LG Joel Bitonio (1.14.24)


What’s the state of the ankle?

“Not great. It’s a high ankle sprain. Pretty good one. So didn’t feel good this morning when I woke up to go to the bathroom, but I got a lot of time now. I’ll be able to get it right, fix my body and be ready to roll when the time comes.”


Joel, I know it’s still less than 24 hours since the game ended. How are you processing this? What are your takeaways from the season? 

“Yeah, it was a tough way to finish. I give all the credit to Houston. They came out and played great and did a good job against us, but we didn’t want to end that way. And honestly, we thought we were – coming in at half, like defense get the stop, we get the ball back, we go score – and the pick-six happened twice. Then, we went for it on fourth down and didn’t get it. So in a kind of a six-minute span, game got out of reach for us there. But obviously, the ultimate goal is to win the Super Bowl. I don’t think it diminishes what these guys did, being resilient this year, coming together. I think the culture of this team and where we’re at as a group of men that just like being around each other and want to win for the city of Cleveland. It’s never been higher since I’ve been here and so I think that the future of that is something to look forward to.”


Joel, how difficult is that to replicate, though? There are going to be new faces in here. It’s not going to be the same group next year. How do you try to at least replicate that if possible? 

“Yeah, I think you keep the structure here obviously.  Andrew Berry, Coach (Kevin) Stefanski, and I think the main core of guys is going to be back and I think those guys carry on the culture. But I think we learned what it takes to be resilient. And obviously, like you said, each year is different, but I think the main core is going to be back. The main core can carry that over and be like, hey, this is what we went through. Hopefully we don’t have to go through anything like that again, but this is what we went through last year. We had 11 wins, we made the playoffs and hopefully that’s our floor now – a playoff team that has a chance to win a division and host a playoff game in the future.”


Joel, for you individually, I know you’re always banged up as an offensive lineman, but the knee, the back, the ankle now. Was there any frustration for you with the injuries this year and just having to deal with all that? 

“Yeah, it was honestly very frustrating for me this year. I came in the year and I felt great. I was like, I’m not feeling old. Year 10, like, best year yet. And from the jump, my knee just wasn’t there and obviously I had to get surgery coming back from that. It didn’t allow me to train and practice the way I wanted to. And I think that kind of just like snowballs into the back, the oblique, the ankle. I mean, the ankle is freaked. I got rolled up on, but all those other things kind of add together and it’s something you don’t want. You don’t want injuries, you don’t want to be there. I have high standards for myself, you know what I mean? And I want to live up to those standards. I want it for my teammates, for the coaching staff and things like that. And being hurt this year definitely took its toll.”


Joel, we know how many coaches have come through here over the years. What can you say about the job that Kevin did and how do you feel like this regime is going to be going forward and the stability it seems like you guys now have there? 

“Yeah, I think Coach Stefanski has built a culture here. It’s a resilient – I mean, we talk about smart, tough, accountable, resilient team. He probably says that every day and that’s something we focus on. And I think he’s built that and I think Andrew Berry’s built that with the guys he’s brought in, the people he’s brought in. Revamping the D-line this year with the guys that he brought in, I think tremendously changed the culture on that side of the ball for the team. But I do think we’ve built something and like I said, I hope it’s a start of, hey, this is what we do. This is the minimum. You go to the playoffs every year and hopefully there’s more to come from that.”


After 10 years of dealing with all the stuff you dealt with this year, you plan to come back next year? 

“Yeah. I want to play and I want to show I can still play at a very elite level, honestly, to myself and to my teammates. Like, hey, 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, but, yeah, I plan to be back.”


How much do you think everything affected your play?

“The hardest part for me was just not being able to train and lift. With the knee injury, it’s almost like you’re taking a month off lifting. You come back and it’s like, ‘Oh, it feels pretty good.’ But then you go into a game, it’s like, ‘Dang, I got to take this week off to get back for the game.’ So I think it was just like the little things. And then that adds towards the end of the season, your back, your oblique, all those things where it’s like, ‘Oh, maybe if I would have been able to lift more earlier in the year, practice more.’ Those things add up. So it definitely affected it. And like you said, you want to be out there with the teammates. I wanted to be out there yesterday. It would have been a lot cooler if we would have won the game, but I wanted to be out there with the guys and compete with them.”


I thought you got snubbed for the first team All-Pro this year after making it the previous two years. Were you a little disappointed to not be on there this year? 

“Yeah, I think for O-lineman, it’s kind of like we don’t really get too many stats, so it’s one of the cool things. I think there’s – you know, (Joe) Thuney is a good left, great left guard in this league, and he’s been known eight or nine years, however long he’s played. Tyler Smith is a young, up-and-coming player who’s great. Quinnen Nelson – like there’s a lot of good left guards. So I was hurt this year. I played 15 games. You know what I mean? I thought we did a good job as an O-line with all the stuff that happened around us, but there’s a lot of good left guards in this league, so if anything, it just drives us. We’ll have to try and get it back next year.”


Are you surprised? It seemed like the Texans attacked you guys differently defensively yesterday from that first game. Did they caught you guys off guard a little? 

“You know I can’t speak to the coverages that we face because I’m not really dealing with that. I thought their front was pretty similar. Maybe they blitzed a little bit more than they did in the first game. I think they just made bigger plays and bigger moments. Those pick-sixes were very tough for us to recover from, but they did a great job. They kicked our butt yesterday pretty good and it kind of sucks to end the season on that note.”


