Bob Wylie: Plan 'Z' Joel Bitonio did A-OK as Browns left tackle, should be viewed as Hall of Fame-caliber guard
Longtime offensive line coach and “Hard Knocks” sensation Bob Wylie has boarded the bandwagon ready to take Joel Bitonio to Canton after the Browns left guard's playing days are done.
In October, Wylie said via text message he thought the drumbeat for Bitonio being worthy of future Pro Football Hall of Fame consideration should start if he were to accomplish the feat of earning a fourth consecutive Pro Bowl selection.
Well, the NFL announced Monday that Bitonio had received another Pro Bowl nod, his second as a starter in as many years. Bitonio became the first Browns guard to be named to four consecutive Pro Bowls since Hall of Famer Gene Hickerson made six in a row from 1966-71. Bitonio has also been voted second-team All Pro for the past three years.
Bitonio's streak of Pro Bowl and All-Pro recognition began in 2018, Wylie's second and final season with the Browns (7-7), who will try to revive their playoff hopes Saturday against the Green Bay Packers (11-3) in a Christmas game at Lambeau Field.
“If he goes past 10 years and he's still in the top five [in the NFL at his position], he's got a legitimate chance, and he should be recognized as a Hall of Fame guy,” Wylie said Wednesday evening by phone. “Now I'm not sure he's a first-ballot Hall of Fame guy like Joe Thomas. He might get nominated his first time around, but he might not make it until [later].”
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Thomas and Bitonio will be forever linked. The close friends played beside each other on the left side of the Browns' offensive line for parts of every season from 2014-17.
“[Bitonio] learned from watching Joe Thomas,” said Wylie, the offensive line coach of the Canadian Football League's Ottawa Redblacks. “He saw Joe, and he said, 'F***, that's the way to practice. That's the way to study. That's the way to act on and off the field.'
“He's thick. He's tall. He's got really good feet. He's got great balance. Very seldom is he off balance. He's got recover ability. He'll get himself in a bad situation, for whatever reason, and he's able to recover and still block his guy. Is he as good as Joe Thomas? No, but he has all the attributes that Joe Thomas has. He's just in a different [position], obviously.”
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A 10-time Pro Bowl left tackle, Thomas is widely expected to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame when he becomes eligible in 2023. Thomas began mentioning Bitonio as a future Hall of Famer earlier this season.
General Manager Andrew Berry followed suit when the Browns signed Bitonio to a three-year contract extension worth about $48 million in November, saying in the team's announcement the franchise is hopeful “that at the end of his career, we will all be looking forward to celebrating Joel’s gold jacket fitting in Canton.”
Browns offensive line coach Bill Callahan said on Zoom last month, “I've been fortunate enough to have been around a few guys that have done that, and [Bitonio] is certainly right up in there. That's futuristic and I would hate to speculate on that at this point in time, but I'm hopeful that he can reach that goal."
Wylie said Bitonio is the best guard he has coached, but he pointed out there are many Hall of Fame-worthy players who are still awaiting induction. Two former Wylie pupils who immediately come to his mind are former Cincinnati Bengals right tackle Willie Anderson, a four-time Pro Bowler, and former Chicago Bears center Olin Kreutz, a six-time Pro Bowler.
Bitonio, 30 and in his eighth NFL season, appears to have at least a few high-level years of football ahead of him.
“Guys like Joel, they understand how much more work they need to do if they want to be good,” Wylie said. “If you just want to be a guy, you can just be a guy. He doesn't want to be just a guy. He wants to be one of the elite guards in the National Football League and he is.”
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The Browns' longest-tenured player whom they drafted in the second round in 2014, Bitonio and Dallas Cowboys six-time Pro Bowl guard Zack Martin are tied for first this season at their position in ProFootballFocus.com's grades. Bitonio has finished fifth (2020), 12th (2019), fourth (2018) and 10th (2017) in those rankings the past four years.
Ankle and foot injuries derailed Bitonio's 2015 and 2016 seasons, but he has started every regular-season game since 2017. He missed the Browns' 48-37 wild-card playoff win on Jan. 10 in Pittsburgh because he had contracted COVID-19.
