
“We’re evaluating everything right now,” he said. “The other thing is some guys will get opportunities over the next couple of weeks, so we’ll see how it all shakes out.”
- Stefanski said he didn’t have a medical update so he didn’t know if defensive end Ogbo Okoronkwo (torn pectoral) or anyone else would have surgery.