Overcoming injuries was a theme for you guys this season. I know you guys did a great job with that, but with so many key guys that you lost. How much hope do you put in getting those guys back?

“When were about to play Cincinnati, I was watching the first Cincinnati game and we were pretty healthy at that point in the season and I was like, ‘Nick Chubb’s pretty dang good at football.’ You saw some of the runs he did. Deshaun (Watson) was making plays with his legs. Jack (Conklin) and Jed (Wills Jr.) were healthy and I was like, this is a whole different team. I was watching from Week 1 to Week 18 and to see those guys already putting in the work this season in the training room and what they’ve done, it inspires me because I know those guys are coming back. And I told Nick, I was like, I want to be out there blocking for you again because I miss you and I appreciate everything he’s doing to try and get back on the field.”


Joel, when you look at the line as a whole and just obviously the injuries dealt with, what most impressed you about what you guys did as a group this year?

“Yeah, we had a lot of different guys have to step up for us. I think Coach (Bill) Callahan, Coach (Scott) Peters, John Decoster, all did a great job of getting guys ready to play. We thought we had a strong starting five that was coming back and then obviously from day one, injuries hurt us. I think Dawand (Jones) stepped up and showed that he can be a starting tackle in this league as well. And then Dunny (Michael Dunn) like always came in ready when he needed to. Nick Harris, and then obviously kept moving down to James (Hudson) and G (Geron Christian) and all these guys had to step in and make plays for us. But to do that and to still win 11 games and help protect all four or five quarterbacks that we had this year, I think it’s a testament to the guys. They put in the work in practice and training camp to be ready to go when they have a chance.”


What do you feel like the outlook is with Deshaun as your starting quarterback coming back next year? 

“I think it’s good. He was another one that every time it felt like was taking a step, he got banged up or hurt. You know we beat Baltimore at Baltimore with Deshaun, they have a chance. They’re still playing. They’re playing next week in the divisional game, the Titans game, the Cardinals game. I’m pretty sure he was 4-1 as a starter this year. With our defense, if they play to the level we know and expect them to play to, I feel very confident with Deshaun coming back and being our quarterback.”


What happed to your finger? 

“Oh, I just – a couple of weeks ago it got messed up, so I’m trying to make it so it doesn’t get stuck like that. So I just wear this thing.”


We talked all year about the camaraderie and the morale that this team has been able to encase. I know it’s probably a little early to say, but how do you see those bonds you guys built throughout this year, translating through the offseason as you guys try to bounce back from this one? 

“Yeah, it’s been cool when you can be together. I just look at David (Njoku) and I know everybody’s talked about David. But when he first came in, he was like a 20-year-old kid from Miami, and you’re like, ‘Oh, man, does this guy want to be here and stuff?’ And now he’s been here probably, what, six or seven years now, and it’s grown into one of my favorite guys to be around, you know what I mean? So you just build these bonds, and I think winning helps everything. You talk about a culture and stuff, and it’s like the winning obviously helps that stuff, but there’s going to be guys that are here that are working, they’re pushing each other, and, you know, pretty much anywhere you go in the country, you have someone that you played with that’s going to let you stay at their house or go get a meal with.”


You’ve been here ten years, one of the senior members of this team. I’m sure you have a ton of memories just from previous seasons. What would be maybe the lasting memory, the thing that stands out the most about the 2023 season team?

“The resilience. If you’re talking about, like a specific moment, I think the last drive against the Ravens, when we drove down and won the game and that kind of, we pushed the pile as a group on offense. We always talked about being connected. I think that was an awesome moment for our team, and I think that was a step where we said like, ‘Hey, we can play with anybody.’ We have the right guys in here, but lots of memories. (Joe) Flacco being here and the magic he had was something I’ll never forget either. So it was a great year, ended on a very sour note for us, but I’m pumped to be here and hopefully continue the winning ways.”


Joel, you mentioned earlier that you think this could be the floor. Is this the most optimistic you felt coming out of the season? 

“Yeah. In 2020, when we made the playoffs, it was the first time I had made the playoffs, so I wasn’t quite sure, but I was confident that we could get back. And then obviously, I kind of fell apart a little bit there, but I think we have the right guys in here, the right culture right now, the camaraderie in the room is good. So I am confident in this group and their ability to get back to the level we want to next year.”


Could you envision Joe coming back? Would you like to see him come back? 

“Yeah, I don’t know how that’s going to work. You know what I mean? I know Joe, he’s getting older. He’s five kids now, but I’m sure we’d welcome him back with open arms. He’s a great locker room guy. We enjoyed having him here. And he’s someone that you have those guys on the roster that are those kind of glue guys, and I think he’d be one of those guys if he did come back.”


How do you replicate what you had this year as a team and how do you carry that over?

“Yeah, you just keep bringing in the right guys. It sucks because in the NFL, you’re probably going to have like a 20-guy turnaround no matter what you do. But you want to bring in the right guys. You want to focus on some of those intangibles. But I think the core is here. And when you start from the top down, ownership to Andrew Berry, to Coach Stefanski, to the coaches, to the players, everybody’s connected right now and everybody has that same vision. I think that helps out the most.”


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