Cleveland Browns veteran Joel Bitonio does 'great job' starting at left tackle in a pinch vs. the Las Vegas Raiders
The pandemic led to another plot twist in Bitonio's career.
With starting tackles Jedrick Wills Jr. and James Hudson III among 22 Browns players who were on the COVID-19 list Monday, Bitonio made his first professional start at left tackle. He played the position at the University of Nevada, but all 109 of his NFL starts, including one in the playoffs, had been at left guard until the shorthanded Browns hosted the Las Vegas Raiders in a game postponed from Saturday until Monday because of Cleveland's outbreak.
Wylie watched every snap of the Browns' 16-14 loss to the Raiders and thought Bitonio's performance reflected his ability and intelligence. Because Hudson had tested positive for COVID-19 on Saturday morning, Bitonio only got one practice under his belt at left tackle in the buildup to the game.
“He should be commended for that,” Wylie said. “He should get left tackle pay for that game — not that he needs it.
“For one day to prepare, I thought it was magnificent. Not many guys can do that. Callahan plays a part in that, too. He's a really good offensive line coach.”
After the game, Bitonio called his outing “pretty solid,” but PFF thought more highly of it. He received the best grade of any Browns player versus the Raiders. He also has a better PFF grade than any of his teammates for the 2021 season.
On Tuesday, Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said Bitonio "did a great job" against the Raiders.
Defensive end Yannick Ngakoue leads the Raiders with nine sacks this season, and he lined up across from Bitonio for the vast majority of the game. But the Browns didn't allow a sack, with third-string quarterback Nick Mullens filling in for Baker Mayfield and Case Keenum, both of whom were sidelined due to COVID-19.
Bob Wylie reflects on first time Browns contemplated Plan Z — Joel Bitonio moving to left tackle
Years before Bitonio became an emergency starter at left tackle, former Browns coach Hue Jackson experimented with him there during training camp in 2018 while the team searched for a successor to Thomas, who had retired following the 2017 season.
The coaches weren't satisfied with Shon Coleman's performance in camp at left tackle, so they wanted another option. Wylie was opposed to moving Bitonio.
“Like if you’re going to go A down, that would be Z,” Wylie said at the time. “That would be Z.”
Three days after Wylie made those comments, Plan Z became Plan A. Jackson pulled rank, and Bitonio began practicing at left tackle. Wylie said he wanted to turn to then-undrafted rookie Desmond Harrison in Thomas' old spot.
“I was going to leave Joel at guard. I didn't want to make the move,” Wylie said. “I said, 'No, we don't do this.' But I got overruled. I was told he's playing left tackle. It was out of my hands. So I probably should have kept my mouth shut. I thought I was making the call, like, 'Hey, this is the way it should go — a last resort.'”
By the time the season began, Harrison was the starting left tackle, and Bitonio stayed at guard.
“Yeah, because I was crying,” Wylie quipped.
But creative lineup changes are necessary amid a COVID-19 crisis like the one the Browns recently experienced.
Cleveland Browns defensive tackle Malik Jackson praises the way Joel Bitonio handles his job
Bitonio already had the respect of Browns defensive tackle Malik Jackson, but the former Pro Bowler and Super Bowl winner with the Denver Broncos took note of what his teammate pulled off at a different position.
“Joel is just really receptive,” Jackson said Wednesday on Zoom. “He listens a lot, talks to the guys, understands what he's good at and what he's not and plays to his strengths. There are not many things he's not good at. I think Joel is an All-Pro caliber player and is going to be a once-in-a-generation player.
“When you have a guy who goes out there at tackle against Pro Bowl D-ends and doesn't give up anything, I think that's very impressive. I know I have left games like that where I have felt terrible because I should have destroyed this guy. This guy showed up. I think it's a testament to Joel of just being ready to go out and being wherever you need to be.”
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Rising to the occasion in a tough spot only adds to Bitonio's reputation as the ultimate teammate and leader.
“His personality on and off the field, he's wonderful to work with,” Wylie said. “He gets it.
“He's already married, but he's the kind of kid that you'd want your daughter to marry. If my daughter brought that kid home, I'd say, 'Don't lose that f***ing guy. Don't f*** this up. Keep this one.'”
The Browns realized long ago they had found themselves a keeper.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com.
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