The Browns are in the playoffs for the first time since the 2002 season, an achievement the franchise’s longest-tenured active player should be entitled to enjoy.
Joel Bitonio will not be able to do so this weekend because of a positive COVID-19 test that has ruled him out of Sunday night’s meeting with Pittsburgh. His teammates have spent the week working virtually due to the organization’s continued COVID-19 issues, but they’re still on the same page with at least one common goal: This one’s for Joel.
“He’s important to our team,” receiver Jarvis Landry said Thursday, via Cleveland.com. “He’s important to the Cleveland Browns and the history that we’ve accomplished this year. It sucks what he’s going through to be able to be here for the time that he’s been here and now be in this position and he can’t even play the game because of the circumstances.
“For us a team, obviously, we know how much this game means to Joel and what he would give to be out there. That’s definitely something that we all have in mind. That is definitely something my man (guard Michael) Dunn is going to have in mind playing guard and giving it his best shot out there.
“This is definitely one for Joel, absolutely.”
Drafted in the second round of the 2014 draft out of Nevada, Bitonio has proven to be a rock-solid guard over the course of his career with the Browns, often serving as one of the very few bright spots on a team that went from 7-9 in 2014 to 0-16 just three seasons later. Bitonio has been in Cleveland through it all, existing as a steady veteran voice amid seemingly constant chaos, and his moment in the sun (or under the playoff spotlight) should’ve been Sunday night.
He’ll instead watch it from home as his team takes the field at less than even close to 100 percent due to COVID-19 for a third straight week.
“I know we have other guys missing, but for Joel — somebody who’s a great person, a great leader, a father, a great husband — to have put in his time here, endured a lot of things, the longest-tenured Brown and to not be able to play in the first playoff experience, it is very unfortunate,” quarterback Baker Mayfield said. “We feel for him. That would be the only thing taking away from the excitement.”
Bitonio has been as reliable on the field as he’s been off it, leading whoever the front office has determined will share a locker room with him by example and by vocal direction. The three-time Pro Bowler has navigated the franchise’s often-public struggles diplomatically and been a favorite of local reporters, who twice selected him for their Good Guy Award, carrying on an example set by former teammates Joe Thomas, Alex Mack and Mitchell Schwartz. He’s been just as important in the community, frequently spending his off days participating in the Browns’ organized events to engage with and serve those who call Cleveland home. And in a cruel twist of fate, now that his team is competitive, he can’t participate in the most important professional game of his career.
This is professional football, though, a sport that has little sympathy for a team’s adversity. All 32 teams played amid the same pandemic in 2020, and the 14 postseason qualifiers are, as well. There’s little room for a team’s members to feel sorry for themselves, and with this weekend serving as elimination games for everyone involved, there’s little time to concern oneself with the challenges of others.
There are also some legitimate rivalries to address. One week after beating an intentionally undermanned Pittsburgh team, the Browns will travel to the Steel City to face the full-strength Steelers, a team ready to put little brother back in his place.
“I think they’re still the same Browns teams I play every year,” Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster said, via the Associated Press’ Tom Withers. “I think they’re nameless gray faces. They have a couple good players on their team, but at the end of the day, I don’t know. The Browns is the Browns.”
Fair enough. Cleveland has split with Pittsburgh in each of the last two seasons, but hasn’t been a team that was truly competitive enough to take seriously for at least the duration of Smith-Schuster’s four-year career.
That could change Sunday night if the Browns pull off the upset. They’ll have to do so without their wisest leader.
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