BEREA, Ohio — The Cleveland Browns offensive line is ranked No. 1 in the NFL by Pro Football Focus heading into the 2021 regular season. With the entire line—Joel Bitonio, Jack Conklin, Wyatt Teller, Jedrick Wills and JC Tretter—returning this season, there's good reason for high expectations.
But it's not just the talent of the offensive line to credit for last season's success and this season's promise, there's also the man who overhauled the line and shaped it into the dominant force that we see on the field.
'A huge resource' for the Browns
Bill Callahan was hired by the Browns in January 2020, shortly after the team hired head coach Kevin Stefanski.
The now 43-year coaching veteran came in as the team's new offensive line coach and brought with him a wealth of knowledge and experience across the board, including head coaching experience with Oakland, where he led the Raiders to a Super Bowl berth in 2003.
Heading into their second season with the Browns, Stefanski continues to credit Callahan for his impact on the team.
"His office is right next to mine, so he’s a huge resource to me, with him being a former head coach," Stefanski said. "He’s seen so much, so I just think the guy’s outstanding.”
The two are working together for the first time in their careers here in Cleveland, but they had a close connection with former Minnesota Vikings head coach Brad Childress, and Stefanski has always admired Callahan's track record.
Callahan has been an offensive line coach for a combined 16 years with the Philadelphia Eagles, New York Jets, Dallas Cowboys, Washington Football Team and now the Browns and has seen 12 of his linemen notch a total of 29 Pro Bowl selections.
That track record of success has continued in Cleveland with the Browns offensive line being the highest ranked last season.
'Tough, smart, accountable'
The Browns have operated under three guidelines since Stefanski and general manger Andrew Berry took the reins: "smart, tough and accountable both on and off the field."
Those descriptors also apply to Callahan's coaching method, with tough being the word many of his players use when asked to describe Callahan.
"He gets after us, which is at times frustrating, but it's good. That's what you want. He expects perfection, and good isn't good enough," said Browns right tackle Conklin.
That toughness is something his players have come to appreciate and respect, Stefanski said.
“I think coach Callahan has a way about him, that’s how he’s been coaching for years," Stefanski said. "I’ve heard the stories going way back to his college days. He coaches them hard, and he’s fair, and I think the guys respect that."
That holds true for Conklin.
"It definitely drives us and makes us better because it's not just, 'get the job done', it's, 'hey, you blocked him here but you could have done this and this and this and it would have made your job easier, it would have looked better,'" Conklin said. "Just having that every day, that accountability to him, and knowing that if you don't do it right he's going to get on you is great."
For Conklin, Callahan has tweaked things here and there, but mostly focused on tightening up the right tackle's sets and steps in the wide zone scheme, which Callahan said last season he was a "perfect" fit in their system.
"Just being more compact, keeping them more balanced up, and it's something I got better and better on last year as the year went through," Conklin said.
Last season, Conklin notched career-high PFF grades both overall (84.0) and in pass-blocking (81.5). This year, with Callahan's guidance, Conklin is hoping to replicate, or surpass, what he showed last season.
Support from surrounding staff
While the Browns struck gold landing Callahan as the offensive line coach, he's got some other talented coaches working alongside him with the offensive linemen.
Two staff members Stefanski has praised in addition to Callahan were assistant offensive line coach Scott Peters and recently hired offensive quality control coach Jonathan Decoster.
"Those guys, really, every period if you watch -- we may be in special teams, they’re over there working on something," Stefanski said. "And I think that’s just a great message to the veterans, the young guys, that you have to work on your craft, and I think we have two experts in that area to work with those guys."
With a knowledgeable and talented coaching staff around him, Callahan is able to work even closer with his players, getting one-on-one, hands-on technique work with his players.
"I mean, I’ve seen coach Callahan on his hands and knees getting the guys' three-point stance how he wants it," Stefanski said. "They’re certainly learning from some coaches I think have a ton to give them.”
#Browns Kevin Stefanski told me that he's seen Offensive Line Coach Bill Callahan, who has been praised for his coaching efforts, down on his knees working with the guys in their stances and drills.— Camryn Justice (@camijustice) August 7, 2021
He meant that. pic.twitter.com/a1bgT2FpSk
A Callahan plan
Another aspect of the Callahan coaching method is a defined plan for each player. This includes improving specific areas for each player and also cross-training them for different spots on the line.
He researches ways to improve offensive linemen and pushes each of his players with new, stimulating lessons to help them individually and collectively.
Callahan said that the left tackle who is entering his second year is already improving, taking the lessons from going against the explosive Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney each day at camp, facing off against the speed and moves the two bring to the table, thus accelerating his progress.
"This year compared to last year is much different. I think he's taken advantage of the learning processes he went through a year ago, and he's trying to accelerate his growth in a lot of different areas, and we're working on that component right now," Callahan said.
Callahan said Wills has seen improvement in his footwork, technique and hand placement, among other areas, and continues to work to make a big jump in his second year.
Callahan said Teller's game is one of power, noting his size, physicality and strength. To push Teller, Callahan has been focusing on his speed and movement.
"Working him a little bit quicker, trying to improve his change of direction, those nuances, the things that come back from last year that we're trying to get better and improve upon," Callahan said.
Refining and grooving Teller's technique to take control of defenders is the focus of camp and an area that Callahan believes will not only help Teller but the entire line as a whole.
The rookie out of Cincinnati selected by the Browns in this year's draft with the No. 110 overall pick is being trained at tackle, Callahan said, but making sure he's understanding the ins and outs of the guard position next to him.
"A lot of our techniques are interchangeable, so the playside guard can do the playside tackle or the tackle can do the guard and vice versa," Callahan said. "Whether you're on the frontside or the backside of the zone game, the footwork, the strikes, the landmarks—they're all the same. So when you do have to change a player it should be relatively seamless because there is a lot of carryover from one position to the other."
Callahan said Hudson won't have many differences between the positions aside from the pace and the size of the opponents as he works to learn different spots on the line.
The well-versed coach has individual plans for all of his players and makes sure each one gets the work they need to improve their game each day at camp and beyond as the regular season approaches.
"What we've done with all of them, collectively, is we've individualized it so we have our collective group techniques and then we break down those components to really suit the individual," Callahan said. "If you don't get into that every day and try something different, you'll never know, you'll just be in a rut."
Consecutive years of Callahan
Last season, Berry sung the praises of the o-line, and, specifically Callahan, for what he had been able to accomplish with the offensive line.
“I think that [the offensive line] has been outstanding. I can’t say this enough, but I would also like to throw in, in terms of additions, Bill Callahan, into that group. I can’t overstate his impact on that position group. It is going to be a part of our DNA. That is a group that we want to make sure is strong and deep for the long term because it really does set a foundation for your offense,” Berry said in November.
And for good reason. In 2020, the Browns offensive line ranked first in pass-blocking grade and second in run-blocking grade, according to PFF.
But just because the offensive line had a great outing last season doesn't mean the work Callahan puts in stops, especially now that the offense has been installed and the team works to reinforce the foundation in Year 2.
That's something Teller has taken away from the lessons of Callahan.
"That success was last year's success. We can't focus on that. We can't worry about that. We have to create our own success and create new success," Teller said ahead of training camp.
Teller said before camp that even when the players weren't at the voluntary OTAs, they were working out together and running through Callahan's drills and meeting every day.
And Callahan is never satisfied, understanding there are always ways to improve and pushing his players to do just that.
"We've got a long ways to go in so many respects. I don't think you ever arrive, I don't know if you're ever the best. We just want to be as good as the top caliber lines in the league," Callahan said. "We really work hard trying to give them tools and trying to give them different techniques and we spent the entire offseason tweaking what we're doing upfront. We're never pleased in that regard. We're always trying to strive to do things a little bit differently than other people so...I think that's what you have to do in order to keep your edge."
Callahan's coaching style may be tough, but it's been one that has helped to create a dominant offensive line, which in turn has helped the rest of the Browns offense thrive, something they hope to continue come Sept. 12 when they open their season against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Camryn Justice is a digital content producer at News 5 Cleveland. Follow her on Twitter @camijustice.
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